In the last article on the subject of truth and falsehood, we saw that it is permitted to deviate from the truth for Shalom—for the sake of peace and harmony, whose achievement sometimes requires flexibility with the literal truth.
In the current article we will discuss additional reasons which permit us to deviate from the literal truth.
It is permitted to tell a lie to avoid personal shame? Can one do so to uphold a personal virtue, such as humility? It is permitted to deviate from the truth to enable the performance of a mitzvah? Is there a difference in this between different mitzvos?
These, and other questions of truth and falsehood, are discussed below.
Masechta, Poria and Pundak
A central passage concerning deviation from the truth is found in Bava Metzia (23b), where the Gemara notes three matters about which a talmid chacham is permitted to change his speech. These are his Torah learning (masechta—deviating from the truth concerning one’s erudition), household modesty (poraya—deviating from the truth concerning intimacy), and his guesthouse (pundak—not revealing the identity of one’s host, so as to protect him from unworthy guests).
This ruling is cited by the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 262:21).
Although the Gemara refers to Torah scholars, it is clear from the rulings of the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch and later authorities (see Mishnah Berurah 156) that no halachic distinction about this is made. The Gemara means that even a talmid chacham may deviate in these cases.
Tosafos in fact (in one of their explanations) explain that the reason for which one may depart from the truth for these matters is the same underlying principle as discussed in the previous article—lying for the sake of peace, Shalom.
These cases are all instances in which the person involved wishes to evade answering a problematic question (see below). If it was up to him, he would simply remain silent. Doing so, however, would be an insult to the person asking the question, and will cause friction—so that giving a false answer (instead of remaining silent) is considered advancing Shalom.
This seems to imply that without the consideration of Shalom, there is no permission to deviate from the truth. However, other Rishonim explain that the passage of the Gemara presents us with additional values (other than Shalom) for which it is permitted to deviate from the truth.
Humility, Modesty and Protection of Property
The Rif teaches that while it is a full-fledged mitzvah to deviate from the truth for the sake of Shalom, it is permitted—but not a mitzvah—to do so for the matters mentioned by the Gemara. This implies that the issue under consideration is not Shalom, but that Chazal give us permission, under certain circumstances, to deviate from the truth for other purposes.
Rashi too, mentions only that the changes of speech noted by the Gemara reflect positive virtues—humility, modesty, and a desire to guard somebody’s property from harm—which also implies that the permission here to deviate from the truth is unrelated to Shalom.
It is therefore important to expound on the relevant matters. In particular, an important dispute offers two distinct approaches to deviating from the truth concerning one’s Torah erudition.
Lying for the Sake of Humility
Rashi explains that it is permitted to lie out of humility. When questioned about one’s Torah knowledge, one is permitted to respond that he does not know a tractate in question, even if in reality he knows it well.
In line with this interpretation, we find several other instances of deviating from the truth to avoid unwanted honor. The Mishnah Berurah (end of 565), for instance, cites the Magen Avraham and Taz who say that one who undertakes voluntary fasts should not reveal this to others, and may deviate from the truth to hide his righteousness.
Furthermore, we find that when Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi reached Gan Eden, he found Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who immediately asked him: “Are you Bar Levi?” After Bar Levi replied in the affirmative, Rabbi Shimon asked: “Was a rainbow seen in your days?” Bar Levi answered again in the affirmative, to which Rabbi Shimon responded: “In that case you cannot be Bar Levi!”
The Gemara explains that in fact a rainbow had never been seen while Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi lived—only that he wanted to avoid any trace of pride or haughtiness. We can derive from this remarkable tale that even in Gan Eden, a place of absolute truth, there is room to deviate from the truth for the sake of virtuous behaviour.
In similar vein, the Gemara (Shabbos 89a) describes how, when Moshe Rabbeinu descended from the Heavens with the Torah, he was asked by the Satan where the Torah that Hashem gave him was. Moshe replied: “Who am I that Hashem should give me the Torah?” Hashem immediately asked Moshe: “Are you a deceiver?” Moshe answered that concerning the Torah, which is the Creator’s great treasure, he could not possibly take any glory for himself. The Gemara teaches in conclusion that the Torah was called by Moshe’s name, because “he made himself small for it.”
We further find in the Gemara (Bava Basra 8a) that when Rabbi Yochanan ben Amram forcefully entered the Beis Hamedrash, he was asked if he learned Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, and so on, to all of which he replied in the negative. His reason was so as not to take glory from the Torah. These sources demonstrate that one may lie out of humility.
Lying to Avoid Shame
The Rambam (Gezeilah 14:13) interprets the meaning of the passage in a different sense. He writes that if, for example, one is learning tractate Niddah, one may falsely state that one is occupied in Mikvaos, so that the questioner will not ask him questions related to tractate Niddah. The Lechem Mishnah explains that this is in order to save oneself from the shame of not knowing the answer to questions concerning the relevant tractate.
It emerges according to this that not only is one allowed to deviate from the truth out of humility—it is likewise permitted to do so for fear of suffering unnecessary shame.
This, too, emerges for a number of Talmudic sources. According to one interpretation (see Ritva) the Gemara in Makkos (15a) records that Rava was asked if he had recorded a particular teaching, which was deemed mistaken, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan. He answered that he did not, thus saving him embarrassment or derogation from his Rabbi. According to Rashi, it was Rabbi Yochanan himself who was asked the question, to which he gave a negative response. This implies that it is permissible to deviate from the truth to save oneself from unpleasantness of this sort.
A similar incident is recorded in Berachos (27b), where Rabbi Yehoshua stated, ostensibly untruthfully, that no one disputed Maariv being an obligatory prayer. (See also Berachos 43b for a further example of deviation from the truth in order to avoid personal shame—though some commentaries dispute the validity of the text.)
There are many practical ramifications of this. For instance, if a yeshiva bachur on his way back from a shidduch date is asked where he’s been, and feels uncomfortable to tell the truth, he is permitted to invent an alternative story. This ruling is mentioned by Rabbi Yaakov Fish (Titen Emes Le’Yaakov 5:17), citing Rav Elyashiv zt”l.
Rabbi Fish adds that the same is true concerning a lady who gives birth to a first boy after a prior miscarriage. If asked about the Pidyon Haben, she may reply that she is the daughter of a Kohen or Levi.
Delivering Bad Tidings
Not every case that exhibits a positive virtue will permit deviation from the truth.
An example of this is the delicate issue of informing relatives about the demise of a family member. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 402:12) rules that one is not obligated to inform a relative of the death of a loved one, even of his father or mother. Of this the verse states—as the Gemara (Pesachim 3b) notes: “A fool speaks evil.” The Rema adds that it is nonetheless customary to inform a son of his father’s death, so that the son should say Kaddish for his father. The Rema states that this applies only to sons and not to daughters.
If, however, a relative inquires about his relative’s health, the Shulchan Aruch states that one should not say that he is alive and well. The reason: midvar sheker tirchak. Although one may lie for the sake of peace, for the purpose of avoiding unwanted shame and discomfort, out of humility or out of modesty, it is forbidden to lie to refrain from delivering bad news.
We learn from here that although there are several exceptions to the prohibition against lying, this does not apply to every aim and to every noble intention.
Saving others from damage is a legitimate reason, as we find in the case of deviating from the truth concerning a person’s guest house. This also applies to saving a person from grief, where the experience is not inevitable.
Indeed, we find several cases in the Gemara in which Amoraim owned up to offenses they had not committed, in order to save the true culprit from inevitable shame (Sanhedrin 11a). It is permitted to lie to save others from damage shame, grief, and so on. However, it is not permitted to deviate from the truth to avoid the discomfort of passing on bad tidings (or for being called a fool).
Lying to Perform a Mitzvah
Concerning the performance of mitzvos, the question of deviation from the truth also depends on the particular circumstances.
Where a mitzvah is required to save somebody from harm, it is certainly permitted to lie to ensure the mitzvah is performed. Thus, where a surviving brother wishes to marry his widowed sister-in-law (yibum) but he would be a non-appropriate husband, it is permitted to trick him into performing chalitzah by promising remuneration, and later refusing to pay. This ruling is noted in the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 169:50).
Also, where somebody is obligated to perform a mitzvah, we may deviate from the truth to ensure he performs it. Thus, the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 526:12, citing from Yam Shel Shlomo) writes that if a local gravedigger refuses to dig a grave for free on the second day of Yom Tov (when it is forbidden to take wages), one may falsely promise him payment.
However, where the mitzvah relates only to a person’s personal performance, and the person in question is not obligated, it is forbidden to lie to trick him into fulfilling the mitzvah. This can be relevant in a case in which someone lacks the means to perform a mitzvah—for instance a set of arba minim, matzah, and so on.
It is forbidden to obtain the requirements of a mitzvah through deceit and trickery, even when this does not entail actual theft. Hashem wants our mitzvos, but not through lying.
Lying to Save Someone from a Prohibition
We learn in the Gemara (Taanis 28a) that when the Rome decreed that first-fruits (Bikkurim) should not be brought to Jerusalem, and that wood should not be supplied to the altar, the righteous of the generation deceived the guards by transporting ladders, claiming that the purpose was to dry fruit into fig-cakes. It is permitted to lie in order to counter a threat against the performance of a mitzvah.
We have a G-d-given right to perform mitzvos, and we may lie to preserve this right (protecting us from spiritual harm). But we may not lie in order to procure mitzvos, where nobody is threatening our right. For instance, if there is only one kezais of matzah between two people, it is forbidden to use deceit and falsehood to procure the matzah for oneself. The correct course of action (as prescribed by the Sha’arei Teshuva, Orach Chaim 482:1) is to draw lots.
Naturally, it is always permitted to lie to avoid a prohibition. Thus, Raba bar bar Chana, after realizing that he had forgotten to recite Birkas Hamazon after a meal, deviated from the truth to ensure his caravan (which was ready to depart) would wait for him. Although Birkas Hamazon is a positive Mitzvah, eating without benching is a prohibition (Berachos 53b). The righteousness of his ways was Divinely affirmed, and his lie—that he had left behind a golden dove—was miraculously validated.
Titen Emes le’Yaakov (5:39) cites Rav Elyashiv zt”l that one may lie concerning the entry-time of Shabbos, if he sees that members of his household are not sufficiently diligent in their Shabbos preparations. At the same time, he notes that one must not lie to procure a mitzvah, such as to obtain a mitzvah item from somebody who refuses to supply it.
Learning and Teaching Torah
An interesting related passage of Chazal is the story of Rav Yosef and the elders of Pumbedisa (Chagigah 13a).
Rav Yosef was well-versed in Maaseh Mercavah, the deepest secrets of Torah. The elders of Pumbedisa were knowledgeable in the secrets of Creation, but not those of the Heavenly Chariot. They requested that he teach them the secrets of the Heavenly Chariot. “Teach me the secrets of creation,” he replied, which they did.
In turn, they asked him to teach them the secrets of the Chariot. To this he replied: “Honey and milk beneath your tongue”—meaning that things sweeter than honey and milk should be beneath your tongue, in other words, kept secret.
The explanation of this apparent act of deceit is that Rav Yosef spoke no actual lie. As we have seen previously, there are occasions when it is forbidden to lie, but permitted to say a sentence that has two possible meanings where there is a legitimate reason to do so (in this case, to learn Torah). Here, the request of Rav Yosef to be taught the secrets of Creation was presumed to mean that he would in return teach the secrets of the Chariot.
In fact, Rav Yosef never meant to do so. For Torah study, such a ruse, which avoids an outright lie, is permitted.