VaHashem Elokim Emes (Yeshayahu 44:6). Hashem is reality, the Emes. All existence is from Him alone. Lo yiyehe lecha elohim acheirim al panai (Shemos 20:2). There is no other source to success, but Hashem. Thus, while falsehood might seemingly offer instantaneous success, it is nothing but a mirage and a fleeting temptation.
Hashem created us so that we could merit enjoying His Shechina. One merits bracha from Hashem by aligning one’s Middos with the Middos of the Omnipotent, thereby becoming compatible with His Blessings. Thus, one who acts truthfully will merit bracha in his life.
In fact, the Sefer Chassidim promises that one who chooses to live within the realm of reality and takes care to speak and think only the truth, will merit that Hashem will ensure that his words and thoughts will indeed reflect reality. In other words, Hashem will actualize the brachos and thoughts of a truthful individual.
In contrast; liars and cheats are abhorred by the G-d of Truth. They are unworthy and incapable of beholding the Shechina’s countenance. Thus, while initially, a liar may enjoy an alluring gain, which is in fact the nature of sinful temptation, he will ultimately encounter a life of misfortune. Hence, the Be’er Hagola testifies (Choshen Mishpat 348), “I write this for generations: `I saw many who became wealthy because of deceit, but ultimately lost it all and left no blessing for their children.’ “
Truthfulness is not merely a noble mode of conduct. Torah literature is replete with Biblical and rabbinic exhortations to deal truthfully and desist from deceit. One of the first questions that the Heavenly tribunal will ask us is, “Were you honest in business?”
Bilaam referred to our Avos as yesharim, just. Accordingly, R. Chiya bar Aba quotes R. Yochanan as terming Sefer Bereishis- the life lessons of our Avos- as the Sefer Yesharim.
In a barbaric and egocentric environment, our Avos battled their evil inclinations and consistently guided their lives in accordance with the just Middos of Hashem, thereby introducing humanity to kindness, truthfulness and G-dly ethos.
This brings us to a number of enigmatic tales of how our Avos, the paradigmatic Yesharim, employed deceit to advance numerous causes. The Torah teaches us that under certain circumstances, falsehood may and should be employed.
Our challenge is to probe Tanach, Talmudic and Rabbinic literature in order to accurately identify the circumstances where untruth is permissible.
Avraham and Sara agreed to present themselves during their travels as siblings instead of as husband and wife in order to spare his life. Yaakov presented himself to Yitzchak as the firstborn in order to manipulate Yitzchak, into conferring the brachos upon himself instead of Eisav. After Yaakov died, the brothers lied to Yosef and told him that their father instructed that he forgive them and deal kindly with them. And perhaps most of astonishing of all, Hashem Himself lied to Avraham when he told Avraham that Sara doubted the Angel’s prediction that she would bear a child. Although she had said, “…and my husband is old,” when Hashem reported the comment to Avraham, He reported that she had said, “…and I am old.”
So when may one lie?
Even if we can justify Avraham’s dealings with Pharaoh and Avimelech by employing Dovid Hamelech’s description of an eved Hashem who uses trickery to outsmart the criminal in order to uphold justice – in the spirit of im ikeish tistapal (Tehillim 18: 27) and with a crooked man, outsmart him – we would be still be challenged to explain the following Gemara.
How do you know that Reuven may not fabricate an exaggerated claim in court against Shimon in order to pressure Shimon to admit to a portion of the claim, which in truth is the amount that Shimon really owes Reuven? From the words, “Midvar sheker tirchak.” (Maseches Shavuos 30b, see Shu”t HaRashba 3:81)
It would seem from the quotation above that one may not use trickery even to get that which he rightfully deserves.
So when may one lie?
Looking a little closer at two of the incidents, we find that Avraham defended his false representation to Avimelech by saying that in reality he and Sara were also blood relatives. Yaakov tells Yitzchak, Anochi Eisav bechorecha, I am Eisav your first born. Rashi comments that these words can be understood as Anochi, I am, he who brought you your food. [And also] Eisav bechorecha, Eisav is your firstborn.
Is the Torah telling us that one may use half-truths and duplicitous speech to fool others in order to advance one’s cause?
Let us examine a few sources and discover just when one may and may not lie. This week we will highlight four different categories, each with its own respective guidelines.
Let us begin with the Pasuk of Midvar sheker tirchak – Distance yourself from deceit. This is the context in which that pasuk appears.
Do not bend the judgment of your destitute in his law suit. Distance yourself from deceit. Do not kill one who is innocent or vindicated in court, for I will not exonerate a wicked person. You shall not take a bribe, for the bribe will blind those who can see and make righteous words crooked. (Shemos 23)
The Talmud interprets Midvar sheker tirchak as an all-encompassing directive incorporating situations in legal, interpersonal, and private life, and the word tirchak exhorts us to stay far away from falsehood, thereby conveying that lying is abhorred, be it blatant or insinuated. Nonetheless, the pasuk midvar sheker tirchak appears within the context of courtroom instructions.
As such, the Gemara delineates stringencies which one must abide by specifically in court and court-like settings, but need not – and at times should not – be upheld in other settings.
The Gemara lists thirteen examples of employing duplicity to advance one’s cause within the context of a court case or adjudicating a law/ruling. All of these are prohibited under the midvar sheker tirchak directive. Not only are blatant lies forbidden to anyone in the court (e.g. judge, witnesses, prosecutor, defendant, etc.) but within the context of the court, anything that smells of inaccuracy is flatly forbidden, even if the objective is to bring out the real truth.
Within a Beis Din setting, the Torah commands us to abide by the rules and to leave it to Hashem to ensure justice, for I have many agents to do My work (Shemos 23: 7 Rashi). You may not jeopardize the integrity of the court system even to advance your just cause. The ends do not justify the means. im ikeish tistapal is not an option within a court setting.
Tricking out of Court
As noted, lying and tricking outside of court is also prohibited. Geneivas Da’as, fooling another human being, Jew and gentile alike, is prohibited.
To Uphold Justice
Nonetheless, outside of the court setting – as in the case of Avraham and Sara to Pharaoh and to Avimelech, or the case of Yaakov’s pursuit of the brachos – emes, truth, is defined by the result rather than the approach, says R. Yaakov Kamenetsky. Since truth warranted Avraham staying alive and Yitzchak bequeathing Avraham’s spiritual inheritance to Yaakov, therefore altering their words was not only permitted to Avraham and Yaakov but was required of them. Failure to promote what is right by being a stickler for truthful words, is ultimately promoting falsehood!
A case in point.
In 2010 Rosie O’ Donnell ran for a US Senate seat in Delaware. She was a strong promoter of telling the truth. She claimed, “Telling the truth is always the right thing to do, I believe, and that’s what always gets you out of a situation.”
In an interview, Comedian Eddie Izzard pressed her on just how far she would take her anti-lying beliefs. Izzard asked O’Donnell whether or not she would lie to Nazis who showed up at her door during WWII and demanded to know if she were hiding any Jewish people in her house. O’Donnell refused to even entertain the notion of concealing the truth from Nazis in that scenario because “you never have to practice deception!“
What is the Halacha?
R. Yaakov Kamenetsky explains that as the Jew does not deserve to die in the hands of the Nazi, emes, truth, demands that one deceive the Nazi under such circumstances.
Hence, the following ruling.
A person is escaping from captivity and needs to cross the river. A greedy opportunist attempts to extort an enormous fee from the fugitive to take him across the river on his raft. The fugitive may give him his word and when he gets to the other side simply pay the opportunist the going rate and say, “I was just kidding.” (Maseches Yevamos 106A)
Such an opportunist is unjustified in his behavior. The fugitive may outsmart the crooked man.
Lying is a Biblical prohibition even if the lie does not result in gains. Some examples include spreading fictitious stories and exaggerations when people take you literally. (Maseches Nedarim 25b)
In fact, the Binyan Zion rules that a gabbai calling someone up with the wrong name transgresses midvar sheker tirchak. (Shu”t Binyan Zion HaChadashos 21)
However, outside of court setting, and when not harming or eliciting ill gotten gains, emes is a midda. (This is correct according to many. However, there are opinions that is a prohibition even outside beis din.) Midda means character trait, but also means measure. As with all middos, one must take the entire picture into account before deciding how truthful one should be. One’s middos must be measured!
Hashem teaches us that to prevent Avraham from having bad feelings about Sara’s comment, one may alter one’s report. Similarly, the brothers were permitted to attempt to generate good will between Yosef and themselves by fabricating a call for peace by their late father.
Thus, the Gemara (Maseches Bava Metzia 23b, Maseches Sanhedrin 97a. See Mahara”l’s Nesivos Olam Nesiv Ha’Emes.) teaches us that if being a stickler for the literal truth will create unnecessary hard feelings between people or a breach of tznius, or convey an air of haughtiness, or cause unwarranted harm to others, one must not stick to the literal truth.
Similarly, to generate good will between a bride and a groom, Beis Hillel permits a wedding guest to praise the bride beyond the line of accuracy.
In all of these situations, as no ill gotten gains are being elicited by the inaccuracy, one may compromise on the literal truth for the sake of generating peace, goodwill, privacy, humility, and to protect society from harm.
Even when it would otherwise be permissible to lie, Chazal are emphatic that one not do so if there is a chance that such behavior would train one to lie or would cause a Chillul Hashem.
One who trains a child to lie is guilty of limdu leshonam daber sheker(Yirmiyahu 9: 4), they taught their lips to speak falsehood.
Accordingly, one must be careful to fulfill all of his commitments to a child as failure to fulfill a commitment to a child teaches the child to lie. An adult should be careful not to lie in front of a child, even once, or encourage him to lie.
As limdu leshonam daber sheker, is a warning against developing a bad habit of lying, even an adult must take heed. Therefore, an adult may not lie regularly even for the sake of peace or another legitimate purpose, as regular behavior is habit forming.
In terms of causing a Chillul Hashem, if a case of justified lying might be viewed by unlearned Jews or gentiles as improper and, as such, degrade in their eyes or compromise their respect for Hashem, Torah and/or its students, it is forbidden to lie.
Moreover, even when telling an untruth is permissible, one should try to minimize to the best of his ability the extent of the deviation from truth emanating from his mouth. Thus, although Avraham was justified in lying to Avimelech, if he could minimize the untruth by presenting Sara as his blood relative, as she really was, he was required to do so. Yaakov who was compelled to deceive Yitzchak was nevertheless required to choose an expression that could be understood in a truthful manner as well.
In Conclusion: When May One Lie?
Out of Court
To uphold what is right
To generate peace, goodwill, protect privacy, humility, and to protect society from harm
Exceptions: To uphold what is right out of court, and inconsequential lies, are forbidden even in order to generate peace etc. under these circumstances: Children, adults on a regular basis, Chillul Hashem, or when the objective can be accomplished by minimizing the lie.