Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Kedoshim 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Kedoshim 5760/2000

Dr. David Lifshitz

Ariel and Ashkelon Colleges

"You Shall Not Deal Falsely with One Another" -- The Limits of Falsehood

In this week's reading it is said, "You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another" (Lev. 19:11). Most commentators understand this proscription in the context of monetary affairs. For example, Rashbam writes on this verse, "You shall not deal falsely -- with regard to money that has been lent you," and Sforno says, "You shall not deal falsely -- all concerning money." This interpretive approach is based on the context of the precept, just as the interpretation of the similar proscription, "Keep far from a false charge" (Ex. 23:7), associates it contextually with legal matters. For example, Ibn Ezra comments on Ex. 23:7: "From a false charge -- this speaks about the judge," and Rashbam and others interpret similarly.

The proscription in this week's reading defines relations between one person and another. Is this an absolute proscription that applies under all circumstances? In other words, what are the limits of falsehood? When is telling a lie not considered inadmissable behavior?

In this study I shall not dwell on falsehood in the main-line context of financial dealings, but shall deal with the grayer margins of this proscription, namely with what we call a "white lie." This refers to false representation which, rather than being directed at harming one's fellow, on the contrary is aimed at helping; as the Even Shoshan dictionary defines it, "A kosher lie which is harmless to others," to which we add that it serves to protect other values (such as modesty, family harmony, etc.). The examples I found in the Talmuds reflect the attitude of the halakhah to such lies, especially as regards relations between men and women -- modesty, health, family harmony, and general human relations. These discussions are often set in the context of piquant stories which bring a smile to the lips of the reader. Here are some examples:

Rava said: I used to say that there is no truth in the world. A certain sage -- Rav Tavot by name, and some say he is called Rav Tavyomi -- once told me that if he were given all the universe he would not alter his words. Once this Rav Tavot happened by a certain place, Kushta [meaning Truth] was its name, and [the people there] never altered their words, and not a single one of them ever died before his time. [Rav Tavot] wed one of their women and she bore him two sons. One day his wife was washing her hair. Along came her neighbor and knocked on the door. He, thinking it lacking in propriety [for his wife to be seen thus], said to her [the neighbor], "She is not in." Both his sons died. The residents came to him and said, "What has happened?" He told them, such and such happened. They answered, "Please, leave our midst and do not tempt death to visit our people."

Sanhedrin 97a

Even a truthful person like Rav Tavot or Rav Tavyomi (fifth generation Babylonian amora), who was prepared to give all in order not to lie, preferred telling a white lie to being immodest. The outcome, however, speaks for itself: his white lie is presented as no different than any sort of falsehood, whose punishment according to the tale is the untimely death of his sons. Uttering a falsehood harms the order of the universe.

We may conclude from this tale that the proscription against lying is not absolute. How so? you may ask; Wasn't Rav Tavyomi punished? That is just the point: the story puts telling the absolute truth, all the time, in the class of an unrealistic decree that only applies to those who live in a surrealistic place like "Kushta" where the people are exceptional, almost immortal. We can surmise that the inhabitants of the city of Truth did not have to strive to expel Rav Tovot; considering the high price he had had to pay (the death of this sons), most likely he preferred to leave the city on his own initiative, even though he would lose the reward (long life) reserved for the inhabitants of the city.

The next example concerns a white lie between man and wife. In the close and complex relations that develop in married life sometimes telling a white lie becomes a necessity, as the following example attests:

Rav's wife used to vex him. When he would ask her to cook him lentils she would make him houmous, and when he asked for houmous she would make him lentils. When his son Hiyya grew up, he reversed his father's requests [before his mother], and the father would receive what he wanted. Once his father said to him, "Your mother has improved," to which the son replied, "It is I who have been switching [what you requested]." The father responded, "As people say [an introduction to a folk-saying], 'Your progeny teach you wisdom.' But you should not do so, for it is written, 'They have trained their tongues to speak falsely' (Jer. 9:4)."

The son became used to switching the father's request in order to preserve peace in the home, and in effect he acted as a sort of marriage counselor to his father. Upon discovering his son's trick, the surprised father reacted with mixed emotions. On the one hand he commented ironically about himself that his son had to teach his father wisdom, yet on the other hand he fulfilled his duty as a father and warned his son not to continue this way, because he was likely to accustom himself to telling lies. In the case at hand even though the lie is lily white, it is forbidden since it comes from the mouth of a child for whom it may at times be difficult to make the fine discrimination between different sorts of lies. [1]

Here is a story about a pre-marital lie:

The rabbis taught: How does on dance before the bride? The House of Shammai say: relating to the bride as she is; and the House of Hillel say: relating to the bride as a beautiful and righteous maiden. The followers of Shammai said to the followers of Hillel, what if she is hunchbacked or blind, do you say she is beautiful and righteous? Does the Torah not instruct us, ""Keep far from a false charge" (Ex. 23:7)? The followers of Hillel responded to the followers of Shammai, "In your opinion, if a person has made a poor purchase in the marketplace, would you make it look good in his eyes or bad in his eyes? Certainly, good in his eyes. Thus the Sages said a person's opinion should always be considerate of other people. When Rav Dimi came [from Palestine to Babylonia] he said: How do they dance before the bride in the west [the Land of Israel]? "Behold, she is without eyeshadow or blush or makeup and she is full of charm."

It appears that the House of Shammai, who insisted on telling the truth, viewed the bride objectively, so that saying anything about her that did not match the facts would fall into the realm of lying. The House of Hillel, in contrast, saw her subjectively and held that the wedding guests should step into the shoes of the newly-wed couple, especially the groom, and thus praise the bride, seeing her as the groom himself does. Moreover, in the realm of esthetics and personal experience, objective judgment is irrelevant.

The comparison that the House of Hillel made with the case of a customer in commercial dealings is instructive. A person who is asked to give his opinion on a purchase his fellow has made "should always be considerate of his fellow in his opinions." In other words, as long as it is not a matter of giving a professional opinion, the purchase should be praised in every case. As the Tosafot Rid (R. Isaiah de Trani) noted, "say something acceptable, even though it may be false." [2] Rav Dimi (third-fourth generation of the Babylonian amoraim belonging to Nehuti, who acted as liaison between the two major Jewish centers of the land of Israel and of Babylonia) came from the land of Israel and noted that there they apparently had found a compromise: they praise the bride in general flowery language, calling her charming. Note that the halakhah follows the House of Hillel (Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 65.1).

In conclusion, the bounds within which one person may legitimately lie to another vary in cases where there is a conflict with other positive values. Such a lie becomes relative, depending on the specific situation in which the individual might find himself, as has been illustrated above.

[1] Cf. Sukkah 46b: R. Ze'era said: A person should not say to an infant that he will give him a certain thing, because thereby he will teach him falsehood, as it is said…

[2] For additional interpretations, cf. Tosafot, s.v. kalah veyeshabhenu, the Meiri and R. Hananel (loc. sit.).