This week’s instalment will complete the series on truthfulness and falsehood. The Torah points out that the reason Bnei Yisroel were redeemed from Egypt was, in part, because they didn’t change their language. In what language did they speak? Was it an actual language or was it a manner of speech? What is the halachic ramifications of lying? Is lying permitted if that’s the only way to prevent robbery? Is a Dayan permitted to allow a non-talmid chacham to apprentice with him? Of this and more, in the coming article.
In this week’s parasha we begin reading about the Egyptian exile and the eventual redemption. Chazal teach us that am Yisroel were redeemed in merit of remaining faithful to three things – they didn’t change their names, speech, or dress. Does the Torah mean to tell us that they didn’t use the Egyptian language, or only Egyptian slang? And what can we learn from this today? Is there any innate importance in the old Jewish languages of Yiddish and Ladino?
This week’s article will complete the series on the truth and falsehood, focusing on two points to summarize the topic: what is called a lie, and what are the different kinds of lies.
“Distance yourself from false matters”
The Sforno (Shemos 23:7) defines lies as speech that has the potential to cause a lie even if it and of itself does not deviate from the truth, as Chazal teach us (Avos 1:9): “Be careful when cross-examining the witnesses. Be careful with your words, lest they learn from them how to lie.”
The Gemara (Shavous 30b-31a) deduces from the pasuk “Distance yourself from false matters” a whole list of prohibitions, many of which were discussed in the previous instalments. While the Yereim and Rambam maintain the prohibition only includes illegal extraction of monies, the Smag and Rashbatz include every single false word even if it caused no harm. The Chaffetz Chaim (Sefas Tamim 6) follows the latter opinion.
Through perusing the following list we can learn what exactly is the Jewish “language” that Bnei Yisroel remained faithful to in their exile, as well as how the Torah values other people’s money.
- A Dayan must stop himself change his ruling if he realizes he’s made a mistake. Despite the discomfort, he is obligated to overcome his shame, and retract his first decision (Shulchan Aruch CM 17:8).
- When one of the litigants makes his claims, the Dayan is forbidden to assist him in any way. Instead, he must listen quietly (according to the Sma) (CM 17:8).
- A Dayan must not discuss a case with an unknowledgeable apprentice because he will cause the Dayan to err in his rulings (CM 9:6).
- A witness may not testify together with a known thief even if the testimony is correct since two kosher witnesses (testimony of a thief is invalid) are required in order to extract money. Having a thief in partnership in an action of extracting monies is considered falsehood, and forbidden (CM 7:10).
The Urim V’tumim notes (34:1) that although failing to testify may result in mistaken ruling and money going to the wrong party, those calculations are not up to us. Our obligation is to remain faithful and honest; the rest is up to Hashem.
- When a Dayan has an unprovable feeling that something is fishy, he must not rule. Rather he must investigate the issue further until reaching clarity, or pass up the case completely (CM 15:3).
- A junior judge who sits in a hearing and notices a detail that could change the ruling must point it out to the Dayan and overcome any protective feelings he may have towards one of the litigants (9:7).
- When a judicial intern notices his teacher is making a mistake, he must point it out to him immediately and not wait to point it out until his rebbe has ruled and then rectify it so it goes down under his name (9:8).
- Standing near a witness during testimony so it appears as if there are two witnesses when there is actually only one is forbidden, even if the lender is one’s rebbe who would never lie in his life, and his rebbe tells him that someone owes him money but there is only one witness who can testify. This is even forbidden when the purpose is to cause the borrower to admit to the debt of his own accord, or reach a payment agreement. This deception is considered a lie, and forbidden. The Rama rules accordingly (CM 28:1).
- One who is accused on defaulting on a debt and admits he owes part of it, is obligated to swear he doesn’t owe the rest. Once swearing, he can be required by the lender to swear on other things that the claimant wouldn’t otherwise have the right to demand an oath. Here, the Gemara teaches that the claimant cannot accuse one of owing more than he actually owes just in order to force him to swear he doesn’t owe any more, and then force him to swear about other, unrelated claims he has against him (Rambam 16:9).
- And the opposite, too, is true – one is forbidden to deny a debt in order to be exempted from swearing on it, and then, outside of Beis Din, admit the real debt (Rambam 16:9).
- When three people lend money to someone without witnesses and the borrower denies the debt, although they know the truth, they are forbidden to arrange that one of them will demand the entire debt with the other two serve as witnesses, and then divide the debt between them (Rambam 16:10).
- When one litigant who appears in Beis Din is dressed in riches, and the other in rags because he cannot afford better clothing– since the poorly dressed man makes a bad impression, the better dressed one is required to either dress in rags, or provide the poor man with better clothing before appearing in court (Shulchan Aruch CM 17:1).
- A Dayan is forbidden to hear one litigant’s claims in the absence of the second litigant so he doesn’t become biased against him. This prohibition is for both the Dayan and the litigants (CM 17:5).
- Neither of the litigants is permitted to illustrate or explain his claims when the other is not present because people are embarrassed to lie in front of their opponent. If the dayan is the rebbe of one of the litigants, the student is not permitted to appear earlier (even if he doesn’t utter a word) so the other party doesn’t think he’s already made his claims and the ruling will be biased against him (CM 17:5).
Levels of Lies – Rabbenu Yona
Rabbenu Yona lists nine kinds of liars (Shaarei Teshuva, sha’ar 3 178-186) who are counted among those who will not greet the Shechina.
- A thief or swindler; one who denies being given collateral; one who refuses to pay workers by denying that he owes them anything, commits fraud; or testifies falsely in Beis Din is considered a wicked person (178).
- One who tells harmless lies with the intention to cause future damage. For example, in order to harm someone in the future one makes believe he is a friend so his victim won’t know to be vigilant. This person is punished both for lying and deceiving, as well as for the damage he causes (179).
- One who is aware that something good is supposed to come to his friend, and diverts it so it reaches him, through a lie. Despite not having actually stolen from his friend, he is punished for the lie (180).
- A harmless lie spoken out of love for lies. One who is not careful to speak precise words is also included. His punishment is not for causing damage like it is for loving falsehood. This kind of lie becomes a mitzva when it intended for another mitzva or to cause peace. “Changing” for the sake of peace is also permitted, such as praising a bride before her groom, and complimenting her for attributes she doesn’t necessarily have (181).
- One who promises his friend something without intending to make true to his promises, even where the promise was made without a kinyan and remains halachically cancellable. The Yerushalmi (Bave Metzia 4:2) writes that if, when making the promise, one never intended to keep it, he is counted among the faithless who are criticized by Chazal.
- One who promised his friend to do something for him, even if he intended to do so, if in the end he doesn’t keep his promise he transgresses the prohibition: “The remnant of Yisrael shall neither commit injustice nor speak lies; neither shall deceitful speech be found in their mouth” (Tzfanya 3:13). Included in this item is a promise to give something of low value which people don’t usually go back on. One who boasts about his wealth and promises a large donation is included here. (One who promises to give a poor person a large gift or donate a large sum to tzedakah: even if it is something large that people do back down on, and even if it was not announced as a promise, the announcement is considered an oath to do a mitzva unless specifically proclaimed that it is bli neder) (183).
- A charlatan who makes people believe that he did something nice for them while he didn’t actually do anything (184).
- One who leads people to think he has qualities he doesn’t actually have (185).
- One who is careful not to tell mistruths for no reason, but if he has a reason for it, even if not a financial one, he’ll bend the truth to accommodate his wishes. This is forbidden under the prohibition to accustom oneself to speaking falsehood as detailed in the previous instalment.
Levels of Lies — Ramchal
The Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim (chapter 11) lists the level of lies differently, from the most severe to the least:
- The most severe liar is one who makes lying his profession, telling lies for no purpose, even harmless ones. He fabricates stories in order to lead people to believe he is smart or knows more than he actually does, or even just to make interesting conversation or bring in an audience. According to the Ramchal these people have completely lost their sense of truth — the highest level of liars. They have ruined their soul, although nobody is harmed in the process. Once he is so warped that his thought focuses — not on what really happened but on what will make the best conversation – he becomes despised by Hashem and belongs to the group of those who will not greet the Shechinah.
Pathological liars, known to be able to pass a polygraph test without showing changes in their body, have certainly reached this level of lying.
- One whose tales contain a grain of truth but embellishes his words with tall tales is called by chazal a badai – a fabricator. He conjures up stories, and in return loses people’s trust in him. Then, even when he says something true, nobody believes him. These people are on the way to become pathological liars, as described in Yirmiyahu: “Indeed, they deceive one another and do not speak the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies…” (Yirmiyahu 9:4). Humans are naturally created to speak the truth, but in breaking the barrier and allowing themselves to lie they accustom themselves to speaking falsehood. Once broken down, lies don’t look so terrible anymore, and they get used to saying whatever comes to their lips.
- The third level in severity are the people who are not so entrenched in lying and don’t make up stories naturally. While usually telling the truth, they aren’t frightened by lies and sometimes might lie as a joke or for another harmless reason.
G-d’s insignia is truth (Shabbos 55). One must recoil from lies, as it is written (Mishlei 13:5) “The righteous man hates a false word…”. The tzaddik not only preserves his natural predisposition to the truth, but feels disgusted by lies.
The Ramchal describes who the people are that will greet Moshiach: “The remnant of Israel shall neither commit injustice nor speak lies; neither shall deceitful speech be found in their mouth” (Tzfanya 3:13). Those left in the final days will be people who speak only the truth.
Levels of Lies — Chaffetz Chaim
The Chaffetz Chaim (Sefas Tamim 6) outlines the levels of lies in a similar manner to that of the Ramchal, sometimes even quoting him word for word. However occasionally there are some differences:
- The most severe lie is one uttered for no reason – making up stories that never happened just for the conversation’s sake or to make people believe he is more intelligent than he is. These are people that belong to the Class of Liars.
- The second level is the badai, whose conversation is peppered with unintentional lies. These people lie because the truth is not important to them, and they speak carelessly. For them, it is a question of time before they become pathological liars.
- The third is general lack of trustworthiness: one who promises to do something when he isn’t planning on doing it, or even if he planned on doing it but went back on his promise. It also includes one who makes believe he did his friend a favor while not actually doing it, or allows himself to be praised for something that he did not do.
- The fourth level is one who occasionally lies due to lack of sensitivity. He might lie in jest, or play a prank on someone. This person transgresses the prohibition of “Distance yourself from false matter” (Shemos 23:7).
- The fifth level is people who while they don’t tell lies, yet say things that could lead to the lies listed in the Gemara (Shavous 30b). these actions are included in the Torah’s prohibition of “Distance yourself from false matter.”