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Nothing But The Truth – Part II


In this week’s article we will delve deeper into the truth of the matter – or rather, falsehood: when is lying permitted or even a mitzva? Did G-d ever deviate from the truth, and for what reason? Lying, even when permitted, carries an additional danger. What is it, and why is lying so detrimental? Do promises given to young children have to be kept? Why is it harder to tell the truth after telling a lie? What can be done to remedy the negative effects of falsehood when lying is necessary? Of this and more in the coming article.


In the end of this week’s parasha we read: “Yosef’s brothers realized that their father had died, and they said, ‘Perhaps Yosef will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him.’ So they commanded [messengers to go] to Yosef, to say, ‘Your father commanded [us] before his death, saying, ‘So shall you say to Yosef, ‘Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the G-d of your father.’ Yosef wept when they spoke to him” (Bereshis 50:15-17). Yosef’s holy brothers told him that Yaakov wanted him to forgive them for selling him into slavery. Did Yaakov actually say that?

Lying for Peace’s Sake

The Gemara (Yevamos 65b) says that no, Yaakov didn’t directly instruct the brothers anything on the matter. They sent this message in order to preserve peace in the family. This is the source permitting making false statements for the sake of peace.

The Ein Yaakov (Yevamos 65b) points out that this lesson could have been deduced from the psukim mentioned in last week’s parasha, where Yehuda stated that his brother, Yosef, had died. Why is this additional source necessary for determining the halacha? The Ein Yaakov answers that here we see that the brothers quoted something Yaakov supposedly said. Where necessary for making peace, one can even say in one’s name something that he never actually said.

Lying — A Mitzva

The Gemara adds that where dishonesty can serve as a peace-making tool, doing so would actually be a mitzva. When Shmuel set out to anoint David, he was afraid the residents of Beit Lechem would turn him in to King Shaul as a rebel. When he expressed his concern to Hashem, Hashem told him: “You shall take a heifer with you, and you shall say, ‘I have come to slaughter (a sacrifice) to the Lord’” (Shmuel I 16:2).

On another occasion, even G-d Himself deviated from the truth when marital harmony was at stake. When reporting Sara’s words, G-d changed them to preserve Avraham’s dignity. Although Sarah said: “My master is old” (Bereshis 18:12) when Hashem reported her words she said :“Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?” (Bereshis 18:13).

Last week’s article explained the difference between lying for financial gain and lying for no reason at all, and the nature of the Torah’s prohibition of: “Distance yourself from a false matter” (Shemos 23:7). This week we will focus on the prohibition to lie, and then the occasions in which lying is absolutely necessary, and even a mitzva.

Pathological Lying

In last week’s article we learned that Beis Shammai forbid praising a bride for qualities she doesn’t have under the prohibition of: “Distance yourself from a false matter”. This week we will focus on one of the main proofs that support the claim that the prohibition of “Distance yourself from a false matter” only refers to extracting money dishonestly.

The Gemara (Yevamos 63a) tells of Rav’s wife who made his life miserable. When he asked for a dish with lentils, she would cook himtzi (a legume). When he asked for himtzi, she would cook lentils. Chiya, Rav’s eldest son, would send her the wrong message in order to generate the requested dish. When he saw his wife was making what he asked for, Rav reacted with joy, “I see mother has changed.”

“I am the one who changed the orders,” replied Chiya. “When you tell me you want lentils, I ask mother to cook himtzi, and then she rushes to prepare lentils, which is just what you wanted.”

Rav was not pleased with his son’s solution. “Although you mean well, it is forbidden to lie,” he taught his son. “Yirmiyahu the Prophet teaches us, ‘Indeed, they deceive one another and do not speak the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies, they commit iniquity (until) they are weary’” (Yirmiyahu 9:4). When you lie, even if it for a good reason, it becomes a habit which you eventually lose track of and can no longer control. Then, you could find yourself lying even when it will cause dishonest extraction of monies.”

Similarly, the Gemara (Succah 46b) writes that one is forbidden to tell his son he will give him something and then go back on his promise, quoting the above cited pasuk.

These two sections of Gemara teach us that while lying for reasons other than financial ones may not be a Torah prohibition, getting into the habit of telling lies results in loss of all order in the world. Although it may begin with a harmless little white lie, it ends with complete corruption of the entire human charachter.

Psychologically we know that a little white lie can lead to pathological lying which is the chronic behavior of compulsive or habitual lying. A pathological liar seems to lie for no apparent reason and requires extensive therapy in order to be cured of it, if at all.

Chovos Halevavos (Sha’ar 7:9) describes the pathological liar as one addicted to lying. Curing addictions is extremely difficult, as Yirmiyahu the Prophet writes: “Will a Cushite change his skin, or a leopard his spots? So will you be able to improve, you who have become accustomed to do evil” (Yirmiyahu 13:23) – just like a leopard cannot change his spots, and a colored man cannot change his skin color, so too, those who have made evil their habit, find it impossible to break. They have become addicted, or in the Prophet’s terms “enslaved” to their addiction, and can no longer change their ways.

In light of the above we can understand the Meiri (Yevamos 63a): Rav told his son Chiya: “Although you meant well and for the sake of peace, I forgive mother for what she does to me. However, it is more important that you don’t get into the habit of telling lies.”

In conclusion, we have learned that even where there is no prohibition of lying, there is always the prohibition of getting into the habit of lying – which is forever forbidden. Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsky follows this approach (Maseches Kutim 2).

The Ramchal (Meslias Yesharim 11) and Chafetz Chaim (Sfas Tamim 6), though, see getting into the habit of lying a more severe prohibition than the prohibition of: “Distance yourself from a false matter” because one who succumbs to the temptation one time still stands a chance to repent and change his ways. Curing an addiction is much more difficult.

Furthermore, in their opinion the prohibition of “Distance yourself from a false matter” includes any kind of lie, whether or not someone loses something as a result. In their opinion, lying for no reason is an even more severe prohibition, because while lying for a reason includes additional prohibitions, the liar has not become addicted and can easily repent. A compulsive liar has lost his conscience and is entrenched in evil, entering himself into the Class of Liars, one of the four classes that will not greet the Shechinah.

Truth Leads to Truth; Falsehood Leads to Falsehood

Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu writes (Eliyahu Zuta, chapter 3) that one who invests effort and becomes, even for a short time, a tzaddik who is scrupulous to only speak the truth, is sent an angel who accompanies him and helps him continue on the Path of Truth. And the opposite, too, is true; one who lies is sent an angel who tells him lies and drives him to continue lying. One who follows the mediocre path – lying on occasion — is sent an angel who helps him follow the mediocre path, as we find (Yirmiyahu 17:10) “I, the Lord, search the heart, test the kidneys, to give everyone according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds”, and in Tehilim: “With a kind one, You show Yourself kind, with a sincere man, You show Yourself sincere. With a pure one, You show Yourself pure, but with a crooked one, You deal crookedly” (18:26-27).

The Zohar, on the pasuk: “Distance yourself from a false matter” explains that when a tzadik comes to judgement he is judged by the Good Inclination, and therefore will always merit in kind; and an evil person is judged by the Evil Inclination. A mediocre person is judged by both Good and Evil Inclinations. The more we try to stick to the truth, that much more we will be judged by merciful angels.

This explains why it is so difficult to extract ourselves from the liar’s loop – it’s not our imagination that one lie leads to another. The Zohar explains it on the spiritual plane, and we experience it in reality: falsehood only results in more lies, and an effort to break free and speak the truth allows you to continue on the path of the just. Or, as Mark Twain famously said: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

Alternative Facts vs. Absolute Truth

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 97a) writes that before Moshiach comes, the truth will be absent (ne’ederet). The Gemara explains the word ne’ederet in the phonological sense: the truth will be adarim adarim – separated into flocks. It is interesting to observe this exact phenomena today — there are numerous paths in Avodas Hashem. Many groups serve G-d to the best of their abilities, and all are true (obviously excluding those who purposely warp the Torah to accommodate their desires), while often entirely different. While each tries to serve G-d in the best possible way, there is no one path to Sinai.

So, is there one absolute truth, or not? The Gemara answers with a cryptic story:

Rava says: Initially I would say that there is no truth anywhere in the world. There was a certain one of the Sages, and Rav Tavut is his name, and some say Rav Tavyomei is his name, who was so honest that if they were to give him the entire world, he would not deviate from the truth. He said to me:

“One time I happened to come to a certain place, and Truth is its name, and its residents would not deviate from the truth in their statements, and no one from there would die prematurely. I married a woman from among them, and I had two sons from her. One day my wife was sitting and washing her hair. Our neighbor came and knocked on the door. I thought: It is not proper conduct to tell the neighbor that my wife is bathing. I said to her: ‘She is not here.’ Since I deviated from the truth my two sons died.

The people residing in that place came before me and said: ‘What is the meaning of this?’

I said to them: ‘This was what happened, and I told them the story.’

They said to me: ‘Please leave our place and do not provoke premature death upon us.’”

If only we’d stick to the whole and absolute truth life could be lived to its fullest.

Lying When Necessary

An example of an occasion in which lying was necessary appears in the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 22b):

Once, the Boethusians tried to mislead the Sages regarding to the day of the new moon. They hired two people for four hundred dinars to testify falsely that they had seen the new moon on the thirtieth day of the month. One of them was a actually a member of the Pharisees and connected to the Sages, while the other was one of theirs.

When they went in to testify, their witness submitted his testimony that he had seen the new moon, and then he left. When our witness came to testify, they said to him, in the customary manner: “Describe how you saw the moon.”

He said to them: “I was ascending in Ma’ale Adumim and I saw that the new moon was crouched between two rocks. Its head was like that of a calf, its ears were like those of a kid, its horns were like those of a deer, and its tail was lying between its thighs. And I looked at it and was frightened and I fell backward. And if you do not believe me that this is what I saw, there are two hundred dinars wrapped in my cloak that were paid to me to deliver this testimony.”

Realizing that the testimony of the first witness was also false, the Sages said to him: “Who persuaded you to act in this manner?”

He said to them: “I heard that the Boethusians were seeking to mislead the Sages, and I said to myself: ‘I will go and hire myself out to give false testimony, and I will inform the Sages of the truth, lest unworthy people come and mislead the Sages.’

The Sages said to him: “The two hundred dinars that you received from the Boethusians are given to you as a gift. Although you did not carry out your mission, the court is authorized to declare the money ownerless and award it to you. And the one who hired you shall be stretched out on the post for flogging.”

The man had positive intentions. He wanted to save the Sages from accepting a false witness. In hiring himself for the job he was forced to testify falsely, itself a forbidden action. He satisfied his dilemma by testifying nonsense – since those who hired him didn’t require him to give a sensible testimony, he was free to make up whatever he wanted. He wasn’t liable of testifying falsely in court since nonsense in not a false testimony, neither was he guilty of intentionally failing his mission. Apparently, here, his behavior was commendable, despite the lie it involved.

Only the Truth, Even When Lying is Possible

From the psukim mentioned at the beginning of this article the Gemara learns (Yevamos 65b) that lying for the sake of peace is permitted. The Gemara, though, doesn’t use the term “lying” here, but rather “changing for the sake of peace.” Why?

The Aruch Laneir (Yevamos 65b), Ben Ish Chai (ibid), and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld (Shlmat Chaim, assorted issues, chapter 66) explain that the brothers didn’t actually lie – they just “changed the truth” to preserve peace.

This, explains the Aruch Laneir, is not only a semantic difference. The brothers sent a message through an emissary to tell Yosef what Yaakov had stated before his death, as the pasuk states: “And Yaakov concluded commanding his sons” (Bereshis 49:33). Then, they added the request that he forgive his brothers. The way it was presented made Yosef understand that both requests were part of one sentence said by Yaakov (although the messengers were directed to say it in two separate sentences). The prohibition here was not a violation of the positive mitzva of: “Distance yourself from false matter” but of genivas da’as – creating a false impression. In his opinion, direct lying remains forbidden even when used to preserve peace and even where the listener will not incur any financial loss or damage, only creating a false impression is permitted for this end.

The Ben Ish Chai and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld (ibid) explain that Yaakov did, indeed, demand the brothers: “Gather and listen, sons of Yaakov” (Bereshis 49:2). He did actually ask they join together and live in peace and harmony. While it was surely their father’s wish for Yosef to forgive his brothers and therefore not a blatant lie, it is not the absolute truth, either, but rather a “changed” one.

Even when forced to doctor up the truth in order to preserve peace, we must always remember  what the actual truth is, and that deviating from it is temporary. When no longer necessary, the truth must reign so as not to make lying a habit.


In addition to the prohibition to lie and the transgression lying involves, one who routinely tells lies loses his sense of right and wrong. Even when forced to lie, one must do everything to keep sight of the truth.

Next week we will print the third and final installment on this topic.


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