In this week’s parasha we read the description of Yehuda’s encounter with Yosef and his excuse for being unable to present his lost brother. Rashi questions how Yehuda was permitted to lie about his brother’s whereabouts and say that he had died. In this week’s article we will touch upon issues of honesty. When is lying permitted and even obligatory, and when is it forbidden? How and when do we reprimand a child caught fibbing? How do you praise a bride when there is really nothing good to say about her? Are ambiguous statements also forbidden? Should we be telling people what they want to hear, or is it nothing but the bare truth, at whatever price? How do you tell someone that his relative is no longer alive? Can one lie about another’s whereabouts to protect a frail relative? Of this and more, in the coming article.
Sources in the Parasha
In this week’s parasha we read how Yehuda tells Yosef, the Egyptian ruler: “We have an old father and a child of his old age, and his brother is dead” (Bereshis 44:20). Yosef, Binyamin’s brother has died, claims Yehuda. How could he have been permitted to tell a blatant lie, knowing very well that Yosef had not died but was sold into slavery?
Rashi poses this question, and explains the reason: “Out of fear he made a false statement. He said [to himself], ‘If I tell him that he is alive, he will say, ‘Bring him to me.’” Since bringing Yosef was impossible, in telling him that Yosef had died he effectively blocked the ruler from asking for him. This explanation appears in the Midrash (Raba 93:20; Yalkut Shimon, Vayigash 151; Sechel Tov, Bereshis 44:20) with a slight difference: the wording in the Midrash is not the same as it appears in Rashi. Rashi writes that: “he made a false statement”, and the Midrash writes: “a man of Yehuda’s stature said something obscure.”
The Kasv V’Hakabala (Bereshis 44:20) points out this difference, explaining that in saying Yosef had died, Yehuda was referring to the Hebrew concept of death, which can also describe a person who lost his position or was demoted. Chazal describe four groups of living people as essentially dead, for various reasons (Avoda Zara 5a): the blind; the poor; the leper; and the childless. The Zohar maintains that a person who was demoted from his position is also called dead.
The Chida (Pnei David, Vayigash 12) follows along the same lines, explaining that Yehuda’s assertion of his brother’s death referred to a spiritual death – since he was sold, Yehuda assumed Yosef no longer followed his forefather’s ways, and was, therefore, spiritually dead. Rabbi Tzdok Hakohen of Lublin follows this explanation.
Apparently, the Midrashim weren’t loath of Yehuda lying, but rather for purposely misleading the ruler. Despite that fact that he did, technically, say the truth, the Midrash sees it unfitting for a man of Yehuda’s stature to speak in ambiguous terms. Therefore, it is forced to explain that his words were said only to block out a demand to present that lost brother.
Speech and Class
Why wasn’t it befitting a person of his stature? What does stature have to do with telling the truth? Yehuda had the Mida of Malchus, the Attribute of Kingship. A person of his position speaks precise, clear words, as the Gemara (Bave Basra 3b) writes: “If the government says it will uproot mountains, it will uproot mountains and not retract its word.” Likewise, we find (Eiruvin 53b) that the Tribe of Yehuda is known for their clear and succinct language, clearly comprehended by all. Apparently speaking in ambiguous terms is unfitting for the ruling class.
Compelled to Lie
Midrash Agada (44:20), though, sees the content of the conversation as more than just vague or misrepresented content. This is the account of the conversation that took place, as it appears in this Midrash:
Yosef said to him, “Did you see him dead?”
Yehuda answered, “Dead.”
“Did you stand on his grave?”
“Did you scatter dust on his eyes?” asked Yosef, to which Yehuda responded, “No.”
“But why do you lie to me? Here, Yosef is with me.”
According to this recorded conversation Yehuda apparently lied outright, claiming he saw Yosef dead and stood on his grave.
According to this Midrash, although Yehuda needed to lie, when asked if he scattered dust on his eyes, he reverted back to telling the truth, because by this point he knew the ruler could no longer ask him to bring Yosef in. This teaches us that even when one is forced to lie for whatever reason, as soon as he can stop lying, he must do so. It takes a lot of self-awareness to know when to stop lying and not fall into the sticky trap of dishonesty.
The Torah prohibits lying in the pasuk: “Distance yourself from a false matter” (Shemos 23:7). When is this prohibition applicable, and what price is worth paying for it? When is lying required? The topic of honesty and dishonesty will be discussed in a series of two articles. This week we will discuss how the prohibition is applied, and in the second installment we will discuss the prohibitions and obligation of sticking to the truth.
“There was a long snake coming out of the wall, and I jumped on it and chopped off his head with a rock!” you overhear a six-year-old telling his fined. Are children’s tall tales considered lies? Are educators obligated to point out the difference to children? Does the Torah obligation of: “Distance yourself from a false matter” (Shemos 23:7) include childhood fantasies?
The Yereim (235) maintains that the above pasuk demands staying away from anything that may incur damage to another person. The includes anything that may, even in the long run, or by a fair chance, cause a Dayan to alter his judgement. The Yereim goes on to list many examples for this (Shavous 30b). He, however, explicitly points out that the Torah does not prohibit lying that will not cause monetary damage or loss to anyone. Therefore, while educators must certainly teach children to tell the truth, the prohibition of “Distance yourself from a false matter” does not apply to children’s fairytales.
Apparently, the Rambam also follows this approach. In counting the positive and negative mitzvos, “Distance yourself from a false matter” does not have its own listing. Instead, it appears under the umbrella obligation requiring Dayanim to hear both sides in the presence of both litigants so as not to become biased.
Elsewhere (Yad Hachazaka, Toen V’nita’an 16:10; Sanhedrin 21:7; and more), the Rambam includes the prohibition of “Distance yourself from a false matter” in actions which will cause a Dayan or litigant to take money through illegitimate claims, a false witness, or any other action that causes an altered judgement.
When he teaches about telling the truth the Rambam writes (Hilchos De’os 2:6):
A person is forbidden to act in a smooth-tongued and luring manner. He should not speak one thing outwardly and think otherwise in his heart. Rather, his inner self should be like the self which he shows to the world. What he feels in his heart should be the same as the words on his lips.
It is forbidden to deceive people, even a non-Jew…It is forbidden to utter a single word of deception or fraud. Rather, one should have only truthful speech, a proper spirit and a heart pure from all deceit and trickery.
Here, the Ramban does not mention the pasuk “Distance yourself from a false matter.” This teaches us that while speaking the truth is worthy and correct behavior, it is not a Torah prohibition.
The obligation to keep promises, though, appears in another halacha (De’os 5:13): “A Torah Sage [should conduct] his business dealings with honesty and good faith. When [his] answer is ‘no,’ he says, ‘no;’ when [his answer] is ‘yes,’ he says, ‘yes.’… Whoever does all the above and their like, of him [Yeshayahu 49:3] states: ‘And He said to me, ‘You are My servant, Yisrael, through whom I will be glorified.’”
Many other Rishonim seem to follow this understanding.
Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsky follows this approach regarding past actions. As to future actions and promises, although they don’t come under the prohibition of “Distance yourself from a false matter,” they do come under Chazal’s drashot of other psukim. He proves this from many quotes in the Gemara, and issues this ruling l’halacha.
The Rashbatz (Zohar Harakia 59) counts refraining from uttering even one word of mistruth one of the positive mitzvos, permitting lying only for the purpose of preserving peace. He wonders why in compiling the list of the 613 mitzvos many rabbis didn’t include the mitzva of speaking truth, pointing out the sources who do count it as its own mitzva.
The Smag (Ase 107) lists “Distance yourself from a false matter” as one of the positive mitzvos, explaining how lies can damage others, and deceptive behavior can cause additional lies or deception. He adds that slanting the truth is permitted for the sake of peace (Yevamos 65b) as well as allowing people to hear what they want to hear. Apparently, he understands that even a harmless lie is forbidden under the prohibition of “Distance yourself from a false matter”, unless it appeases people or sets them at ease.
The Charedim goes even further (Ase 4:26). He explains the pasuk “Distance yourself from a false matter” includes all lies from white to black. He permits uttering a lie only if it will actually bring peace.
The Mesilas Yesharim (chapter 11) and Chaffetz Chaim (Sefas Tamim 6) list the different levels of mistruths. One of the most severe ones is a person who lies for no reason, simply for the entertainment. Higher up is one who usually tells the truth but mixes in some fabricated bit or details. These lies are included in the Torah’s prohibition of “Distance yourself from a false matter”. In mixing up fact and fantasy, these people have lost the sense of reality. A lower-level liar is one who lies for financial gain – while transgressing a Torah prohibition, he hasn’t perverted his sense of reality. He knows the truth, and his failure stems from succumbing to his lust for money.
The Chaffetz Chaim follows this ruling in his halachic approach: in every word of mistruth one transgresses the torah prohibition of “Distance yourself from a false matter”.
The Yereim (135) argues with the approach that sees the prohibition of “Distance yourself from a false matter” as applying only to wrongly extracting money. His argument is based on the Gemara (Kesuvos 17a) that discusses how one praises a bride:
What does one recite while dancing at her wedding? Beis Shammai say: One recites praise of the bride as she is. And Beis Hillel say: One recites: A fair and attractive bride. Beis Shammai said to Beis Hillel: In a case where the bride was lame or blind, does one say with regard to her: A fair and attractive bride? But the Torah states: “Distance yourself from a false matter” (Shemos 23:7). Beis Hillel said to Beis Shammai: According to your statement, with regard to one who acquired an inferior acquisition from the market, should another praise it and enhance its value in his eyes or condemn it and diminish its value in his eyes? You must say that he should praise it and enhance its value in his eyes and refrain from causing him anguish.
The Yereim explains that tricking a man into thinking his bride has qualities she doesn’t have may cause him damage. Therefore, according to Beis Shammai, it is forbidden.
We don’t learn here of the actual answer that Beis Hillel answered Beis Shammai to their claim of the Torah’s warning to “Distance yourself from a false matter”, but in Maseches Kala (Rabbasi 9:1) Beis Hillel explain that every bride must have some merits, and if not for her own deeds, for those of her forefathers. Even if the person offering praise knows nothing about those forefathers, every Jew presumably has done good deeds.
To this claim, Beis Shammai answer: had the pasuk read “Distance yourself from falsehood” Beis Hillel’s approach would have been correct, but since the Torah warns: “Distance yourself from a false matter” we learn that every single word we utter must be fully, and 100%, truthful. Beis Hillel answered with the end of the pasuk “And do not kill a truly innocent person or one who has been declared innocent…” The only falsehood that the Torah prohibits is one that causes undeserved damages.
Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsky (Maseches Kutim Metaher 30) explains this Gemara: apparently Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai disagreed if the Torah’s prohibition of “Distance yourself from a false matter” includes any kind of lie or only one that damages people. According to Beis Hillel only mistruth that causes monetary damage or accustoms one to speaking falsehood is forbidden. A lie meant for another’s benefit is not one we are wanted to keep away from.
The Shevet Halevi (volume V, chapter 2; VIII: 283) explains that according to Beis Shammai, even if the words of praise could be true, since those hearing it don’t necessarily understand it in that manner, it is considered a lie. However Beis Hillel maintain that the Torah didn’t forbid distorting facts when they could be true in some way, if done for a reason. He, therefore, deduces from here that lying for the sake of preserving one’s dignity is permitted even if the listener has no actual gain from it, provided the speaker can intend his words differently, even if the listener understands something else.
Praising a Bride
The Ritva rules (Ksuvos 17a) that one is permitted to lie in praising a bride because it increases peace in the world. The Maharal (Chidushei Aggdos, Kesuvos 16b) and Taz (EH 65) explain that if a groom chose a bride, he presumably sees her positive qualities and therefore she can be praised for them. Similarly, the Prisha (EH 65:1) and Beis Shmuel (65) write that here, the words of praise are not included in “Distance yourself from a false matter” because in praising her the speaker can think about a certain quality which he deems praiseworthy, etc.
Dead or Alive
The Maharam of Rothenberg (Hilchos Semachos 152) writes that while it is improper to inform people of their loved ones’ passing in another country, one who inquiries about their health should not be lied and told they are living when they are not, as the Torah warns “Distance yourself from a false matter.” This halacha is mentioned also in the Shulchan Aruch (YD 402:12) and other poskim (Chochmas Adam 171, and others).
One must always accustom himself to speak the truth, and only the truth. While the Torah, according to some opinions only prohibits using mistruth to extract illegitimate money, all false words lower the speaker’s aversion to falsehood and increase the likelihood of behaving dishonestly also in a financial context. Therefore, parents should certainly, and with all due consideration, teach children the difference between reality and fantasy.
The only context to allow speaking mistruth is when a person’s dignity or emotional wellbeing is at stake, or to cause or preserve peace, if there are no other means.