The Ten Commandments
A book by Joseph Lewis
The Tenth Commandment

Page 575The Tenth Commandment Page 576

"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's
house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's
wife, nor his manservant, nor his
maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor
any thing that is thy neighbour's." Page 577

The Hidden Meaning of Coveting

If the previous Commandment alone was sufficient to invalidate the Decalogue as a divine revelation, this Commandment offers conclusive proof that the Decalogue is a series of taboos based on the primitive belief in animism and sympathetic magic.

This Commandment was never intended to prevent envying another's possessions, but rather to avoid the evil consequences of "coveting" in the magical sense.

Coveting was not mentioned as an undesirable trait to be avoided because it is unethical, immoral or antisocial; it was recorded and made part of the Decalogue because the superstition prevailed in Hebrew tribal society that envious thoughts would bring ill luck and misfortune, through sorcery and witchcraft, to the person against whose property the "coveting" was directed. Covetous desires, they believed, would call into existence the malevolent spirits of the "evil eye," which by devious and diabolical methods would cause the loss of the coveted possessions.

This Commandment is identical in purpose with, and differs only as to subject matter from, the Second Commandment, which prohibits the making of graven images, and the Third Commandment, which forbids the mentioning of taboo names. It also furnishes additional and pertinent testimony as to the clannish and tribal application of the Decalogue. Just as in the previous Commandment, to bear false witness was prohibited only against one's neighbor (i.e., a fellow tribesman, a compatriot), so coveting, as mentioned in this Commandment, is restrained only against "thy neighbour's" possessions, "his house, his wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his ass," and "any thing that is thy neighbour's." This restrictive prohibition is tantamount to a non-prohibition against those outside the clanship of Page 578 the Children of Israel, as was so conclusively proved in the analysis of the other Commandments.

The narrow, proscribed application of this Commandment, and the specific details of the things not to be coveted, even to "anything that is thy neighbour's," is also significant evidence that the word "coveting," as used in this Commandment, had an altogether different definition from the modern one. The real meaning of the word can only be apparent if one understands the primitive mind. Is it conceivable that "coveting" anything, no matter how small, insignificant or valueless, could be so strongly and definitely prohibited unless some mysterious danger would result? If this were not so, does the boy who "covets" his friend's bicycle violate this Commandment? Does the dimple-checked, blue-eyed little girl who "covets" her playmate's curly-headed doll violate this Commandment? And, if so, is she to suffer from the wrath of this jealous and vindictive Bible Deity all the days of her life? This is so obviously ridiculous that one wonders how such an edict could ever have been imposed on millions of people as an infallible precept in a divine code of morals. If a Commandment of this kind could have been accepted as an eternal truth, is there, in the dogma of a creed, anything too improbable for religious people to accept?

Coveting, as used in this Commandment and as it was originally understood, was a secret treason, a hidden danger from which no member of the clan was safe. The Bible is replete with references not only to this belief among the primitive Hebrews, but the penalties provided for its practices are numerous, definite and ruthless. All stood in mortal fear of the sorcerer, and no punishment was too severe for so diabolical a person. At the time this Commandment was formulated, coveting was considered one of the greatest of evils, and to counteract its effect was of major concern to the people who lived in continual fear of the terrible results they believed inevitably followed its practice.

Lévy-Bruhl, one of the foremost authorities on the thinking processes of primitive peoples, says: "Covetousness is of itself not merely Page 579 a feeling of desire but a positive and effectual action of the soul of him who covets upon the thing coveted." To covet, in the primitive meaning of the word, is just as effective as a physical action, and in many primitive communities it is closely associated or synonymous with stealing. Casalis, another authority, says that "covetousness has its own proper meaning." Among primitive tribes its power was a dreaded force of evil, as they knew only too well the "ungoverned desires of the heart." [*1]

This primitive concept of the word "coveting," as used in this Commandment, is verified by the use of similar words among the Biblical Hebrews. For instance, keshep, the Hebrew word for "coveting," means, according to one authority, "a thing done in a secret manner." It also means "poisoner," or "to cast a spell." This same authority says that "there is no doubt that the real meaning of this 'magic' is exactly witchcraft." Kishif, another Hebrew word meaning "coveter" or "sorcerer," is defined as "witchcraft" in the Talmud. [*2] Another authority tells us that the medieval Hebrew believed that a man and his wife could be so bewitched by envious persons that they would be unable to cohabit. The Hebrew word asar, meaning "to bind," occurs frequently with the meaning "to tie somebody by a knot-charm so that he cannot enjoy relations with his wife." [*3]

There are numerous Hebrew words that have similar connotations. The language of the Biblical Hebrew contained countless words denoting and characterizing the evil spirits which inhabited the provincial universe in which he lived. The Hebrew word shedim means "mystical harmer"; the word rubin or ruhotraot means "evil spirit", lilil means "night spirits"; telane, "shade [or evening] spirits"; tiharire means "midday spirits"; zafrire means "morning spirits," as well as "demons that bring famine and cause storms and earthquakes." So numerous were these spirits of destruction that if man could see them "he would lack the strength to face them, though he Page 580 could see them by casting the ashes of the fetus of a black cat about his eyes or by sprinkling ashes around his bed he could trace their cock-like footprints in the morning." [*4]

In many languages, as well as in Biblical use, the words "coveting," "enviousness," "sickness," "death" and the "evil eye" are synonymous. The English word "envy" actually means malignant or hostile feeling that is said to arise from natural jealousy. [*5] This is illustrated by the action of Saul in his envy and jealousy of David as recorded in Book I of Samuel, Chapter 18, verse 9:

9. And Saul eyed David from that day and forward. [*6]

The word "eyed," as used in the Bible, had a far more significant meaning than merely to "see" or "look after."

The Safer Hasidim [**7] gives a clue to the Biblical Hebrews' dread of coveting, as used in this Commandment, and its relationship to the evil eye; it says: "The angry glance of a man's eye calls into being an evil angel who speedily takes vengeance on the cause of his wrath." The Talmud also refers to this important phase of the religion of the Hebrews, stating: "One should never open his mouth to Satan," meaning that evil talk will produce evil results. [*8]

Perhaps the most illuminating reference to the meaning of coveting, as used in this Commandment, and the seriousness with which the Children of Israel regarded it, is the words of Micah, Chapter 2, verses 1-3:

1. Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! when the morning is light, they practice it, because it is in the power of their hand.

2 And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage. Page 581

3. Therefore thus saith the Lord; Behold, against this family do I devise an evil, from which ye shall not remove your necks; neither shall ye go haughtily: for this time is evil.

Not only was personal property subject to "coveting" but so menacing was this iniquity that those who possessed the power could "work evil upon their beds"; they could "covet fields and take them by violence." A man's house and even "his heritage" could be taken away by coveting! Those found guilty of this practice could not escape the penalty, for the Lord had said: "Against this family do I devise an evil, from which he shall not remove your necks...."

Coveting was definitely the weapon of the sorcerer, the concealed means of exercising the malign influence of the "evil eye." It was witchcraft in its most diabolical form, and that is why it was prohibited among the Hebrews. That is why envious thoughts of "thy neighbor's" property were taboo. That is why strict and stringent penalties were provided for coveting.

There cannot be the slightest doubt that the Biblical Hebrew believed in witchcraft. Not only did Saul visit the Witch of Endor [**9] and seek her advice, but the Biblical injunction "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" [*10] is conclusive proof of the prevalence of this belief among the Children of Israel. So great was the fear of bewitchment that anyone guilty of its practice was to be put to death! And this injunction carried with it the same authority as any of the Commandments of the Decalogue.

The belief in witchcraft is one of the most damnable the Bible is responsible for perpetrating on mankind. The fear of sorcerers was so great that even the law took cognizance of it, and judges certified to the existence of witchcraft by Biblical authority! To the pages of the Bible belongs the guilt for the innocent blood of the hundreds Page 582 of thousands of victims shed as a result of this mad superstition. Men, women and children were subjected to every conceivable infamy and every conceivable torture for merely having been accused of committing crimes of which they were utterly incapable. This devilish superstition has persisted almost up to our very day, [**11] as is proved by the statement of John Wesley that "the giving up of witchcraft was in effect the giving up of the Bible."

The fear of uttering anything that offers the slightest possibility of doing harm or exercising the slightest detrimental influence accounts for the numerous prophylactic expressions and measures prevalent among the orthodox Hebrews. Even today they are resorted to as a means of avoiding this kind of bewitchment. "Don't beashrei me" is frequently heard. The use of this expression reveals how deeply rooted was this superstition in nationalistic Hebrew life. It means, in effect, "Thou shalt not covet," or "No evil eye." The prevalence of this expression in Hebrew culture is additional proof that the real meaning of the word "coveting," as biblically used, is "employing witchcraft." Orthodox Hebrews still avoid mentioning the words "evil eye," and substitute a reverse expression, gut-oig ("good eye"), so as to avoid the implications and dangers involved in uttering the dreaded words. [*12] This taboo against mentioning the dreaded words is identical with the one which forbids mentioning the name of the Hebrew Deity and calls for the use of a substitute, as revealed in the analysis of the Third Commandment.

Coveting, Witchcraft and the Evil Eye in Primitive Culture

It is only by lifting the veil of the past that we are able to reveal the truth to the present. Just as there are problems in mathematics that cannot be solved by simple arithmetic, but require algebra, geometry and trigonometry, so there are primitive problems of conduct Page 583 and social customs that cannot be explained or solved by present-day standards of ethics or morals, but require a knowledge of social anthropology.

The primitive mind, such as was the Biblical Hebrew's, was not only unacquainted with the natural "laws of the universe," but was utterly incapable of comprehending the orderly connection of one event with another; it was believed that everything was the result of good or evil forces, and that these forces operated through the medium of sorcery and witchcraft. Health and disease, famine and abundance, drought and rain, sorrow and happiness, ugliness and good looks, misfortune and success, storms and sunshine, all these and every minor event in life were thought to be the result of unseen forces. It was also believed that these forces for good or evil could be influenced by one's acts. Even death was attributed to some evil power seeking retaliation and revenge for some "sinful" act. It was this superstitious belief, formulated by the Hebrews into a religious system, that corrupted and stultified the minds of all who came under its blighting influence.

Thus, when misfortune came to the members of the early Israelite tribe, whether it was illness, the loss of cattle, the unfaithfulness of a wife, the death of children, the lack of rain for crops, it was believed that all were due to the malign influences of evil-wishing, the envious thoughts of others and the work of sorcerers. How else could the primitive mind explain these bewildering manifestations? When lightning destroyed houses and killed innocent men and women, what reason could be given for the tragedy? When tornadoes and earthquakes devastated the earth, when famine stalked the land, how else could primitive man explain such horror, except that evil forces were wreaking vengeance on someone for some act that had provoked their anger?

To the primitive mind, there was no such thing as an "accident." If a tree fell on a person and killed him, the act was due to some evil influence. If one tripped and fell, injuring himself, it was attributed to some ill wishes. If a child was deformed, mentally or physically, Page 584 it was believed that some malign impulse was responsible. If one broke a dish, spilled milk or dropped food, the cause was a covetous wish or evil eye.

"All ailments of every kind," says a noted authority, "from the simplest to the most serious, are without exception attributed to malign influence of an enemy in either human or spirit shape." [*13]

The Biblical Hebrews believed that the death of women in childbirth was due to three sins: negligence during the periods of separation, carelessness in respect to the consecration of the first cake of the dough, and improperly lighting the Sabbath lamp. It was their firm conviction that "there is no death without sin." [*14]

Nowhere was this superstitious belief so strongly entrenched as in its application to sickness and disease. The primitive mind did not know the nature of disease and was unable to comprehend its "mysterious" ways. It could not conceive of one being afflicted other than through the medium of a malign influence. How could the primitive explain his "catching" a contagious disease? With the best of intentions, he visited a neighbor to comfort and aid him, only to find that shortly after he became afflicted with the same illness. How could he explain this except on the supposition that he had been bewitched for something he had done or had failed to do? What else could he believe except that someone had cast an evil eye on him or coveted his good health, thereby transferring the disease to him? On a larger scale, it is easily understandable how an epidemic was believed to be a revenge on a whole people for some ritual disobedience.

The Bible did not help him in his perplexity. It contains no more information on the nature of disease than it does on morals; and just as the Bible does not contain the word "morals" or "morality," so it does not mention the causes and cure of disease. There is not a scientific fact within its pages concerning the nature of a single disease or a single remedy for its cure! How could the Bible be helpful Page 585 when it decidedly states that disease is a punishment ordained by its God for failure to do "that which is right in his sight."

I quote Exodus, Chapter 15, verse 26:

26. And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee.

The belief in the power to injure by the medium of thought and intensity of the wish -- the efficacy of coveting -- prevailed in nearly all tribes whose cultural level was similar to that of the Hebrews.

"Thus, in regard to the aborigines of Australia," says Frazer, "the number of supernatural beings that they acknowledge is exceedingly great, for not only are the heavens peopled with such, but the whole face of the country swarms with them; every thicket, most watering places and all rocky places abound with evil spirits. In like manner, every natural phenomenon is believed to be the work of demons, one and all apparently striving to do all imaginable mischief." "The Negro," says another writer, "is wont to regard the whole world around him as peopled with invisible beings to whom he imputes every misfortune that happens to him, and from whose harmful influence he seeks to protect himself by all kinds of magic means." [*15]

If a Kikuyu or Kamba cattle owner hears that a man has been admiring one of his cows, he will send for him and insist on his removing the enchantment; this is done by the man wetting his finger with saliva, and touching the beast on the mouth. [*16] The Gallas are very jealous of their livestock; a stranger's admiration of it would be attributed by them to a covetous heart and would instantly excite their ire.

The belief prevails in many primitive societies that merely "wishing" evil on someone, even momentarily, is sufficient to cast a spell Page 586 and bewitch him. In the Congo district and in West Africa, the natives believe that everyone has the power of making a wish come true. [*17] The wives of a late king of the Niger are supposed to have come in a procession to drink poison at his bier because of a belief that they had wished his death. In Calabar, a woman was found tied to a log near the ocean. When the tide came in, she would be dragged into the sea, a prey of the voracious sharks. She was the wife of a chief who had recently died. The chief's brother had selected her as having wished her husband's death. [*18]

The North American Indians imagine that anyone who wishes the death of another often obtains the realization of his desire. In British Columbia, when one Indian is vexed with another, he will say, to show his anger: "By and by, you will be dead." This often so terrifies the victim that he soon succumbs. The evil-wisher is then charged with having bewitched his friend and is invariably shot. [*19]

In South America, among the Lenguas of Grand Chaco, when a man expresses a desire for rain or for a cool south wind, his neighbors, if they do not share the desire, protest strongly and implore him not to persist in his wish. When it rains in Northern India and it is desired that the rain continue, anyone who runs out of doors bareheaded is ordered in at once, for it is believed that a bareheaded man wishes involuntarily that the rain cease. Because words were supposed to possess magic powers, taboos were placed on uttering expressions that could possibly be construed as producing evil results. "We can now better understand," says Lévy-Bruhl, "why it is that primitives are so afraid of arousing anger and ill will among their fellows.... They fear that they may thereby provoke a bewitchment." [*20]

When a person has been injured and is unable properly to retaliate, he sometimes resorts to a curse, wishing that some harm befall his assailant. If the object of the curse should meet with the Page 587 misfortune, the results are attributed to the revengeful wish of his victim. This belief not only prevailed among primitive peoples, but only recently such a case was reported in Bangala. A "cheeky" urchin in Bengala received a box on the ears from his uncle. The boy resented the chastisement and said, "I will bewitch you." Shortly afterwards the uncle became ill. The boy was accused of causing the illness and was forced to endure the penalty provided for such acts of sorcery. [*21]

In the Loango, the natives believe that whatever happens to a person is caused by an enemy's wishes. If a person falls into the water and is drowned, he has been bewitched; if he is devoured by a wolf or tiger, it is because his enemy, by virtue of his magical powers, has been transferred into a wild beast. In Sierra Leone and among the DeChagge of East Africa, it is believed that no death is natural or accidental, but is brought about by the malign influence of some individual who employs witchcraft for that purpose. [*22]

When a Samoan was ill, a special inquiry was made of his sister and her children as to whether any of them had cursed him and thus caused his illness. To prove her innocence and remove the spell, she would take some cocoanut water into her mouth and eject it toward or over the body of the sufferer. [*23]

The first night after a Narinyere man has died, his nearest relative sleeps with his head on the corpse in order that he may be led to dream of the sorcerer who caused the death.

In the West of England, the baneful influence of envy or ill-wishing is evidenced in the common remark after any tragic occurrence, bereavement or serious misfortune, such as a widow being left unprovided for -- "'Tis a wished thing for her, sure enough!" [*24]

When lightning struck the house of a native Basttos, killing his wife, injuring his children and burning all his belongings, he was firmly convinced that it had been sent by a neighbor who bore him Page 588 a grudge. [*25] How far removed from the savage Basttos was the civilized Englishman who told the eminent novelist, Thomas Hardy, that the reason why certain trees in front of his house did not thrive was that he looked at them before breakfast on an empty stomach! [*26]

During the Middle Ages, the Russian subject was forced to take an oath that he would not resort to sorcery, witchcraft or any other magical means to cause harm to the Czar. [*27]

Says the noted authority Lévy-Bruhl: "In support of these views of the essential nature of witchcraft, as the primitive mind usually imagines it, we can bring forward a vast number of facts in which the injurious influence attributed to envy, covetousness, malevolence and the like appears." [*28]

"To the Bergdama the safety of the social group depends upon the sacred fire. Should this be profaned, it loses its virtue and misfortune overwhelms the Bergdama. Now it may happen that the persistent good luck of a zealous and experienced hunter excites the envy of one of his companions who employs magic means to wrest it from him. If it be ascertained that such a crime has been committed it is essential that a fresh fire be prepared if the whole village, and especially the fortunate hunter, are not to be attacked by dire misfortune, for the crime has defiled the fire in such a way that only its complete renewal can turn aside the calamities that are imminent. They do not need to look far for the guilty person, for it is assuredly a relative. Envy has thus been the instigator of witchcraft, and the person possessed by it has become a sorcerer." [*29]

One of the most effective weapons of the covetous person is the evil eye -- a potent agent of the sorcerer. Among primitive, superstitious peoples, if one merely stared at another it was considered that he was planning mischief or actually causing some evil. The foremost authorities in the field of primitive culture acknowledge Page 589 that the evil eye and the power to bewitch are often synonymous terms. [*30] In Arabia Petraea, it is believed that if anyone looks at an animal as if he desired to possess it, the animal will die unless the owner sells it. In the same way, if a man covets a woman, a child, articles of clothing or anything else, his soul has the power to injure the object coveted. [*31] The evil eye was believed to have its impulse in envy, and thus it was unlucky to have any of one's possessions praised. [*32]

In a detailed description of the Bantu belief with regard to the evil eye, an authority states: "It gradually dawns upon the people that So-and-So possesses the power, owing to the fact that if a person audibly admires a beast belonging to a neighbor, the animal shortly becomes sick. This occurs several times, the various owners compare notes, and it becomes generally known that So-and-So is kittamengo (has the evil eye). It would therefore seem," he concludes, "that the idea is not based on an evil glance, but upon an envious thought." [*33] The eye was merely used as an instrument, a vehicle of the envy he feels for the owner of the thing coveted.

Among the Shilluk, the power to harm is made operative by looking fixedly at the victim. The person who is bewitched says: "The eye went into me." Again, they consider the eye merely the instrument of their envy and their covetousness. It is the same among the Azande. By a wizard they mean one possessing the evil eye, who, by an inherent power, exerts a baneful influence, occasions misfortune, brings about illness and death. [*34]

Even to be looked at while eating was considered dangerous, as the eater was subject to the malign influence of others who might covet the repast. It was thought that those who were hungry would excite envy, the mainspring of malignant and evil glances. For this reason, it is said, the Pope always takes his meals alone. The kings Page 590 of Kacongo, in West Africa, may not be seen eating. It is a capital offense to see the king of Dahomey at his meals. When the king of Tonga eats, all turn their backs. Anyone who saw Muato Jamwo, a great potentate of the Congo country, eating would be put to death. [*35] Turks of all classes object to being looked at while eating.

In Wadai the sultan always speaks from behind a curtain so that no one may see him and cast an envious glance on him. The practice of veiling the faces of the women throughout the East is considered to have originated from the fear that evil and envious glances would have a blighting effect on them. [*36]

In Shoa, one of the southern provinces of Abyssinia, the doors of the houses are scrupulously barred at meals to exclude the evil eye, and every time an Abyssinian of rank drinks, a servant holds a cloth before his master to guard him from the evil eye. The Thompson Indians of British Columbia think that a shaman could bewitch them most easily when they are eating, drinking or smoking. [*37]

Plutarch observed that envy exerts an evil influence through the eyes. Heliodorus implies that nearly all people have an evil eye, and that if anyone looks at that which is excellent with an envious eye, he fills the surrounding atmosphere with a pernicious quality and transmits his own envenomed exhalations into whatever is nearest to him. [*38]

The Greeks and Romans erected statues to Nemesis, whom they adored and invoked to save them from the covetousness and envy of others. [*39]

In the time of Elizabeth, "eye-biting" witches were executed in Ireland for causing diseases among cattle. It was also believed that they were the cause of cows losing their milk. In the West Highlands, it is believed that if a stranger looks admiringly at a cow, she will waste away unless some of her milk is drunk to break the Page 591 spell. Turks and Arabs have the same belief as to their horses and cattle; seldom are they seen harnessed without some protective amulet on them. Westermarck observes that in Morocco the havoc which the evil eye is supposed to have caused is tremendous. In some parts of Calcutta it is usual for a mother to blacken her child's face with a burnt stick to preserve it during the day from the evil influence. [*40]

Animals have been accused of possessing evil eyes. The peacock, the symbol of Juno, the most envious and ill-natured of the deities, has always been, and is still held to be, a potent mischief maker. Even today there are many people who are horrified if peacock feathers are used as ornaments because the feathers contain a design which to the superstitious appears to be an eye. They become terrified if such feathers are brought into the house, as they believe that death will surely follow. The Irish believe that the hare casts evil eyes on their cattle, and begin a general slaughter of them on May Day! Today, in many parts of England, the hare is looked on as an omen of bad luck, and many refuse even to mention the word "rabbit" for that reason. Pregnant Chinese women dare not look at a hare lest its eye, falling on them, should cause their child to be born with a "harelip." In Brazil there is a tradition that there is a bird with an evil eye that kills with a look. [*41] Is not the raven almost universally condemned as "a bird of ill omen"? Nor should we fail to mention the erudite nonsense of Thomas Aquinas on this subject. He said: "The eye is affected by the strong imagination of the soul and then corrupts and poisons the atmosphere so that tender bodies coming within its range may be injuriously affected." [*42]

When King Ferdinand of Naples used to appear in public, he would put his hand in his pocket from time to time. Those who understood his ways knew that he was clenching his fist with the thumb stuck out between the first and second fingers, to avert the effect of a glance of the evil eye that someone in the street might Page 592 have cast on him. [*43] Perhaps Ferdinand got his formula to overcome the effects of the evil eye from the orthodox Hebrews: "Whoever is on the point of entering a city and is afraid of the evil eye should stick his right thumb in his left hand and his left thumb in his right hand and say, 'I am of the seed of Joseph, whom the evil eye may not touch.'" [*44]

Today we know that there is no such thing as an evil eye, except it be the smiting of a youth by the dreamy and seductive eyes of a maid; that envious thoughts harm no one but the person who envies, as mere envy is wasteful and fruitless; peacock feathers are no more unlucky than the feathers of any other bird, and all the anger in the world cannot bewitch the object that is hated.

Coveting and Counting

As the Bible furnished evidence to substantiate our analysis of the previous Commandments, we now find Biblical evidence in support of our premise in the analysis of this Commandment.

Counting was prohibited among the Children of Israel for the same reason that coveting was condemned. The superstitious basis of sympathetic magic for fear of counting is the foundation of the fear of the evil consequences of coveting. The seriousness with which counting was looked on among the Biblical Hebrews cannot better be illustrated than by the narrative dealing with the taking of the census of the Hebrew people. This was considered such a heinous sin by the Bible Deity that he punished them with a great pestilence which caused the death of 70,000 sons of Israel! No wonder the Biblical Hebrew associated direful results with counting! [**45]

Even today orthodox Hebrews use a form of propitiation before counting, such as "May it please God," or "God willing." In addition to this and similar expressions, they use another form of Page 593 propitiation, the words umbeschrien and umberufen when telling the age of a person, counting the number of children in a family, or the days before a wedding. [*46] This is supposed to counteract whatever evil might result from mentioning the time, number or things that are precious to their owners. Hebrews also avoid counting money unless the protective words are used.

This superstition, with its attendant propitiatory ceremonies and phrases, was not confined to the Israelites, but was prevalent among all primitive groups. The propitiation used by primitive peoples is identical in ceremonial form and purpose with that of the Hebrews. The natives of the Oran colonies, before counting, start with a supplication, "In the name of God," "one, two, three," etc., [*47] to prevent harm from befalling any one of the number counted.

Among the Bakongo of the Lower Congo, it is considered unlucky for a woman to count her children. The Masai of East Africa count neither men nor beasts for fear lest some should die. Among the Akamba tribe, where the welfare of the cattle is of great concern, these animals are never counted for fear that many will die or disappear. The Gallus of East Africa, and the peoples of North Africa, believe that counting one's cattle will cause evil. It is reported that a missionary who through ignorance counted his workpeople was ceremoniously killed. The Cherokee Indians of North America will not count melons and squashes for fear lest they should cease to thrive. The Omaha Indians keep no account of their years for fear that some evil will result if they do so.

Similar superstitions survive to this day in "civilized" communities. I remember as a lad being told by a playmate that if I counted the carriages in a funeral procession someone in my family would die.

In the Highlands of Scotland, it is considered unlucky to number the people or cattle belonging to any family, or for fishermen to count the number of fish they catch. In Germany, it was the popular Page 594 belief that counting one's money caused it steadily to decrease. Even today, it is said on excellent authority that the Arabs of Syria are averse to counting their tents, horsemen or cattle, lest some misfortune befall them. [*48]

In Shetland, England, it was the common belief that an outbreak of smallpox always followed a census. In Lincolnshire, no farmer counts his cattle; it is thought that the powers of evil would cause some to die if he did. In Denmark, the eggs of a brooding hen are never counted, else the mother will tread on the eggs and kill the chickens. In North Jutland, the people do not count the mice for fear that they will increase. The Greeks and Armenians believe that if you count your warts, they will increase; and, in the Upper Palatinate, a district in Bavaria, people think that loaves in the oven should not be counted, or they will not turn out well. [*49]

Some people fear to tell their age because of the belief that it will cut off their years. This superstitious belief among the orthodox Hebrews is so ingrained that many times it causes both amusement and bewilderment in our courts. When an orthodox Hebrew who has been called to testify is asked his age, the judge cannot understand why he refuses to answer the simple question. The witness is silent because he is afraid to mention his age unless the protective word is spoken first. Generally someone in the courtroom acquainted with this orthodox belief asks the attendant to reframe his question in this manner: "Umbeschrien, how old are you?" and the witness readily gives his age. This expression has been somewhat facetiously corrupted, and usually, when asking the age of an elderly person, the question is framed in this manner: "I hope you live to be one hundred and twenty years, but how old are you now?"

Just as the Hebrews used a form of propitiation to protect them from the evil results of "counting," so they had protective measures and phrases to guard them against the evil of coveting. Page 595

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