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Deception – “Theft of the Heart”

Commenting on the apparently superfluous title given to Lavan, whom the Torah terms Lavan Ha-Arami (even though the verse also states explicitly that he was from Aram), a number of commentaries (see Baal Ha-Turim, Bereishis 20:8) point out that the letters of the word Arami are the same letters as the word ramai.

The Torah thus introduces Lavan as the archetypical ramai – the deceiver par excellence. Indeed, over the course of the coming Torah parshios (the more so if we look in the Midrashic sources) we find no shortage of evidence of Lavan’s deceiving ways, the most notorious being of course the switching of Rachel for Leah.

In recognition of the fact that trickery and deception continue to be an unfortunate part of everyday life, we dedicate the present article to a halachic concept that encompasses much of it: The concept of geneivas daas, translating roughly as deception or giving false impressions.

As we will see, the prohibition against geneivas daas is quite distinct from the concept of sheker (telling a lie), and it is important to carefully define the parameters of the injunction. In which circumstances does the prohibition apply, and where is a degree of deception permitted?

Take for instance the following scenario. A charity organization wishes to give a donation to a bride (and her parents) without means. In order to spare the family the shame of receiving charity, it is suggested that the money be given as a gift by a close family friend, thereby appearing to be a wedding gift rather than a charity donation. Is this permitted?

We will discuss the prohibition and its laws below.

The Prohibition of Deception

The halachah of deception, geneivas daas, is distinct from the general concept of falsehood. Rather than referring to merely stating a falsehood, the concept of geneivas daas relates to the way in which a person presents himself to somebody else. If Reuven presents himself to Shimon as a friend, whereas in fact this is not the case, he “steals the heart” of Shimon.

The term geneivas daas (or geneivas lev) is found in the book of Shmuel (II 15:6) in connection with Avshalom’s rebellion against his father: “Avshalom stole the heart of the nation.” It is also mentioned in connection with the above-mentioned Lavan, but this time as an accusation: After Yaakov abruptly left his house, Lavan reproached him with the words, “And you stole my heart.”

Although the Torah does not present the concept as a formal prohibition, some authorities maintain that geneivas daas involves a full Torah transgression. The source of the prohibition, according to the Ritva (Chullin 94a), is the transgression of theft. Although the one might think that the transgression is limited to a financial context, the Ritva (citing from Tosafos) explains that it also applies to “theft of the heart.”

The Semag (Negative Prohibition 155) and the Shulchan Aruch Harav (Onaah 11) likewise state that the prohibition of deception (giving a false impression) is a Torah law. The Semak (262), however, writes that the prohibition is rabbinic, and this is likewise the opinion of the Bach (Choshen Mishpat 228).

Some authorities make a distinction between matters of commerce and other matters, writing that the Torah prohibition applies specifically to matters of sales and commerce (see Sefer Ha-Kovetz, De’os 2:6; see also Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav, who makes special mention of deception that results in financial gain). Certainly, a merchant’s concealing a flaw in the goods he sells is considered a transgression.

One way or another, the Gemara (Chullin 94b) singles out deception as an actual prohibition, indicating that its severity goes beyond the moral imperative of ordinary falsehood: “It is forbidden to deceive others – even a non-Jew.”

Moreover, the Tosefta (Bava Kama 7:3, as cited by the Ritva and other authorities) states that of several types of thievery (according to one version of the Tosafta, there are seven types of thieves), geneivas daas is the most heinous. Ordinary theft relates to the most superficial part of man – his possessions. Geneivas daas touches his innermost layer: the feelings of his heart.

Halachic Rulings of Deception

A better picture of the prohibition can be acquired by observing some of the classic examples of geneivas daas. The source of these examples is the Gemara itself, and the cases are cited by later authorities such as the Rambam (Deos 2:6) and the Tur (Choshen Mishpat 228).

After introducing the general obligation to synchronize verbal expression with one’s inner thoughts, the Rambam adds the following:

“It is forbidden to steal the heart of creatures, even the heart of a non-Jew. How is this so? One may not sell not-kosher meat to a non-Jew, under the pretence that the meat is kosher; […] one may not plead insistently with somebody that he should come to eat with him, in the knowledge that he will not do so; […] one may not open numerous barrels in another’s presence, pretending that this is being done his honor, whereas in fact it is being done for commercial purposes. This, and anything similar – even a single word of deception – is forbidden; rather, one’s tongue should be true, one’s spirit sincere, and one’s heart pure of all corruption and crookedness.”

The common element of all these examples is that by means of some deed, a person gives a false impression about himself. In one example he causes his friend to think that he wishes to invite him, whereas in actual fact he has no intention of doing do. In another he makes believe that he is prepared to spend a great deal of money in serving his friend, whereas in actual fact this is far from his mind. The prohibition involves creating a false impression.

It is noteworthy that the Rambam does not mention any verse on which the prohibition is based. Indeed, the prohibition is entirely absent from the Book of Mitzvos, indicating his view that it is not a Torah prohibition.

Common Examples of Geneivas Daas

A common example of geneivas daas that many are all too familiar with is copying in tests. Even when there is no financial ramification, cheating in exams “steals the heart” of the examiner, who is led to believe that the examinee knows the material. Furthermore, if the examinee obtains some form of certificate through cheating, his offence may have long-term repercussions: whenever he makes use of his falsely attained certificate, he is effectively “stealing the heart” of whoever wishes to know his past results.

Another frequent application is described by the Ben Ish Chai (Ki Teitzei 9). The way of Arab townswomen was to place large open tubs of yogurt for sale, of which potential buyers could taste a sample. The Ben Ish Chai writes that those who make a ‘tasting circuit’ without intention to actually buy any yogurt transgress the prohibition of geneivas daas. He adds that they also transgress the simple prohibition of gezel (theft), because permission to taste the yogurt is only granted to potential customers, and not to those whose only wish is to eat free yogurt.

A modern-day equivalent is exploiting money-back policies offered by stores. When stores offer a return option for a particular product, they do so specifically for customers who desire to buy the product – or at least have a realistic thought of doing so – but wish to reserve the option of returning the product should they find it unsatisfactory. If the customer needs the product for one-off use and knows in advance that he is going to return it after the event, exploiting the money-back policy implies ‘stealing the heart’ of the store (if, however, it is common practice to do this, it is possible that it will no longer be considered geneivas daas. If the storeowner is Jewish there may be a problem of ribis as well).

The same is true of test-drives. One may not take a fancy car for a short spin, under a false pretext of being interested in purchasing it.

A further interesting application is given by the Sefer Chassidim (51), who writes that one may not greet a non-Jew [the more so a fellow Jew] with an insult, expressing it such a way that it appears to be a blessing. I once witnessed such an incident in Russia, where an English-speaking tourist greeted a Russian local with a smile and an insult. This is surely not the Torah way.

Guest of Honor

Although deception involves a severe prohibition, the line between transgression and mitzvah can be thin. The Gemara (Eiruvin 100b) writes that that it is proper to appease one’s spouse by declaring one’s intent to buy her an exquisite garment, expressing her stature as deserving of such. Ultimately, however, the original statement is nothing more than a wish; in reality, the husband lacks the means to buy the garment and he makes it clear that he will only buy her the garment if he has the means to do so.

We learn from the Gemara that where a person’s intent is to honor somebody else, the prohibition of geneivas daas does not apply, in spite of the initial misrepresentation involved.

This ruling is stated explicitly by the Gemara (Chullin 94a), where we find that it is forbidden to perform actions that give others a misplaced impression, such as inviting them in the knowledge that they won’t come, or creating the impression that barrels of wine were opened in their honor when they were opened for other purposes. The Gemara writes that where these actions are carried out for the genuine purpose of bringing honor to the deceived, no prohibition is transgressed.

In fact, authorities note that it is sometimes important to invite a person even where it is clear that the invitation won’t be accepted, to insure that no offence will be taken from not extending an invitation (Sema 228; Aruch Ha-Shulchan 228:3). This applies when it is common courtesy to invite strangers.

Giving a False Impression

Another important point to note is that the prohibition applies both where the false impression is actively given, or where the impression is likely and natural even if there was no active intent. However, if another party receives a false impression of his own accord, where it is not natural that such an impression should be given, there is no obligation to remedy the mistake.

For instance, consider the following case. Reuven, a close friend of Shimon’s, is invited to the wedding of his friend Shimon’s daughter. Arriving at the wedding, Reuven notices that in the adjacent hall Levi, an acquaintance from shul, is marrying off his last son. Reuven drops in to Levi’s wedding, and Levi, unaware of Reuven’s connection with Shimon, is very impressed that Reuven made the effort to come especially for him.

Although a false impression has been given, Reuven did not intend it, and took no active measure to create it – he only wanted to drop in to say mazal tov to his acquaintance. Whether the prohibition was violated would depend on circumstances. If Levi could easily imagine that Reuven was there for some other reason, and had not come especially for his wedding (based on Tosafos, Chullin 94a; concerning weddings see Titen Emes Leaakov 5:125), it would be permitted.

However, if the normal reaction would be to believe that the guest went to great pains to attend the wedding, where in truth he hadn’t, the guest would be required to reveal the true circumstances. Therefore, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zatsal, when dropping in to a wedding in Bnei Braq (he lived in Jerusalem), was careful to approach the baal ha-simcha and inform him that he was anyway in Bnei Braq for another reason, so that he should not receive the impression that he came especially.

The Question of Intention

At the same time – and by contrast with everyday lies – good intentions alone are not enough to waive the prohibition of geneivas daas.

This halachah is derived from the teaching of a Mishnah (Demai 4:4), which states that a person should not give terumah or maaser ani to a Kohen or a poor person (respectively) on Shabbos, but adds that it is permitted to feed them the terumah or maaser if it is normal for them to eat with him on Shabbos. The Mishnah adds a condition: He must first inform them that the food is terumah or maaser.

A number of commentaries (Tiferes Yisrael; Shnos Eliyahu; Mishnah Rishonah) explain that the reason the host must declare that the food is terumah is on account of the prohibition of geneivas daas. Thus, we find that in spite of the fact that there is no intention of deception – the intention is only to fulfill the mitzvah of giving terumah to a Kohen – the prohibition of geneivas daas remains in place.

In the same sense, intention to give the other person a “good feeling” is certainly not a factor in permitting the prohibition. The classic cases of geneivas daas are cases in which a person wishes making a good impression will give the other person a good feeling – but where the impression is false, it is forbidden to do so.

It is noteworthy that the Rambam does not give this interpretation, and explains rather that if the host does not inform his guests of the food’s status, the guests will think it a gift from him, and he would wrongfully derive benefit from the terumah.

Due to the fact that the prohibition is potentially a Torah transgression, it seems prudent to heed the stringent opinions, to avoid disguising a charity donation as a personal gift (see Shut Binyan Av, Vol. 4, no. 77; Titen Emes Le-Yaakov 5:2).

Some authorities, however, are lenient on this point (see Shut Maharam Schick, Yoreh De’ah 230, discussing disguising a donation of maaser money as a gift; see also Tzitz Eliezer Vol. 9, 1:4). Certainly, it is permitted to disguise the donation as a gift if the recipient will otherwise refuse to receive it (Kesuvos 67).


It is important to raise awareness of the prohibition of geneivas daas, which as we have seen is no light matter. Out of a justified desire to give others a good feeling, we often feel an inclination to give a false impression: If somebody will feel the happier for it, what is wrong?

However, the Torah forbids us from giving false impressions, and this might even be a Torah prohibition. Although there is room, on occasion and out of need, to speak falsehoods, the case of geneivas daas is more stringent, and, with a number of exceptions, one must be careful to avoid deception.

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