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Toldos – Truth and Falsehood: A Halachic Perspective

Give Truth Unto Yaakov

Above and beyond any other individual, the Torah presents Yaakov Avinu as the embodiment of Truth. As the verse states, the essential attribute of Yaakov is emes, Truth (Michah 7:20): Titen Emes le-Yaakov, “Give truth unto Yaakov.”

In  light of Yaakov’s basic attribute of truth, it is quite striking to find that Yaakov, to a greater extent than the other Patriarchs and other biblical leaders, was involved in a number of episodes that look uncomfortably like deception and trickery.

First and foremost, as recorded in our parashah, Yaakov famously ‘stole’ his father Yitzchak’s  blessings  from under the nose of his older brother, through an act that seems like blatant deception. Another patently difficult episode is the manner in which Yaakov extracted his wages from his swindling father-in-law. Although commentaries debate exactly what Yaakov did with the white sticks of wood, the way in which Yaakov finally extracted his wages from Lavan  appears to be nothing but trickery.

Later, we find Yaakov telling his brother Eisav that they will meet, presumably shortly, in Se’ir. In actual fact, nothing could have been further from Yaakov’s mind , who mentioned the forthcoming meeting only to smoothen the brothers’ departure. The lethal deception of Shechem, though not perpetrated by Yaakov himself, presents a further stain on the integrity of Yaakov and his household.

Why does the life of Yaakov Avinu, the ultimate Man of Truth, include so many points that seem to contradict his fundamental character trait?

Rabbi E. Dessler (Michtav Me’Eliyahu, vol. 4, pp. 19-20) explains the matter by distinguishing between ‘inner truth’ and ‘superficial truth’. The life of Yaakov teaches us that not everything that comes across as being falsehood is actually false, and not everything that glitters is gold.

Chazal (Yevamos 65b) state that it is permitted, or even a mitzvah, to “deviate one’s speech” on account of shalom, for the sake of peace and harmony. Similarly, Chazal (Bava Metzia 23b) write that a Torah scholar “deviates his speech” in three matters—as we will mention below. Why do Chazal use the expression “deviate,” rather than simply stating that one is permitted to lie in various circumstances?

The answer to this is that when a person speaks a falsehood for the sake of shalom, his speech is anything but sheker. The superficial clothing might be falsehood, but the inner essence of his words is absolute truth.

The concept of speaking an ostensible falsehood for the sake of peace is derived from the very speech of Hashem, who told Avraham that Sarah had laughed at her own elderliness, rather than at her husband’s (Bereishis 18:13). One who speaks a falsehood for the sake of peace and harmony is thus emulating G-d Himself; he performs an act of truth, the absolute truth of Hashem, rather than an act of falsehood.

This, too, is the secret of Yaakov’s seemingly untruthful deeds. On an inner level, his deeds were absolute truth, and only their superficial veneer was cloaked in falsehood. The birthright, and with it the blessings of Yitzchak, were legally Yaakov’s; moreover, his ‘deceptive’ taking of the blessings was instructed to him by means prophecy (Targum Onkelus, Bereishis 27:13). In deceiving Lavan, Yaakov acted under the Divine principle of “with the crooked, You act perversely” (Tehillim 18:27), thereby performing an act of Divine truth.  In lying to Eisav, he was actually acting for the sake of shalom, a mode of conduct derived, once again, from Hashem Himself.

In all of these acts, Yaakov did not speak a falsehood or act with deception. On the contrary: The greatest embodiment of the attribute was achieved through manifesting absolute truth in the superficial clothing of falsehood. Yaakov revealed a new yardstick for truth: Truth is not defined by what meets the eye as being true, but by the inner meaning of the act.

Midvar Sheker Tirchak

After this brief introduction concerning the essence of truth, we turn now to the halachic aspects of truth and falsehood. What is the halachic nature of truth and falsehood? Is there an actual prohibition involved in telling lies, and for which purposes is one fully permitted to do so?

Chazal severely condemn lies and falsehood. In one place, Chazal (Sanhedrin 92a) parallel those who lie to idolaters; in another, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 103a) states that one of the four groups that do not merit greeting the Shechinah is the “group of liars.”

The severity of such terminology would certainly imply a prohibition of some sort. However, we see that there are  various other negative traits that Chazalcondemn, such as anger, despite the absence of a Torah prohibition  against reaching a state of anger. The fact that Chazal speak of falsehood with (great) severity is therefore not a conclusive indication of its halachic status. Is there an actual prohibition, Torah or rabbinic, on speaking a lie?

At first glance, we would think that telling a lie falls under the explicit Torah mitzvah of midevar sheker tirchak—”you shall distance yourself from falsehood.” Thus apparently, the Torah explicitly prohibits speaking falsehoods. This prohibition is likewise implied in the words of Sefer Ha-Chinuch (mitzvah 74). Referring to the prohibition of a rabbinical judge to hear one party in the absence of the other, Sefer Ha-Chinuch explains that the underlying theme of the mitzvah is the concept of falsehood:

For falsehood is despicable and disgraceful in the eyes of all, and there is nothing more disgusting… because Hashem is the God of truth, and all that is with Him is truth, and blessing can only be found among and applied to those who emulate Him in their deeds, so that they are truthful as He is a God of truth… Therefore the Torah warns us to greatly distance ourselves from falsehood, as the verse writes, “you shall distance yourself from falsehood.” The Torah mentions distancing, which is not mentioned concerning other mitzvos, on account of its great disgust (emphasis added).

That which is close to explicit in the words of Sefer Ha-Chinuch, is stated explicitly by Chafetz Chaim. In his introductory list of speech-related prohibitions (asin 13), Chafetz Chaim mentions that one who adds falsehoods to slanderous speech transgresses the positive commandment of midvar sheker tirchak. This, he explains, is a full Torah mitzvah according to Semag, who numbers it among the 613 mitzvos (asin 107), and is a Torah transgression in all opinions. In addition to Semag, it is worth mentioning that Yerei’im (235) and Semak likewise include the obligation to truthfulness in their list of mitzvos.

“Everyday” Falsehoods

However, it is important to note that not all authorities concur that one who speaks an “ordinary falsehood” thereby commits the Torah offense of midvar sheker tirchak. Notably, the Gemara does not mention the verse in the context of regular falsehoods, but specifically with regard to various offences related to beis din procedures. A judge, for instance, should not seek to uphold a judgment that he knows to be wrong, even if it is based on legally valid testimony. Likewise, a witness should not join with a fellow witness, in the knowledge that the other witness is a thief, and therefore an invalid witness. Although these, and several other instances, are not direct or blatant lies, they are included in the Torah’s instruction to distance oneself from falsehood (Shavuos, 30b-31a).

Following the precedent of the Gemara, Rambam limits the mention of the Torah’s instruction to the prohibitions mentioned in the Gemara, all of them relating to beis din procedures (To’en 16:10; Sanhedrin 21:7, 21:10, 22:2, 22:3, Edus 17:6). In his Book of Mitzvos, Rambam likewise mentions the offence as a branch of the prohibition against false testimony. This is also reflected in the expositions of the Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and other commentaries.

Even the placement of the instruction in the Torah appears to imply a connection with bein din procedures: The surrounding verses, and even the latter half of the verse instructing distance from falsehood, refer to matters of beis din. Thus, Rav Chaim Kanievski (Maseches Kutim, note 30)  comments that everyday lies do not fall in with the full Torah prohibition of midvar sheker tirchak.

It is important to note, however, that where the falsehood would cause damage (monetary or otherwise) to one’s fellow, Yere’im (235) writes that the falsehood would meet the requirements of a full Torah offense. In addition, even if telling an everyday falsehood is not formally prohibited, ((It is noteworthy that a number of passages in the Gemara (Sukkah 46b; Chagigah 14b; Yevamos 63a) cite the verses “they taught themselves a tongue of falsehood,” or “one who speaks falsehood will not stand before My eyes,” rather than the mitzvah of midvar sheker tirchak. This is a further indication that the formal mitzvah does not apply to everyday falsehoods.)) the choice to tell the truth would certainly fulfill a Torah mitzvah. As noted above, telling the truth emulates the ways of Hashem, and fulfills the instruction to “follow His ways” (Devarim 28:9).

Thus, it is not surprising to find the basic obligation of avoiding falsehood ruled by Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 402:12). Although Shulchan Aruch states that one should avoid transmitting bad tidings (of a relative’s death), when asked directly by the family member one must respond truthfully. The reason for this: midvar sheker tirchak.

For the Sake of Shalom

The Gemara (Yevamos 65b) teaches that one may “deviate one’s speech” for the sake of shalom; according to another opinion cited by the Gemara, it is a full mitzvah to depart from the truth for the sake of shalom. These lessons are derived from several biblical incidents, the most famous of them being the passage of Sarah’s laughter, in which Hashem reported to Avraham that Sarah had laughed on account of her own elderly age, rather than the advanced age of her husband. If Hashem deviated from the truth for the sake of shalom, it is surely correct—surely true—for us to do so, too.

A common instance of shalom is presented in Sefer Chassidim (336), who discusses the scenario of a mother who tells her son to do a particular task, only for his father to angrily ask the son who instructed him to do so. The son should not, states the Sefer Chassidim, say that the mother told him, since this would cause a rift between the parents. This is likewise ruled by Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh De’ah 240:41), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (143:6), and Chayei Adam (67:15).

It is interesting to note that in spite of the halachic permissibility of deviating from the truth for the sake of shalom, we find in Yam Shel Shlomo (Yevamos 6:46) that this permit should be used on  occasional basis only. On a regular basis, he states, one should not lie even for the sake of shalom, for this is included in the verse (Yirmiyah 9:4), “They taught themselves a tongue of falsehood.”

Along these lines, it is told that the Chafetz Chaim used to operate a free loan society from his home. There were certain individuals in Radin who were known to be unreliable, and the Chafetz Chaim did not wish to lend them money; however, he did not want to depart from the truth by saying that there was no money at home. He therefore placed all the money in the home of his son-in-law (Rav Tzvi): When a worthy borrower came, he was sent to Rav Tzvi; when the borrower was unworthy, he truthfully said that he had no money in the house.

However, most authorities mention that it is a mitzvah to depart from the truth for the sake of shalom, and place no quantitative restrictions on doing so.

Extensions of Shalom: How to Dance before the Bride

An interesting and important application of the instruction to ‘deviate’ for the sake of shalom is found in the famous dispute over how one should dance before the bride. The opinion of Beis Shamai is that one should praise a bride according to what she is: “The bride is the way she is.” In the opinion of Beis Hillel, however, all brides receive the complimentary praise: “A beautiful and pious bride” (Kesubos 7a).

Beis Shamai continue to explain their position: “The Torah states that one must distance oneself from falsehood.” The response of Beis Hillel is in rhetorical form: “According to you, someone who makes a poor purchase from the market, should one praise it or degrade it—one should surely praise it!” The halachah, as we are well aware, follows the opinion of Beis Hillel (Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’ezer 65:1).

Although Beis Hillel’s response to Beis Shamai’s question may sound convincing, the Gemara does not present an explanation for how Beis Hillel defers the question: Surely praising all brides as being “beautiful and pious” transgresses the maxim of distancing oneself from falsehood? Ritva, and a number of rishonim, explain the answer to this question: Praising the bride is considered a matter of shalom, and it is permitted to ‘deviate’ for the sake of shalom.

According to Ritva, it thus emerges that the concept of shalom is not limited to literal peacemaking. Any instance of appeasement, such as the example given by the Gemara of praising somebody’s poor acquisition, falls under the category of shalom. This would explain the common custom of praising the quality of culinary dishes, even when the praise in undeserving. Such praise, in the light of the Gemara, would fall under the category of shalom, and thus be permitted.

Telling Half-Truths

Many poskim, however, make no mention of the above Ritva, and find the teaching of the Gemara (concerning dancing before the bride) and the subsequent ruling of Shulchan Aruch difficult: Surely one must distance oneself from falsehood? Commenting on the halachah, Chelkas Mechokek, Beis Shmuel, Perisha, Taz and Aruch Hashulchan (all in Even Ha’ezer 65) explain that the case of the bride is a “special case,” in which the falsehood is not explicit.

Taz explains that even if the bride is lame or blind, her marriage proves that she found favor in the eyes of her groom, and her beauty and piety can therefore be interpreted in relative terms: In the eyes of her husband. Beis Shmuel (citing from Perishah) and others write along similar lines: Even if she is not beautiful in her form, she might be beautiful in her deeds. ((This explanation finds a weighty source in Maseches Kallah (chap. 10), in which Beis Hillel is quoted as replying to Beis Shamai, “Perhaps she is beautiful in her deeds, perhaps beautiful in her genealogy and pious [in her ways].” Maharal (Netiv Ha-Emes 2) follows similar lines: “We do not come to praise her for her beauty, but rather state that there is some virtue in her, for her husband chose to marry her and she found favor in his eyes.” Maharal writes that the same is true of a purchase. One may praise a purchase  to its buyer, even if the purchase is in fact of poor quality and bad taste, because it has an element of virtue, at the very least in the eyes of the purchaser himself.))

According to these authorities, we do not find a source for extending the principle of ‘deviating’ for the sake of shalom, beyond true instances of shalom itself.

Yet, the Gemara records a noteworthy anecdote of how Eliyahu spoke a falsehood in order to raise the spirits of Rabbi Akiva and his wife. Meaning to relieve the anguish of their extreme poverty, Eliyahu came to their home, and requested an amount of hay for his wife, who had just given birth. This concocted story gave the newlyweds a degree of relief, in the knowledge that there were people poorer even than they (Nedarim 50b).

Based on this precedent, we can deduce that it is permitted to console somebody who has just declared bankruptcy by falsely commenting that “I too went bankrupt once, and lost double the amount.” Likewise, if someone fails a test, one may tell him, “I too failed the test, and scored even worse than you did” (see sefer Emes K’neh).

However, it is possible that the case of Eliyahu was a true case of shalom, for perhaps the extreme poverty of Rabbi Akiva’s home caused a degree of friction. We might therefore not be able to extrapolate from this case to everyday instances of raising a person’s spirits. As the poskim above write, wherever the case does not fall squarely under the category of shalom, only a half-lie is permitted.

There is, however, room to question this. In the opinion of several authorities, we learnt that one may not tell an outright lie when dancing before a bride, despite the benefit that will arise from the lie. In their opinion, the case of Eliyahu, in which he told an absolute falsehood, must be considered a full case of shalom, in contrast to the case of the bride, when the full issue of shalom, in their opinion, is inapplicable.

It is plausible that Eliyahu knew that the home of Rabbi Akiva, or the spirits of he and his wife, were on the verge of breaking, thus permitting an absolute ‘lie’ for the sake of shalom. In the case of a failed driving test and the like, which is normally not a full-fledged case of shalom, it would only be permitted to say a statement that has some element of truth.

Humility and Shame

A central passage regarding deviation from the truth is found in the following teaching of the Gemara (Bava Metzia 23b). Chazal state that there are three matters for which a Torah scholar is permitted to swerve from the truth. These are in matters of one’s Torah learning (masechta), matters of modesty (puriya), and matters of one’s guesthouse (pundak). These instances are accordingly ruled by Rambam and Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 262:21).

Rashi explains that each of the instances mentioned in the Gemara is a reflection of a positive value, whose upholding permits deviation from the truth. The first of the three is the virtue of humility: In response to somebody’s question, it is permitted to state that one doesn’t know the tractate in question, while in reality one does know it. In line with this interpretation, we find several other instances of permissible lying to avoid unwanted honour. Mishnah Berurah (end of no. 565), for instance, rules (in the name of Magen Avraham and Taz) that one who undertakes voluntary fasts should not reveal them to others, and may deviate from the truth or even lie for the sake of hiding his righteousness. Further instances of deviating from the truth for the sake of humility are recorded in the Gemara.

Rambam (Gezeilah 14:13), however, explains the meaning of maseches in a different sense. If one is learning tractate Niddah, he may falsely state that he is actually occupied in Mikvaos, so that the questioner will not ask questions related to tractate Niddah. Lechem Mishnah explains that this is in order to save oneself from the shame of not knowing the answer. It emerges, according to this, that not only is one allowed to deviate from the truth out of humility, but one is even permitted to deviate from the truth for fear of shame. ((This principle also emerges from a number of Talmudic sources. In some opinions (see Ritva), the Gemara in Makos (15a) records of how Rava was asked if he had taught a particular teaching, which was deemed mistaken, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan. He answered that he did not, thus saving himself from embarrassment or derogation. In the opinion of 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 lie to save oneself from this type of unpleasantness. A similar incident is recorded in Berachos (27b), where Rabbi Yehoshua stated, seemingly untruthfully, that no opinion disputed the matter of maariv being an obligatory prayer. See also Berachos (43b) for a further example of deviating from the truth for the sake of avoiding personal shame; Rama Mipano, however, interprets the Gemara in a different light.))

There are many practical ramifications of this. For instance, if a Yeshiva bachur, making his way back to Yeshiva from a shidduch date, is asked where he’s been, and feels uncomfortable to tell the truth, he would be permitted to invent an alternative event. This halachah is mentioned by Rabbi Yaakov Fisch (Titen Emes Le-Yaakov 5:17) in the name of Rav Elyashiv shlita. Rabbi Fisch adds that the same is true regarding a lady who gives birth to a first boy after undergoing a prior miscarriage. If asked about the pidyon haben, she may reply she is the daughter of a Levi, thereby avoiding the discomfort of telling the truth.

Naturally, if one is permitted to deviate from the truth for the sake of saving oneself from shame, it is also permitted to deviate from the truth for the sake of saving others from shame. The classic cases are instances in which somebody asks “who did it.” In order to save the culprit from shame, it is permitted to falsely claim responsibility.

No Gain from Falsehood

The other issues mentioned by the Gemara for which it is permitted to deviate from the truth are for purposes of modesty, and in order to save somebody from financial loss. These, too, include many details, on which we will not expound at this stage.

Having mentioned a number of instances in which it is permitted to speak a falsehood, it is important to note that Rif (Bava Metzia) makes an important distinction between these instances, and shalom. For the sake of shalom, it is a mitzvah to deviate from the truth. For the causes mentioned above, it is only permitted. Indeed, Orchos Tzaddikim (end of chap. 22) writes that one should preferably seek to avoid deviating from the truth, as far as possible, even under such circumstances.

It is worth ending with an impressive anecdote recounted of Rabbi Mordechai Shulman, Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka Yeshiva, who was known as a veritable man of truth. At being shown the newly printed blanks of his Yeshiva, Rabbi Shulman instructed that they should all be torn up. Although his associates told him this would involve a great financial loss, Rabbi Shulman remained adamant that the blanks should be discarded. The reason for this was that in the picture of the Yeshiva, a pair of trees could be seen adorning the main portal, which did not exist in truth. “From a sheker,” commented Rabbi Shulman, “we will not gain a cent; we will only lose.”

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