Continuing our series on truth and falsehood, we dedicate the current article to the question of deviating from the truth to avoid loss. As we have already discussed at length, it is forbidden to deceive others to make financial or other gains.
When is it permitted to lie in order to prevent losses? Is it permitted to deviate from the truth in order to maximize charity collections? Can a Dayan falsely claim that he doesn’t know the halacha, in order to bring about a better verdict? In addition, is it permitted to bend Torah laws and principles for kiruv rechokim or for chinuch?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Retrieving a Stolen Purse
The following anecdote, related by the Gemara (Yoma 83b), gives us a preliminary insight into the matter of lying to avert loss.
Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yosi, were once journeying together. As Shabbos drew near, they came to a local inn. Rabbi Meir, who always took careful note of people’s names, declined to deposit his purse with the innkeeper, whose name (Kidor) bode ill (based on the verse ki dor tahapuchos heima). Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Yehudah didn’t give importance to names and trusted the innkeeper with their purses.
When they came to claim their property, the innkeeper denied ever having received it, confirming Rabbi Meir’s suspicions. Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi, however, did not lose hope. Drawing the innkeeper out of his house, they noted that his mustache carried tell-tale signs of a recently-eaten lentil dish. They returned to his home and asked his wife to hand over the purses, claiming that the innkeeper had sent them. To give their tale credence, they added that he had given them a sign by which to verify the veracity of their request: the last meal the innkeeper had eaten was a lentil dish.
The wife, confident that they were truthful, handed over the wallets. The story ends on a tragic note—the innkeeper, after coming home and finding the purses gone, murdered his wife in a rage. The Gemara concludes that had he been particular to wash mayim acharonim, this calamity would not have befallen him.
We derive from this anecdote that it is permissible to lie in order to retrieve stolen goods. Lying, in this context, is no worse than hitting and beating, which is permitted to prevent a thief from stealing property. In such cases, a victim may take the law into his own hands, and use whatever means are available to him to recover his stolen property.
Evading Unfair Taxes
Perhaps the primary source for lying to avoid a loss is the teaching of the Gemara (Nedarim 27b) permitting someone to make a false neder for the purpose of deferring an unlawful levy of taxes. As the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 232:15) rules, if someone is under threat of physical or financial damage, he is permitted to make a false oath to avert the damage. For example, it is permitted to declare (before an unlawful tax collector): “If there is any money in the house, I should be prohibited from taking pleasure from my wife.”
In such cases, one must be careful to annul the oath in one’s heart, or preferably to whisper a qualification that is not contradictory to the oath (adding ‘for the next ten seconds’ in the example above.) This, however, is only necessary to solve the issue of the oath; the issue of lying is not mentioned by the Gemara. It is elsewhere noted (Nedarim 62b) that one may claim (falsely, of course) that one is a servant to worshipers of fire, if this effective to exempt himself from unlawful taxation.
In a similar vein, we find (Bava Metzia 75b) that when a worker quits his job in an unlawful way, threatening to cause his employer a loss of income, the employer is permitted to falsely promise him extra wages for working for him.
This is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 333:5). Despite promising to double his wages, the employer need not pay more than the original salary. The Rivash (no. 475) extends this halacha to other cases in which someone wishes to unlawfully inflict financial losses on his fellow: It is permitted to promise falsely to prevent the loss.
Collecting Bad Debts
It is likewise permitted to collect difficult debts through trickery.
To this end, it is permitted to feign to sell an item to a borrower for the amount of money owed. After taking the money (ostensibly for the sale), there is no obligation to hand over the promised goods. Instead, the money is considered payment for the debt.
This ruse, however, is ineffective for land acquisitions, in which handing over the money effects the final acquisition of the land (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 204:11; Rema 190:6). One may also falsely label goods as fragile, or terumah, and the like, in order to protect them from harm.
It should be stressed that all of the above applies to lies and falsehoods outside of Beis Din. Within the Beis Din, it is forbidden to lie or to engage in any form of falsehood. As we have discussed in the past, the Gemara (Shevuos 30) teaches that the principle prohibition of lying applies to the Beis Din. Thus, one may not, even when faced with unfair and unlawful loss, use falsehoods to establish one’s case in Beis Din.
Deviation of Dayanim
An interesting question is whether the Dayanim of a Din Torah may deviate from the truth where necessary, or whether they, too, must stick to the absolute truth. An instance in which this is relevant is where a Dayan sees that he is about to be outvoted in the verdict of a case. He believes, however, that his own opinion is the true one, and the verdict of his fellow Dayanim is false.
If he states his own opinion regarding the case, he will be outvoted, and the verdict of the other Dayanim will be passed. However, if he claims that he does not know the answer to the case, Beis Din will be forced to add two more Dayanim—as is the law whenever one of three Dayanim fails to give an opinion—giving a chance that the true verdict will be passed. Is it permitted for the Dayan to state, untruthfully, that he does not know the verdict, so that the Beis Din will bring in more Dayanim to judge the case, or must he state his opinion, hence to be outvoted by his fellow Dayanim?
This question is discussed at length in the Pischei Teshuvah (Choshen Mishpat 18:1). The Beis Ya’akov (no. 15) concludes that this is prohibited. The Shvus Ya’akov (1:138), however, permits it, claiming that it is permitted to lie for the sake of Shalom, and bringing the true verdict to light is surely considered Shalom.
Some (see Birchei Yosef 18:4) make a compromise, permitting the matter when the other Dayanim are not Talmudic scholars, and prohibiting it when they are scholarly and worthy.
In general, though, the consensus of authorities (see, for instance, Chavos Yair no. 147) is that nobody—not even a Dayan—has a right to speak a word of falsehood as part of his Beis Din functions. Even if the result, in the opinion of the Dayan, is a corruption of the Din, this should be left in the hands of Hashem. We must do what is up to us—to walk the path of the straight and just. The rest is up to Him.
Falsehood in Charity Collection
Is it permitted to use falsehoods to encourage people to donate to charity? For instance, may a poor person invent special circumstances (such as physical ailment, an upcoming wedding, and so on) so that people will more readily give him charity?
A precedent for this might be found in the Sefer Chassidim (no. 318), who tells the tale of a particular Talmid Chacham who noticed that his fellow townspeople did not give sufficient charity to the poor. Even when he made personal rounds on behalf of the poor, he was turned down. The only way in which he could extract the charity money was to beg for his own needs. Since he was a respected member of the community, this was readily given. He proceeded to distribute the money among the town poor.
However, this case is easily distinguished from a personal case of charity collection. In the case of the Sefer Chassidim, the townspeople had an obligation to support the poor of their community. For an obligation, the Gemara (Bava Basra 8a) teaches that Beis Din are entitled to force a donation. Ruses of trickery and falsehood may, under such circumstances, provide a legitimate means of forceful extraction of the money. This approach is likewise suggested by Tzedaka U’Mishpat (chap. 8).
With regard to a private individual, there is no obligation on others to donate money to him more than to other poor people.
Slightly closer is a ruling given by HaRav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach zt”l (as cited by Titen Emet le’Ya’akov 5:2), who ruled that one may collect money saying it is for hachnasas kallah, when the true purpose of the collection is for a poor chasan. This, however, is very different from inventing a false story. The term hachnasas kallah is (arguably) a general term for marriage costs. Furthermore, if the chasan is lacking it follows that his kallah will go lacking, too. No precedent can therefore be found for lying in personal tzedakah cases.
On the contrary, HaRav Aurbach is further quoted as ruling that one may not use exaggerations or falsehood in order to extract money for a Yeshiva, whether from national funding or from private contributors. This is likewise ruled by the Iggros Moshe (Choshen Mishpat 2:29), who writes in no uncertain terms against the use of falsehood and trickery for extracting government funds.
Aside from the prohibition of lying, geneivat da’as, and potential chilul Hasem, Rav Moshe adds that this is simple gezel—taking money against someone’s will (since no one intends to donate to a fictitious purpose). The same will be true of using a concocted story to extract donations. If somebody invents a story of an upcoming wedding and he collects money for this purpose, he must return the money.
In addition to the potential prohibitions involved, a teaching of the Mishnah (Pe’ah 8:9) adds a degree of severity to the issue: “One who is not lame, blind, or an amputee, and feigns one of them [for the sake of collecting charity], shall not die a natural death before the ailment [that he feigned] strikes him” (see also Kesubos 68b).
Yam Shel Shlomo on Megaleh Panim BaTorah
Is there any case of lying in which one is obligated to tell the truth, even if it means losing one’s life? The Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama 4:9, based on the Bava Kama 38a) maintains that there is!
The Gemara says that the Roman Empire sent two officers to the elders of Israel to study the Torah. After an intense course, the officers told the Jewish elders that they had studied the entire Torah and all of it is true, apart from the following detail. If a Jewish-owned ox should gore a gentile-owned ox, the Jewish owner is exempt from paying damages. However, if a gentile-owned ox gores a Jewish-owned ox, the gentile owner must pay for the damage.
The Roman inspectors claimed that this is self-contradictory. If the word ‘your fellow’ excludes a non-Jew, then a non-Jewish ox that gores should also be exempt. If it does not, then a Jewish-owned ox that gores should also be liable to pay. Impressed, it would seem, by their overall experience with Torah, they promised that they would not report this anomaly back to the Roman authorities.
According to one explanation of Tosafos, the reason why the elders of Israel taught the officers Torah, in spite of the prohibition on teaching Torah to a non-Jew, is because the Romans forced them to do so. Despite this, the Yam Shel Shlomo questions the teaching syllabus of the elders. Surely they should not have taught the Roman officers the provocative law regarding damage cases between Jews and gentiles. Why did they teach these laws, at the obvious risk of severe consequences?
The Yam Shel Shlomo answers that the mode of teaching was through questions and answers. The officers would ask questions, encompassing all the details of Torah law, and the elders would answer. Asked the Torah law concerning cases of damages, the elders were left with no choice but to tell the truth. This is because when it comes to laws of the Torah, one is not permitted to speak a falsehood, even under threat of death.
The Yam Shel Shlomo immediately mentions a seeming refutation to this ruling from the translation of Torah into Greek, in which seventy elders independently concurred on making the same changes to the text of Torah (Megillah 9). He explains that this cannot be compared to changing laws of the Torah, since the changes to the translation made no practical difference to Torah law. Additionally, the changes were made with Ruach HaKodesh, and cannot be compared to ordinary cases.
Practical Applications of the Yam Shel Shlomo
The ruling of the Yam Shel Shlomo, which is quoted by Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Yoreh De’ah 157), is quite revolutionary, and has many practical applications.
In Chinuch matters, for instance, we might make occasional use of subtle lies that can pertain to Torah issues (for example, we might tell a child that he has to recite Birkas Hamazon even if he ate only a crumb of challah).
Likewise in matters of kiruv, or when advising someone distant from Torah, we sometimes stretch a halacha past its strict boundaries. According to the Yam Shel Shlomo, we may not do this. Even under threat of death, which is thankfully rare today, one may not distort or change any detail of Torah law. According to the Yam Shel Shlomo one who changes a Torah law is considered a kofer in Toras Moshe!
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim 2:51) extends the Yam Shel Shlomo’s reasoning to the prohibition of flattering the wicked. Surprisingly, Tosafos (Sotah 41) find it necessary to prove that the prohibition of flattery does not require one to give up his life. Why, questions Rav Moshe, should the prohibition of flattery to the wicked be more stringent that desecration of Shabbos, forbidden foods, and so on, so that we should entertain the possibility that it defers even threat of death?
He answers that the type of flattery in question involved implying that the deeds of the wicked, which were clear Torah prohibitions, were permitted. In this case, there is room to think that flattery is prohibited even at the expense of one’s life, in line with the view of the Yam Shel Shlomo regarding changing a law of Torah. The conclusion of Tosafos, however, is that flattery is not comparable to actually changing a Torah law.
Those Who Dispute the Yam Shel Shlomo
There are several sources that seem to be in conflict with the ruling of the Yam Shel Shlomo. We find, for instance, that certain halachos were ruled stringently in public, while the true halacha was lenient, for fear that people who were ignorant in Torah would take the leniency too far (see Bava Kama 115a, 31a; Chulin 15a; this does not appear to fit the category of a decree). If one is permitted to change a halachic ruling to prevent potential sin, how much more so should it be permitted to do so to save a life.
Shut Yad Eliyahu (no. 48) indeed disputes the ruling of the Yam Shel Shlomo, adding that the ruling is based on one of two interpretations of Tosafos, and that many Rishonim use alternative interpretations. When it comes to life or death, we do not look for stringencies (see also Shut Minchas Shlomo 3:106).
It is fascinating to note that the Yam Shel Shlomo himself, in the introduction to his magnum opus, writes that any mention of gentiles and idol worshipers in his writing refers to gentiles of previous generations, who worshiped all kinds of idols and deities, and not to the gentiles among whom we live, for whose well-being we regularly pray.
This, clearly, was meant for the censor, to ensure that the text made it to print unchanged, and certainly in most instances laws of gentiles remain unchanged throughout the course of time. The reason, it seems, that this does not transgress the Yam Shel Shlomo’s own prohibition against changing Torah laws, is that all Jews who open the text understand this was written for the censor’s eyes only, and has no Halachic implication whatsoever (it is also possible that the Yam Shel Shlomo didn’t write this sentence).
Even if we do not side with the Yam Shel Shlomo, however, one should certainly refrain from distorting Torah law for the sake of outreach among secular Jews. We should show much love and care for our fellow Jews, but the Torah should be presented as is—”the ways of Torah are just; the righteous walk them, and the wicked stumble upon them” (Hoshea 14:10).