Is a "white lie" a sin? This question was raised in our Sunday School class by a 7th grade student.
Dear Carson Hughes,
A "white lie" — a falsehood that does not cause any harm — is not as serious as cheating or being dishonest in business, but it is still prohibited. Rabbi Yona of Gerona in his classic "The Gates of Repentance" enumerates nine different levels of falsifying, beginning with dishonesty in crime and monetary matters and ending with a few types of white lies. I highly recommend the study of this passage.
In limited cases lying is permitted. For instance, it is sanctioned where it will bring peace between people. Moshe's brother Aharon is praised for the way he made peace between quarreling parties. Aharon would approach one of the people and say: "The other person sent me to tell you that he apologizes and is truly sorry for the way he acted towards you." Then he would go to the other person and say the same thing. The next time the two people would meet on the street they would conciliate and ask each other for forgiveness.
Even when it is permitted to lie, one should avoid it if possible, as illustrated by the following incident in the Talmud. The wife of the great Talmudic Sage Rav always did the opposite of what he requested. If Rav asked for lentils she made beans, if he asked for beans she made lentils. When Rav's son, Chiya, grew up, he tried to rectify the situation by telling his mother the opposite of what his father wanted, thereby tricking her into making the correct food. Rav, realizing what Chiya had done, chastised him by quoting the verse, “They have taught their tongues to speak falsehood." Rav understood the verse to mean that a person should avoid lying even when it’s permitted, lest he become accustomed to lying and lose his integrity.
- The Gates of Repentance, Gate 3, notes 178-186
- Tractate Yevamot 63a, 65b
- Yirmiyahu 9
- Tractate Kalla Rabbati 3:5