“You shall not covet” Exodus 20.14

By Rabbi Rebecca Qassim Birk, February 1, 2013

The tenth commandment is surely one of the hardest to legislate for, if not impossible. Working as a Jewish chaplain to the women and staff at Holloway Prison, I talk to prisoners about what has happened, or has not happened, for them to be there. Rarely is it easy to talk about feelings and intention. They are there because of what they have done or been perceived to have done to break the law, and not because of what they desired.

The Ten Sayings split neatly into five, beyn adam l’makom, between human and God; and five, beyn adam l’chavero, between human and human. However, it’s the first and tenth that seem to have the greatest connection with each other. The first seems unlike a commandment, rather a statement. But actually Ten Commandments is an erroneous English translation that has stuck.

Aseret Dibrot means Ten Statements, Utterances, even Things and the first is “I am the Eternal your God”. This could be read as an introduction, setting the scene for the laws that followed. But Maimonides and others saw this as the first mitzvah and therefore proof that you could legislate for intention, belief and thought by accepting such an understanding of God. In his Mishneh Torah, he states: “The foundation of foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is a positive commandment.”

It’s that set of beliefs that has the power to inform the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet”. Right thinking leads to right actions. Bachya ibn Pekuda, his fellow Spanish medieval rabbi, in Chovot Halevavot says, “Duties of the heart are as binding as those of the limbs.”

Contemporary prison and probation services know that the heart leads all actions. And that’s why education and reflective practice has superseded traditional reward and punishment. Prisons, and not just the chaplaincy departments, understand that desire, belief and intention affect the crowding of their institutions, as much as actions do.

Last updated: 2:36pm, February 1 2013