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Telling the Truth ...and When It Is Permissible to Be Less Than Honest

Telling the Truth ...and When It Is Permissible to Be Less Than Honest

Parshat Toldot

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In the book of Genesis1 we read how Jacob, heeding his mother's request, disguised himself as his older brother Esau so that he could successfully receive the blessings that his father Isaac had intended to give to Esau—despite the fact that Jacob was a spiritual giant and the paradigm of truthfulness. Indeed, the attribute of truth is most associated with our patriarch Jacob, as stated,2 "Give truth to Jacob."

It seems that the pressing need to receive these blessings overrode the general prohibition against deception. This article will explore the importance of truth and the permissibility of deception under extenuating circumstances.

The Virtue of Truth

The Torah says: "Distance yourself from words of falsehood."3 This is the only sin regarding from which the Torah warns us to "distance" ourselves.4

In telling the truth we emulate our Creator regarding whom it says: "The seal of G‑d is truth."5 The Sefer Chassidim writes that one who speaks only truth can actually change destiny by decreeing something to happen—and it will.6

It is evident from the Talmud7 that being careful to only speak truthfully is a segulah (spiritually propitious activity) that allows one to complete the years allotted to him by G‑d.

The Talmud says8 that there are four groups of people that do not merit to greet the Divine presence. One of them is liars. This punishment is measure for measure: through lying they demonstrated that they sought to find favor in the eyes of men and in doing so, ignored the presence of the omniscient Almighty. Therefore, they do not merit to be in His presence.9

The Talmud also says10 that there are three types of people that G‑d despises. One of them is those that say one thing, while having completely different feelings in their heart.

On a very practical level, it is clear that when a person accustoms himself to speaking truthfully, people come to trust him, as the verse says11: "A true tongue will be established forever." On the other hand, one who is a habitual liar will not be trusted, as the verse continues: "But a lying tongue, just for a moment"; i.e., his believability is short lived.

Understanding the Permissibility to Lie

Despite the above, we find that in certain circumstances it is permissible or even commendable to lie. The reason for this is12 that the biblical commandment against lying only includes a lie that will be harmful to someone else, as the verse says: "Distance yourself from words of falsehood; do not kill an innocent or righteous man." That is, it is forbidden to lie in a way that might cause death or harm to any person.

It is only by rabbinic law that it is forbidden to tell white lies as well, as the verse says13: "Indeed, they deceive one another and do not speak the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies, they commit iniquity [until] they are weary." And in the words of King Solomon14: "Distance falsehood and the lying word from me." Nevertheless, in cases of extenuating circumstances, as will be explained, the rabbis were lenient.

And we are told15 that a lie told to promote peace (as shall be explained) is not included at all in the prohibition of telling lies. It seems then that since the ultimate goal of this lie is a positive one, it is not prohibited.

Examples of Permissible Lying

One may "change the truth" for reasons of peace.16 We derive this from a conversation between G‑d, Sarah and Abraham in Genesis.17 Sarah said to herself: "After I have withered will I get smooth skin, and my husband is old." When G‑d repeated her comments to Abraham, he said that Sarah had said: "How can I give birth when I am old." As Rashi18 explains, G‑d changed Sarah's words so that Abraham would not realize that Sarah had made a denigrating remark about him.

Aaron the High Priest would employ this method when he would try to make peace between quarrelling spouses and friends. He would approach one party and tell him that the other party really is sorry and wants to reconcile. When the person would hear this, he would express an interest in resolving the dispute. Aaron would then go to the other party and tell him this fact. At which point, everybody would make up.19 The Rif20 says that it's actually a mitzvah to lie in this way in order to maintain peace.

Other examples of permitted white lies include:

  1. Changing the truth in order to practice humility. For example, one may claim ignorance of a certain talmudic tractate even if one does actually know it.21
  2. Changing the truth in order to maintain modesty.22
  3. Changing the truth in order to protect someone else from harm or inconvenience. For example, if a host was very gracious, and one is asked about this, one should not tell all about his magnanimity as this may cause too many guests to flock to him.23
    On a similar vein, if a person has an incurable illness, and informing him of this will be detrimental to his health, it may be proper to withhold this information from him.24
  4. A white lie said in order to protect someone from embarrassment. An example of this is that one may say that a bride is beautiful and gracious, even if she isn't particularly beautiful or gracious.25
  5. Using exaggerated expressions if it is clear that it's an exaggeration.26 For example: "You look white like a sheet."
  6. There are some circumstances under which one is allowed to be deceptive in order to recoup losses that are owed to him. Our patriarch Jacob employed this method to protect his lawfully earned gains from being defrauded him by his father-in-law, Laban.27 The details of this matter are beyond the scope of this article.28
  7. If someone does something for himself, but another understands that it was done to honor him, one does not have to correct this misunderstanding. The Talmud29 relates that several rabbis were traveling from one city to another. A rabbi who approached them thought that they had come to greet him. In such a case, the Talmud concludes, it is not necessary to correct the mistake.30

Exceptions to the Exceptions

  • Despite these allowances, one should always attempt not to say an outright lie, but rather to tell half truths.31
  • Even in these cases, one should try to avoid lying to children, so as not to train them to lie.32
  • Also, even in these circumstances, one should try not to lie on a constant basis.33
  • The Magen Avraham34 says that even in the above circumstances, one may only lie about the past but not about the future. For example, one may not say: "I will do such and such" in order to make peace. Others question this ruling.35
Footnotes
1.

Chapter 27.

2.

Micah 7:20 and Me'am Lo'ez ad loc.

4.

Peleh Yo'etz, entry for Sheker.

5.

Talmud, Shabbat 55a, Sanhedrin 64a.

6.

Sefer Chassidim s. 47.

7.

Sanhedrin 97a.

8.

Sotah 42a.

9.

Ben Yehoyada, ibid.

10.

Pesachim 113b.

12.

Yera'im 235, as explained by the To'afot Re'em.

15.

Ritva on Ketubot 17a.

16.

Talmud, Yevamot 65b.

17.

Chapter 18.

18.

On the Talmud, Bava Metziah 23b.

19.

Ethics 1:12 and Bartenura ad loc.

20.

Bava Metziah 13a (in the pages of the Rif).

21.

Bava Metziah, ibid.

22.

Ibid.

23.

Ibid.

24.

See Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics by Avraham Steinberg entry Disclosure of Illness to the Patient.

25.

Talmud, Ketubot 17a.

26.

Piskei Teshuvot 156:21.

27.

See Pardes Yosef Parshat Vayeitzei no. 66 and in the sources he quotes there.

28.

See Pitchei Choshen ch. 6 of the Laws of Loans note 5.

29.

Chulin 94b.

30.

See Code of Jewish Law, Choshen Mishpat 228:6.

31.

This can be derived from the language of Bava Metzia and Yevamot, ibid., where it says that one may "change" for reasons of peace instead of one may "lie" for reasons of peace.

32.

See Talmud, Sukkah 46b.

33.

Talmud Yevamot 63, as explained by the Maharsha. This seems to contradict Aaron's behavior, see above. But see Iyun Yakov on Yevamot for an alternate explanation

34.

Orach Chaim 156 based on Sefer Chassidim 426.

35.

Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 156:2, in parenthesis.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron was educated in Chabad yeshivahs in Los Angeles, New York, Israel and Australia. He was the Rosh Kollel of The Shul of Bal Harbour, Florida, and is now an adult Torah teacher in Surfside, Florida. He teaches classes on Talmud, Chassidism, Jewish history and contemporary Jewish law.
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Jay Silverman Delray Beach June 15, 2017

Saying something in order to achieve peace Jacob/Israel told Esau that he would meet him at Mount Seir, however he had no intention of going there. This was done to avoid another confrontation with his older brother. Reply

Anonymous Tel Aviv January 9, 2016

Thwarted definition of Honesty Exists in the World Today Defining honesty Honestly:
"Not Lying"
vs
"Doing the Right Thing with the Truth"
Telling the truth all the time is a very dishonest way to live.
The Honest Truth:
“For many people, honesty means telling the truth, but your definition of honesty is different, can you enlighten us?”
Be Honest With Yourself, Not Lying is not the definition of Honesty. Can a society and economy be balanced and healthy if the population does not understand what Honesty is? The answer is no, if a population cannot properly define Honesty, then dishonest activity will rip through the society and the economy, and eventually ruin many chances of creating balanced and peaceful society structures that is ruled by ethical justice.
Honesty is often incorrectly defined as "always telling the truth". And though the truth is certainly intimately involved with honesty, telling the truth all the time is a very dishonest way to live. That’s the truth, honestly.
Truth: Everyone can be 100% Honest. Reply

Chris November 16, 2015

Good article People like to commend themselves for telling the "truth" that hurts people and can wreck lives.They like to criticize others who "lie" to keep the peace or protect someone. I can't stand this attitude. Truth is more than a set of empirically provable facts. Truth supports, protects, helps and heals. We need to examine what truth means according to Torah, not the secular world. Reply

Anonymous November 16, 2015

Helpful Thanks for explaining a difficult concept in a way I could grasp it. I've struggled with this story for a long time, as well as other stories in Tanakh where "lying" is involved. Something in me intuitively rejected the notion of Jacob as a "liar and deceiver", as I've heard many people call him.It even denigrates HaShem. How could He in His righteousness choose a lying deceiver as a progenitor of the Israelite nation? And Jacob is described as a good, simple man who studied Torah, while it explicitly states that HaShem "hated" Esau for his wickedness! Our modern, western culture based notion of "lying" and "truth" have a punitive and accusatory aspect to them that has gone way beyond what truth is and accomplishes (goodness) and has become a legalistic term to find fault in others. "Did you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" as opposed to "Did you say what was kind, peacekeeping, and supportive of good?" Reply

Barbara Ellison Oklahoma December 20, 2014

Not Comfortable About Something Here.. The reference to Sarah doesn't match what I read. She laughed when the L-rd told her she would conceive. Then said she did not laugh. That was a lie based on fear..I hope my bible is not incorrectly written!
But otherwise, half truths to children can cause distrust for the parent as well as potentially teach the child to half lie. No one has to say what they think if they deem someone "ugly", and finding something nice to say about them is not a lie at all..If that can't happen, isn't saying nothing at all better? Lies seriously bother me, whether to children or adults. That's not to say I have never lied, half way, big glaring way, etc., or avoided fessing up to everything sometimes. But those instances were based in fear and/or anger too. Reply

Anonymous Texas July 16, 2014

Telling the truth...when is it permissible to be less than honest A lie is a lie say nothing at all ... Reply

Mac Mahmood UK November 25, 2013

Is there a dispensation to lie to save one's life or that of another person? If there is, which tenet of (Jewish) law is involved? Reply

Anonymous Bellevue Hill July 14, 2017
in response to Mac Mahmood:

Pikuach Nefesh. But not just to save a life, also to protect from harm. Reply

David Levant Emerson,N.J. July 23, 2013

The truth Be ruthless and relentless with the truth,and always fight with it on your side-you will never lose.Be so relentless that your one truth will dispel all lies combined. Reply

Anonymous Ft Lauderdale, FL May 29, 2012

9th commandment How do you explain it to children? Reply

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