- Keep far from deceit. . . . (Exodus 23:7)
One of the most surprising issues in the Torah is the absence of an unconditional mitzvah (commandment) forbidding us to lie. We find commandments that forbid us to steal, to murder, or to commit adultery, among other things. Yet there is no clear commandment that says, “Do not lie, absolutely, under any circumstances.”
The closest that we get to such a mitzvah is in the following: “You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:11–12). These verses appear in the context of business dealings and the prohibition to lie under oath.
In the Torah portion, Mishpatim, we find a long list of laws that follow the Ten Commandments. These are basic laws that are necessary in order to structure a society. Among them we find the following: “You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes. Keep far from a false charge . . .” (Exodus 23:6–7). The Hebrew for the latter clause, mid’var sheker tirchak,literally means “keep far from deceit.” In every English translation I found for this phrase, it appears as an admonition to judges to avoid false charges.
In the absence of an unequivocal prohibition against lying, may we, therefore, deduce that there are times in life when lying would be permissible? What about “white lies”—are they legitimate? My guess is that there are very few human beings who never lie. Most likely each one of us has lied at times, even our ancestors in the Torah: Abraham told Sarah to lie to Pharaoh (Genesis 12:13) and Abraham himself lied to Abimelech, king of Gerar (Genesis 20:2), regarding Sarah’s status as his wife. Jacob lied to Isaac, at Rebekah’s instruction, in order obtain Isaac’s blessing (Genesis 27:18–24). Laban, Jacob’s uncle, deceived Jacob by giving him Leah as a wife instead of Rachel, as promised (Genesis 29:23–27). Later on, Jacob’s sons lied to him when they said that a beast had eaten Joseph, when in truth they had sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:18–36).
The biblical characters in each of these stories lied in order to gain something. Does this mean that it is permissible to lie? I do not think so. It means that lying is part of human nature. Mishnah Sotah 1:7 discusses the concept of measure for measure: “With that measure a man metes it shall be measured to him again.” So, Jacob lied to Isaac. Was he ever punished for this? Commentators say that Jacob’s punishment occurred later on in his life when he was deceived first by Laban and later by his sons. The very fact that he was punished for lying is evidence that it is forbidden.
In the Talmud (K’tubot 16b–17a), we find a most interesting passage containing an argument between Hillel and Shammai: “Our masters taught: How does one praise a bride while dancing before her at her wedding? The school of Shammai says: Describe the bride as she is. The school of Hillel says: Describe the bride as beautiful and full of grace. The school of Shammai retorted to the school of Hillel: But suppose she is lame or blind. Is one to say ‘O bride, full of grace,’ seeing that Scripture declares ‘Keep away from deceit’ (Exodus 23:7, in Mishpatim)? The school of Hillel replied to the school of Shammai: In your opinion, if a man has made a bad purchase in the marketplace, should a friend praise it to his face or belittle it? Surely he should praise it to his face. Hence, the Sages inferred that a man should always endeavor to be pleasant to other people.”
Here, the school of Hillel clearly tells us that we must lie in order not to cause any grief and sadness to the bride and groom. This differs from the cases from the Torah discussed earlier, because in this example, no one gains by lying—we only bring joy to the bride.
Telling lies has, unfortunately, become a common phenomenon in our society, and we have witnessed this especially in political life, even among holders of the highest office in our nation. Two of our former presidents were caught lying: President Nixon paid for his deceit with the loss of his position. President Clinton was impeached for his lies.
Each of us has faced the dilemma of “a white lie” more than once in life. It is human nature to weigh two options and sometimes decide to tell “a white lie.” While I tend to favor the approach of the school of Hillel over that of the school of Shammai, we must be extremely careful not to use “white lies” for our own gain. We must always strive to earn the trust of our fellow human beings.
BY THE WAY
- We all have committed offenses; together we confess these human sins:
The sins of arrogance, bigotry, and cyicsm; of deceit and egotism, flattery and greed, injustice and jealousy. (Gates of Repentance [New York: CCAR, 1996], p. 269)
- He said likewise
That a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies,
That a lie which is all a lie may be met and fought with outright,
But a lie which is part a truth is a harder matter to fight.
(Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Grandmother,” 1864, st. 8, in Familiar Quotations, by John Bartlett [Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992], p. 460)
- When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies.
(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 138, 1.1, in Familiar Quotations, by John Bartlett, [Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992], p. 222)
- How do you feel about a Jew who lied about his identity during World War II and lived as a Christian to protect his life?
- The d’var Torah discusses the lies of two former U.S. presidents, Nixon and Clinton. Do you think that the lies of these two leaders fall into the same category? Do you think that the lies of one were more damaging than those of the other? Why?
- When a physician keeps information from a terminally ill patient in order to spare the patient’s feelings, which one of Tennyson’s categories of lying does it fit? Why?
- Shakespeare’s sonnet discusses the role of a lie’s recipient. Does the recipient of a lie ever bear responsibility for the lie?
- Think of examples from your own life when you were faced with a dilemma that you could solve by telling a “white lie.” What did you decide then? Would you decide the same way today?
Ze’ev Harari is the rabbi at Congregation Am Echod, Waukegan/Lindenhurst, Illinois.
Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566–592; Revised Edition, pp. 511–538;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 427–450
Haftarah, II Kings 12:5–16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,647–1,648; Revised Edition, pp. 1,451–1,452