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