Talmud Tips

For the week ending 28 May 2022 / 27 Iyar 5782

Yevamot 65 - 71

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Bending the Truth

Rabbi Illah said in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon, “It is permitted to ‘change one’s words’ for the sake of peace…” Rabbi Nasan said, “It is a mitzvah…”

Although the Torah teaches not to lie, this is not stated in absolute terms. Instead of the Torah stating, “Do not lie,” it says “Distance from falsehood.” (Exodus 23:1) The implication is that one should maintain “distance” from lying, but that under certain circumstances it is not forbidden to lie.

Another interpretation of the concept of distancing from falsehood is to carefully word one’s statement in a way that is not absolutely false. For example, one might say something that “contains” two different messages. Even if one message is not true but will appease the listener, if it also conveys a second message that is true, the statement cannot be called a lie. Some commentaries explain this is what is meant in our sugya by the phrase “to change one’s word.” In addition, omitting a fact in one’s statement for the sake of peace might also be considered as changing one’s word, and be permitted, as opposed to vocalizing an outright lie.

I recall a question a mother asked me some time ago. She said, “My daughter lied about taking a large amount of candy from the pantry, which I had bought for another purpose. She wanted to bring it to school to help entertain her friends on a long field trip bus ride. She lied outright, promising us she didn't take it. A little later, we spoke about it jokingly as “the mystery of the candy,” and she continued to lie. Soon after, I found it in her room. What should we do?”

I replied, “In the vast majority of cases, the truth is by far the best route to take. I suggest you tell your daughter in a non-accusatory way that you found the candy in her room and that you know that she took it. We are taught to be honest by the Torah to keep a distance from falsehood. Or, as people say, “Honesty is the best policy.”

I then proceeded to explain to the mother that she should not be quick to harshly judge her daughter’s lie.

I explained why: “Is a white lie really considered a sin? Especially in a situation where it would incredibly hurt the feelings or affect the actions of the person implicated? A "white lie" — a falsehood that does not cause any harm — is not as serious as cheating or being dishonest in business. Nevertheless it is still usually prohibited or at least frowned upon, but in limited cases is permitted. One such case, for example, is where it will bring peace between people. Moshe’s brother Aharon HaKohen is praised for the way he made peace between quarreling parties, including husband and wife. He would approach one of the people and say "The other person sent me with apologies for their behavior." Then he would go to the other person and say the same thing. The next time the two people met on the street or in the house, they would ask each other for forgiveness. Aharon HaKohen is exemplary in Torah literature as one who “loves peace and pursues peace.” (The Midrash adds that when the reunited families would have baby boys, they would name them Aharon after him.)

Even when it is permitted to lie, one should avoid it if possible, as illustrated by the following incident in Shas. The wife of the great Sage Rav always did the opposite of what he requested. If Rav asked for lentils, she made beans, and if he asked for beans, she made lentils. When Rav's son, Chiya, grew up, he tried to correct the situation. Chiya told 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 meant that a person should avoid lying even where it is permitted, so as not to become accustomed to lying and lose one’s integrity.

Rabbi Yona Gerundi 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 essential Torah work.

  • Yevamot 65b

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