We are prohibited, as we have discussed over past weeks, to lie and deceive. Our words, our deeds and all our ways must be true. In the present article we will deepen our perception of truth, as defined by the Torah and Chazal, extending it even to cases in which it is forbidden to tell the truth, and the correct course of action is to deviate from it.
As we will explain, this should not be construed as a departure from the idea of truth, which guides us in all our ways. On the contrary, it is a reflection of the beauty of Torah, which gives the concept of ‘truth’ a depth reaching beyond the everyday notion of telling the truth. In tandem, we allow the halachos themselves, as detailed below, to paint the harmonious picture of truth as seen through the prism of Torah.
The first and most fundamental reason for which it is permitted to bend the truth is for the sake of Shalom. How does this permission to deviate from the truth play out in concrete cases? It is permitted to tell an outright lie? How is Shalom defined for purposes of deviation from the truth? These, among other questions, are discussed below.
Changing for the Sake of Shalom
The Gemara (Yevamos 65b) teaches that one may change his speech for the sake of Shalom. This lesson is learned from the sons of Yaakov Avinu who, after the death of their father, told Yosef that Yaakov had commanded him to forgive his brothers for their sin against him. Rashi explains that Yaakov never commanded such a thing, but they changed for the sake of Shalom—for the sake of family peace that they thought under threat.
The Gemara proceeds to cite Rabbi Nosson, who taught that it is in fact a mitzvah to change one’s words for the sake of Shalom. This is derived from the Divine instruction to Shmuel, who feared the wrath of Saul if he anointed David as king. Hashem commanded him to take an animal with him and to declare that his journey was to bring a sacrifice before G-d, rather than the real purpose of anointing David as king.
The third lesson of the Gemara reveals the full depth of the matter: even Hashem Himself changed for the sake of Shalom. This is derived from the famous passage of Sarah’s laughter, in which Hashem reported to Avraham that the cause of her outburst was her own advanced age, rather than the age of her husband.
An interesting and common application of this principle is a case in which Reuven spoke lashon hara behind Shimon’s back. Later, Shimon confronts Reuven, asking him if he indeed spoke lashon hara about him. There is no obligation on Reuven to give a positive reply, because this is a clear case of promoting peace and harmony between the two.
The question, however, is whether Reuven can atone for his lashon hara without admitting it to Shimon and asking forgiveness.
If the lashon hara has caused concrete damage to Shimon, Reuven must admit his sin, for the only way of atoning is by securing Shimon’s explicit forgiveness. This is because the sin is considered to be between man and his fellow, and not only between man and Hashem. But when no damage has been caused (so that the sin is limited to the realm of between man and Hashem), the opinion of the Chafetz Chayim (Be’er Mayim Chayim 4:48) is that Reuven need not reveal his sinful speech to Shimon.
Another common scenario, which is noted in Sefer Chassidim (336), refers to the case of a mother who tells her son to perform a particular task. After he complies, the father angrily asks his son who told him to perform the task, clearly disapproving of what was done.
Sefer Chassidim rules that the son should not say that his mother gave him the instructions, since this will cause tension between the parents. This is likewise ruled by the Chayei Adam (67:15), the Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh De’ah 240:41), and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (143:6).
Occasional Departures Alone
In spite of the general permission (or even obligation) to depart from the truth for the sake of Shalom, we find in the Yam Shel Shlomo (Yevamos 6:46) that this should be done only on an occasional basis. He explains that on a regular basis one should not depart from the truth even for the sake of Shalom, for this invokes the verse, “They taught themselves a tongue of falsehood” (Yirmiyahu 9:4).
This principle is derived from an anecdote mentioned in the Gemara (Yevamos 63a). The wife of Rav used to give her husband a hard time: when he would ask for beans she would cook lentils, and vice versa. When his son Chiya grew up, Rav sent him to deliver the apparently futile instructions to his wife. Yet to Rav’s great surprise, his request was fulfilled time and again, exactly in accordance with his orders.
When he expressed his surprise to his son, the boy revealed the secret: he had simply reversed the father’s requests, asking for the very opposite of whatever Rav wanted. If Rav wanted lentils, his son would ask for beans, and if beans, his son would request lentils. Rav was pleased with the initiative, exclaiming that he should have thought of it himself—but he nevertheless chastised his son with the words of the verse: They taught themselves a tongue of falsehood.
From the silence of other authorities, however, it seems that perhaps, the permission to deviate from the truth for the sake of Shalom applies even when one is forced to lie on a regular basis. This can perhaps be proved from Aharon Hakohen, who used to resolve quarrels by telling each party of the deep remorse felt by the other party, despite this remorse being non-existent (Avos de’Rabbi Nosson 12:3). This apparently took place on a regular basis.
As for the telling-off that Rav gave his son, it can be suggested that the case of Rav and his wife was not a true case of Shalom (the son was not planning to keep his scheme secret), but rather a creative attempt to fulfill the wish of the father. For this purpose, it is improper to deviate from the truth, at least not on a regular basis. For Shalom, however, one may (and must) speak whatever it takes to bring peace and accord between brothers.
Extending Shalom? Dancing Before the Bride
“How should one dance before the bride?” (Kesubos 17b) What should one say before her? The opinion of Beis Shamai is that one should praise her for what she is: A bride as she is. Beis Hillel, however, maintain that all brides should receive the same praise: A good-looking and pious bride.
Beis Shamai 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 in his eyes or degrade it in his eyes?—You should surely praise it!” The halacha (Even HaEzer 65:1) follows the opinion of Beis Hillel: A good-looking and pious bride.
The response of Beis Hillel is perhaps convincing, but it does not seem to directly address the question of Beis Shamai. Surely, the Torah teaches that one must distance himself from falsehood?
The Ritva explains the answer: “The principle of distancing oneself from falsehood does not apply to anything said for the sake of Shalom.” We learn from here that any form of appeasement, such as the example given by the Gemara of praising someone’s poor acquisition, falls under the category of Shalom. As the Gemara concludes, the Sages derived from here that one should always maintain peaceful harmony with his fellows—even at the expense of speaking a falsehood.
Many Poskim, however, make no mention of the Ritva, and find the teaching of the Gemara difficult—surely one must distance oneself from falsehood? Commenting on the same ruling halacha, the Chelkas Mechokek, Beis Shmuel, Prisha, Taz and Aruch Hashulchan all explain that the permission given to deviate from the truth is limited to cases in which the deviation is not explicit, and the words of praise can be interpreted in several ways.
In the case of a bride, we find a source for this approach from Maseches Kalah (chap. 10). In response to the question of Beis Shammai, Beis Hillel retort that the bride is indeed beautiful—“Perhaps she is beautiful in her deeds, perhaps beautiful in her genealogy and pious [in her ways].” The Maharal (Nesiv Haemet 2) follows a similar path—“We do not come to praise her for her beauty, rather that there is some virtue in her, for her husband chose to marry her and she found favor in his eyes.”
The Maharal explains that the same is true of a purchase. One may praise an acquisition before its buyer, even if the purchase is in fact a poor one, since it has an element of virtue, at least in the eyes of the purchaser himself. To state an absolute falsehood, however, which has no side of truth whatsoever, remains prohibited. This is contrary to the reasoning of the Ritva who assumes that if the case falls under the category of Shalom, it is permissible to say even an outright falsehood.
Telling Outright Lies
Yet, we do find instances in which the Gemara records cases of outright lies for the purpose of cheering up the destitute and raising the spirits of the downtrodden.
After Rabbi Akiva was married, for instance, he and his wife lived in great poverty. To relieve their anguish, Eliyahu took a human form, knocked on their door, and asked for some hay, which he required 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 than they (Nedarim 50b).
As clear from the Gemara (Bava Metzia 114b; Eiruvin 43), when Eliyahu takes the form of a human being he is obliged to follow all the laws of the Torah. It thus appears that one is permitted to tell an absolute lie—as the case of Eliyahu—for the sake of raising another’s low spirits. Rabbi Yitzchak Silver (Sefer Emet Kneh) thus derives that if someone goes bankrupt, one may tell him, “I too went bankrupt once, and lost double the amount”—even though this is untrue. Likewise, if someone fails a test, one may tell him, “I too failed the test, and scored even worse than you did.”
There is, however, room to question this. In the opinion of several authorities, we learned that one may not tell an outright lie when dancing before a bride, despite the benefit that will arise from speaking it. In their opinion, the case of Eliyahu, in which he told an absolute falsehood, must be considered a full case of Shalom (so that it is permitted to speak an outright falsehood)—by contrast with 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 falsehood for the sake of Shalom. In the case of a failed driving test and the like, which is somewhat different from a regular case of Shalom, it may only be permitted to say a statement that has some element of truth.
Of Truth and Falsehood
In fact, the Aruch Laner (Yevamos 65a) goes a step further, entirely questioning the permission given to deviate from the truth for the sake of Shalom. Surely the Torah states that one must distance oneself from falsehood? Are there exceptions to this rule?
Because of his question, the Aruch Laner writes that permission to speak falsehoods for the sake of Shalom is limited to an ambiguous statement, which is open to interpretation in two ways. An outright lie remains prohibited even when true Shalom is at stake.
As we have seen, the consensus of authorities over all generations is that one may tell outright falsehoods when Shalom is at stake, without fearing the instruction to distance oneself from falsehood. Midvar sheker tirchak does not apply to cases of Shalom.
It is important to understand the rationale behind this. It is not simply that the ends justify the means—an approach foreign to the Torah. In other Torah or Rabbinic prohibitions, we are given no leeway for transgression, whatever the worthiness of the ends. Rather, the heart of the matter lies is the definition of truth.
When we define truth and falsehood with earthly, mundane parameters, then a word of falsehood is a lie, irrespective of whether it brings harmony between brethren or not. But using Torah parameters, we discover that even a word of apparent falsehood can be a vehicle for ultimate truth.
Emes refers to a human expression of an initial source. Telling the truth (such as in testimony) involves transferring that source by word of mouth, while living the truth involves living a life rooted in a source that is forever true. This idea is conveyed by the letters of the Hebrew word emes: the final Tav (the human word or action) expresses the first Aleph (the true source).
Chazal speak of changing for the sake of Shalom. In so doing, we replace one root, one source, for another. Rather than being truthful to the earthly facts of the matter, we are truthful to the great principle of Shalom. This is somewhat similar to the explanation given by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. I, p. 94), who writes that truth is that which accords with the will of Hashem, and falsehood is that which does not.
Though deviating from the regular concept of truth, our words of Shalom are truthful to another, more elevated source. Chazal urge us to rise from our everyday conception of truth and falsehood, leaving it for a Torah outlook that is infinitely more refined—infinitely truer.