Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )
It is well known that honesty is one of the most important character traits and that its antithesis, falsehood, is one of the most undesirable. The Sefer Hachinuch speaks very strongly about how disdainful it is to lie: “Falsehood is abominable and disgraceful in everyone’s eyes, there is nothing more disgusting than it, and curses come to the home of those who love it. Therefore the Torah exhorts us to greatly distance ourselves from falsehood, as it says, ‘distance yourself from falsehood.’ ” (3) He then explains that the Torah does not use the language of ‘distancing’ with regard to any other negative mitzvah which indicates its severity. Moreover, this teaches us that we should distance ourselves from even the slightest possibility of falsehood.
Given the severity of lying, it is worthwhile to clarify what is included within the prohibition of ‘distance yourself from falsehood.’
It is instructive to analyze the following scenario: Reuven owes Shimon money and the date for repayment has already passed. Shimon phones Reuven to request his money, but Reuven’s wife answers the phone. Reuven does not want to speak to Shimon but he also does not want his wife to lie and say that he is not home. Therefore Reuven steps just outside his house and instructs his wife to tell Shimon that Reuven is not home. This is technically true; Reuven is now not in the house, even though he could speak to Shimon if he so desired. One may think that this does not constitute falsehood because no false words were spoken. Is this indeed the case?
The Talmud in Nedarim discusses a case in which a man was owed some money, so he brought the borrower before Rava’s Beis Din (law court) and said to him: “Pay me back.” The borrower responded: “I already paid you.” Rava said to the borrower: “In that case, you must swear an oath that you have given him the money.” The borrower went to get his cane, hid the money he owed inside its hollow, and leaned on the cane as he returned to the courtroom. He said to the lender: “Hold this cane in your hand,” ostensibly in order to free his own hands to take hold of the Torah scroll. He then took a Torah scroll and swore that he had already given the money into the lender’s hand. The lender, incensed at the man’s chutzpah, broke the cane. Suddenly all the money inside spilled to the ground and it emerged that he had indeed sworn the technical truth!
The borrower was obviously guilty of acting in a highly undesirable fashion, but did he actually commit a genuine transgression? The Talmud concludes that he did because an oath taker must adhere not only to the plain definition of his words, but also to the meaning they are meant to convey as well. Consequently, he was guilty of swearing falsely by taking an oath that was technically truthful but deceptive.(4)
We see from here that saying words that are technically true does not mean that a person can deceive others by saying true words with a misleading message. Therefore, it would seem that Reuven’s strategy of standing outside the house does not help avoid the transgression of “distance yourself from falsehood.” The words that he is not home may be true but the message is not. Shimon is not interested in the technical location of Reuven; he wants to know if Reuven is present so that Shimon can speak to him. Thus, by saying that he is not present is a misleading message.
One may argue that the case in the Talmud was that of an oath, but in day to day life, perhaps it is allowed to deceive others on condition that words we say are technically true.
The Talmud in Shevuos disproves this theory: It discusses a number of cases that involve a transgression of ‘distance yourself from falsehood.’ One is the case where a talmid chacham (wise Torah student) claims that someone owes him money but he does not have any witnesses to support his claim. Accordingly he tells his student that the ‘borrower’ is clearly lying so he suggests a plan to influence the borrower to admit to the truth. He asks his student to come with him to court so that he would appear to be a witness to the loan. Of course, the student never intends to actually swear that he witnessed the loan because that would clearly be forbidden; he only wants to appear as if he can be a witness. The borrower, seeing the prospective witness, will realize that he cannot escape from the truth and will admit that he does indeed owe the money.
The Talmud says that the student transgresses ‘distance yourself from falsehood’ by his actions.(5) In this case, the student did not even say anything; he merely walked in with his teacher and sent an unsaid message to the borrower that he was a witness to the loan. Moreover, in this case, there is no oath being taken and nevertheless it is an example of falsehood. This proves that even if a person does not even say anything but his actions imply a false situation, then he is considered to be lying. This is all the more so in the case where a person says words that are technically true but are also misleading.(6)
However, if we analyze one of the most famous incidents in the Torah it would seem that it is permissible to say technically truthful words. When Jacob pretends to be his brother, Esau, Isaac asks him for his identity and he answers, “I am Esau your firstborn.” Rashi explains that he meant by this, “It is I who brings this to you; Esau is your firstborn.” Consequently, his words were technically true although Isaac could only understand their simple meaning – that he was claiming to be Esau. This would seem to strongly question the premise that has been thus far established.
Rav Yitzchak Berkovits explains that Jacob’s deft wording in and of itself did not justify lying to Isaac. Rather, the commentaries explain that Jacob was justified in deceiving Esau because Esau himself was a trickster and it is allowed to use deceit in order to overcome a deceitful person.(7) Why then did Jacob need to resort to the ‘word games’? The author of Orchos Tzaddikim (Path of the Righteous) writes that even when it is permissible to lie it is still nonetheless preferable to say words that are technically true.(8) As a consequence, Jacob did not want to release false words from his lips.
Nonetheless we should not be mistaken into thinking that saying words that are technically true justifies misleading others when there is no valid justification to do so and it constitutes a clear violation of ‘distance yourself from falsehood’. It is very important to educate our children on this point so that they realize that the prohibition to lie is not avoided by clever wording.(9) Moreover, it is necessary for us to clarify the parameters of this easily misunderstood mitzvah. The Sefer Hachinuch stresses that God is a ‘God of Truth’ and that blessing only comes to a person who strives to emulate God. May we all succeed in living lives of genuine Truth.
By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
1. The principle of this D’var Torah is based on the teachings of my Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlit”a.
2. Mishpatim 23:1.
3. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 74.
4. Nedarim 25a, based on the translation and explanation of Reb Howard Jackson.
5. Shevuos 30b.
6. See also the Maharal’s explanation of the episode with Abraham and Sarah in which the Rabbis explain that God seems to ‘lie’ for the sake of mantaing peace. The Maharal explains that although God’s words were technically true, the Rabbis nonetheless describe them as constituting a kind of lie, because their message was misleading (Vayeira, 18:13, Gur Aryeh, Os 4).
7. See Emes Le Yaakov, Toldos, 27:12. It is important to be aware that this principle should not be used without prior clarification from a competent halachic authority. It is quite easy to be moreh heter and decide that anyone against us constitutes the kind of person that we are allowed to deceive.
8. Orchos Tzaddikim, End of Shaar 22.
9. It is important to note that this concept also teaches that there are times when we may say words that are technically inaccurate but their message is not misleading. For example, in a place where weddings regularly start an hour later than the announced time, it does not constitutes sheker to call the chupa for 7:00 PM even though it will really begin at 8:00 PM. This is a delicate area in halacho and it is advisable to learn the details of midvar sheker tirchak so that one can know what is permissible and forbidden.
Reprinted with permission
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