When I was studying the parsha this week I was troubled by Leah’s actions when marrying Ya’acov. It would seem that she was an accomplice to her father’s plan to fool Ya’acov. Wouldn’t even her passive role in Lavan’s chicanery constitute geneivas da’as-deceiving someone, and therefore be forbidden?
Your question is well-taken and it would seem that a comment of the Ramban would both support your question and at the same time lead us to a possible answer.
The Ramban (29, 31) is troubled by the word ‘hated’ that is used in the pasuk, “Hashem saw that Leah was hated,” and he offers two explanations. His first explanation is that Ya’acov at first really hated Leah because he felt that she should have done something to at least hint to Ya’acov that she was Leah, and thereby thwart Lavan’s chicanery. The Ramban says that Hashem had mercy on her because He knew that she only acted that way because she craved to marry Ya’acov since he was a tsaddik. Therefore, Hashem arranged for her to become pregnant and then Ya’acov dropped his plan to divorce her.
Thus, we see that your criticism of Leah was shared by Ya’acov according to the Ramban. However, we also see that Hashem in a sense endorsed her behavior and He ensured that she would not suffer as a result of her action. The Ramban explains that Hashem’s behavior resulted from the fact that she had good intentions.
It is problematic to derive halachas from the actions of even great people. As the Gemara (BB 130, B) states, “One cannot drive halachas from his rebbe’s actions,” unless the rebbe specifically says that this is the halacha. This is especially true of actions before the giving of the Torah (Matan Torah) as the Yerushalmi (cited by Tosafos (Mo’eid Katan 20A)) states (Mo’eid Katan 3, 7): “One cannot derive halachas from what transpired before Matan Torah.” Nonetheless, we can analyze the actions and see how the principles apply to us.
Therefore, we will consider the following three points. We will first clarify the source for the prohibition of geneivas da’as. Second, we will ascertain whether Leah’s passive behavior is included in the prohibition of geneivas da’as. Finally, we will discuss whether good intentions affect the prohibition.
That deceiving is forbidden is clearly written in the Gemara (Chulin 94A). The Gemara cites various actions that people do that give a false impression of friendship, and the Gemara writes that they are prohibited. Many Rishonim (Yeraim 124, Ritva Chulin 94A in the name of Tosafos and others) maintain that this is included in the Biblical injunction (Vayikro 19, 11) against stealing, since this is a form of stealing. It is stealing someone’s mind. There are other Rishonim (Smak 262) who, while agreeing that the prohibition exists, maintain that the source for the prohibition is Rabbinic.
We note that R. Eliashev (Kovetz Teshuvos 1, 159) ruled in accordance with those who maintain that the source of the prohibition is from the Torah even when the deception is carried out in a passive manner.
Rashi and Tosafos (Chulin 94B) dispute whether one who causes someone to fool himself without saying anything violates the prohibition as well. One situation that is the subject of this dispute is where a host opened a new barrel of wine for a guest when he knew that he had a customer who wished to purchase the remaining wine. Tosafos, whose opinion is authoritative, maintains that in order to avoid violating the prohibition, the host must inform his guest that he has a customer for the remaining wine, since otherwise the guest will mistakenly think that the host went out of his way and opened the new barrel especially for him even though he was at risk that the wine that remained in the barrel would sour.
Thus, we have established that even though Leah did not say anything, nevertheless, since she was aware that Ya’acov had the impression that she was Rochel, her behavior constituted deception and would be classified as geneivas da’as.
Thus, we have to consider our third issue: whether a good intention justifies deception. The impression that one gets from the Ramban’s explanation is that Hashem condoned her behavior, and that the reason is because she desired to marry a tzaddik. This implies that her good intention justified deception even at the expense of a victim, in this case Ya’acov.
We do find a specific goal that indeed justifies deception. When the goal is to attain Torah knowledge we find two types of actions that are permitted even when they involve deception. One is where someone’s goal is to acquire Torah knowledge for himself, and the second is where someone’s goal is to convey Torah knowledge to another individual.
While there are cases in the Gemoro that show that the prohibition is waived if the goal is to acquire Torah knowledge, nevertheless the Gemoro never states the principle and certainly makes no mention of a source. However, the Zohar (Yisro 31) does provide an interesting source.
The Zohar states that the source is the cantillation notes (ta’amim) on the commandment in the Torah that forbids stealing. When one reads the Ten Commandments there are actually two sets of notes. One is known as ta’am elyon, which is the way the Ten Commandments are read on Shavu’os. The other is known as ta’am tachton, which is the way we read the Ten Commandments on Shabbos as part of the weekly Torah reading. In ta’am elyon when it comes to the words lo tignov (you must not steal) there is a tipcho, which is a separating note, under the word lo. Thus, when one hears the Torah reading it sounds like we are being told two things: 1-You must not and, 2-Steal. The Zohar says that of course in general we must not steal but the Torah wishes to teach us that there are situations where certain aspects of stealing are permitted. One situation, says the Zohar, is when one must resort to deception in order to gain Torah knowledge.
We should note that the reason one can derive laws from the Torah cantillation notes is because the Gemara (Nedarim 37B) derives from a pasuk that even these were taught by Hashem to Moshe on Mt Sinai.
Now that we have a source, we must examine the applications of this exception. It is very important to stress that the exception only applies to actual Torah learning and not to preliminaries that eventually lead to Torah study. For example, Rav Moshe Feinstein (CM 2, 29) writes that for many reasons – including geneivas da’as – it is forbidden for a yeshiva to inflate the number of its students in order to receive a higher allocation from the government. Similarly, it is forbidden to relate false information to potential donors. Even though, by means of the funds received, the Yeshiva will be able to teach more people Torah, nevertheless, they must not use deception to acquire the funds since obtaining the money is only a preliminary and does not constitute Torah study itself.
One situation where the Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 3, 9) permits one to deceive in order to acquire Torah is where someone knows that he will not obtain an answer to his question unless he pretends that he is in a practical situation where he needs to know the answer in order to know how to proceed. The Yerushalmi actually criticizes an Amora for failing to untruthfully state that he needed to apply the knowledge for a practical situation and, therefore, he remained with an unanswered question i.e. with a gap in his Torah knowledge.
The Sha’arei Zohar uses this Zohar to explain an apparently strange anecdote in the Gemara (Chagiga 13A). The Gemara relates that R Yosef desired to understand what is written in the Torah about ma’asei Bereishis (the secrets of creation), and so he implied to the other amoraim who knew this that if they first teach this to him, he would teach them parts of the hidden Torah that he knew and they did not know. (According to the Rambam (Introduction to Mishnayos Zeraim) he explicitly told them that he would teach them this part.) The Gemara relates that after they taught him ma’asei Bereishis, they asked him to teach them what he knew. R. Yosef replied by citing a pasuk that forbade him from teaching them what he had originally agreed to teach them. The Sha’arei Zohar says that based on this Zohar, R. Yosef’s deceptive behavior was justified since his goal was to acquire Torah knowledge.
The second class of actions where deception is permitted for the sake of acquiring Torah knowledge is ruled by the Rambam (Talmud Torah 4, 6). He rules that a teacher of Torah may use deception in order to cause his students to learn better or more. The Kesef Mishna writes that the source for the Rambam is several episodes in the Gemara where the Gemara justifies the deceptive behavior of the Torah teacher with the explanation, “He did it in order to sharpen his students.”
For example, the Gemara (Brachos 33B) relates that Rabba praised a person who acted incorrectly, in the presence of his student, Abaye. The Gemara justifies Rabba’s action with the comment that Rabba wanted to sharpen Abaye by seeing if Abaye would pick up the person’s mistake. Thus, we see that he was permitted to employ deception in order to better educate his student.
In conclusion: Misleading someone for personal gain (monetary or friendship) is strictly forbidden and according to many the source is a pasuk in the Torah. However, misleading someone in order to acquire Torah knowledge either for himself or for someone else is permitted and even laudable. In the coming article, we will study whether it is permitted to deceive someone in order to perform a mitzvah, which is what Leah did.