What's in a Word?

For the week ending 13 February 2021 / 1 Adar 5781

Mishpatim: Feeding the Lie

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The Torah famously commands: “From a false (sheker) matter, you shall distance [yourself]” (Ex. 23:7). In this case, the word for falsity is sheker. Yet, elsewhere the Bible attests to the fact that "the remnant of Israel do no iniquity and speak no falsity (kazav)..." (Tzephania 3:13), using the word kazav to denote falsehood. A third word for “lies” is kachash, as we confess in the Yom Kippur liturgy, “on the sin that we have sinned before You through kachash and kazav.” In this essay we will explore the three words for “falsehoods” in the Hebrew Language: sheker, kazav and kachash. In doing so we will demonstrate how even though the three terms in question seem synonymous, there are nonetheless slight differences in meaning between them.

Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444) in Sefer Ha’Ikkarim (2:27) explains that the word emet (“truth”) serves as the antonym to both sheker and kazav. The way he explains it, truth is defined as a statement that reflects not only the consonance between the statement itself and reality, but also the consonance between what a person verbally expresses and what he thinks in his heart. Thus, sheker and kazav denote dissonance in one of those two equations: Sheker refers to when one’s statement and the reality that his statement speaks about are in disagreement, while kazav refers to a statement in which there is dissonance between what one says verbally and what one holds true in his heart.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) takes issue with Rabbi Albo’s assumption that even a statement that truly reflects one’s inner thoughts can be called sheker if it does not reflect an outside reality. He asks: According to this definition of sheker, how can the Torah forbid a person from testifying sheker or taking an oath of sheker (Lev. 19:11-12)? If a person cannot truly know what the outside reality really is, he can only present things as he perceives it! According to Rabbi Albo, if a person would unknowingly swear something that is objectively false, this should be considered “lying” and the swearer should be in violation of the commandment against “lying” — yet the Talmud (Shavuot 26a) exempts a person from punishment if he swore falsely while thinking that what he said is true. To Rabbi Edel, this suggests that the definition of sheker cannot just be something that is objectively untrue. Rather, it must also have an element of advertent deceit in purposely panhandling falsehood.

Indeed, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) differentiates between sheker and kazav by writing that kazav denotes lying by mistake, while sheker implies purposefully or deceptively saying something untrue. He infers from the fact that when the Torah prohibits lying, it says lo tishakru (Lev. 19:11) — as opposed to lo tichazvu — that the prohibition entails only deliberately lying, not mistakenly lying.

We may defend Rabbi Albo’s position by explaining that even though the general definition of sheker applies to any sort of objective untruth (whether said inadvertently or wantonly), the Talmud means that a Scriptural imperative (derived from Lev. 5:4) unrelated to that definition limits the prohibition of testifying or swearing falsely to one who knowingly perjures.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 9:21, 21:23 and 43:11) invokes the interchangeability of KUF and KAF to compare the word sheker to the word shikur (“drunkard”). He explains the connection by noting that just as a drunken person’s imagination dreams up all sorts of ideas that are actually outside the realm of reality, so too does sheker represent that which lies outside the realm of the true or real.

The Vilna Gaon (to Prov. 12:25) takes another approach to differentiating between sheker and kazav. He writes that when one utters sheker, it was a lie the entire time; but when one utters kazav, his statement became a lie only later on. For example, if one says that he will do something that he never planned to do, he has uttered a sheker. On the other hand, if one says that he will do something, and at that very moment he genuinely planned to do so but only later decided not to keep his word, this is called kazav. (See, Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor-Schor, to Numbers 23:19, who also explains the verb kozev asreferring to a person who does not keep his word.)

Based on this sort of distinction, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743-1826) writes that the Torah never prohibited saying a kazav like it prohibited saying sheker (Lev. 19:11), because there is no such thing as “saying kazav.” This is because in a case of kazav, at the moment that a person says he will do something, he has not yet “said kazav,” because the possibility remains that he will end up doing what he said he would do. It is only later on, when he never ends up keeping his word, that retroactively what he originally said becomes kazav.

The Malbim in Yair Ohr writes that while sheker has no validity or truth to it, kazav has some reality to it, such that at first it seems to be true and is only later fully exposed as a lie. In Sefer HaCarmel, the Malbim adds that the same utterance can sometimes be described as both sheker and kazav. For example, if somebody purposely makes a truth-claim or statement that will later be proven to be false, from the perspective of the speaker that statement is sheker because at the time he said it, he knew it to be false. However, from the perspective of the listener, that same statement can be described as kazav because when he first hears it, he cannot yet disprove its validity. Hence, when somebody brands fake news as sheker v’chazav, this means that it is both sheker from the speaker’s point of view and kavaz from the listener’s point of view.

In a variation on this theme, Rabbi Hirsch (to Ex. 7:11, 21:17) argues that the root KAF-ZAYIN-BET (from which kazav derives) is related to the root KAF-SHIN-PEH (because ZAYIN is phonetically similar to SHIN, and BET to PEH), which means “witchcraft.” He explains that like witchcraft, kazav only appears to be real on the surface, but in the end reveals itself as wholly untrue. Interestingly, the prophet Yechezkel repeatedly uses the term kazav in reference to witchery (see Yechezkel 13:6, 13:7, 13:9, 21:34, 22:28).

How does the word kachash fit into this discussion? The word kachash is commonly translated as “denial,” and the self-same verse in the Torah that prohibits lying also prohibits kachash (Lev. 19:11).

The Malbim in Sefer HaCarmel explains that kachash differs from sheker in that when a sheker-type lie is first spoken, nobody immediately disputes it, while kachash is a false statement that is already disputed by one’s interlocutor before it is even said. Rabbi Hirsch (to Lev. 5:21, 19:11, Deut. 9:7) similarly qualifies the meaning of kachash as a false reaction to another’s claim. To illustrate this point, he contrasts the word kachash with ka’as (“anger”) — presuming the interchangeability of CHET with AYIN, and SHIN with SAMECH. Rabbi Hirsch explains that ka’as refers to a real and justified reaction to someone else’s misdeed, while kachash refers to an artificial reaction of denial to someone else’s real and justified claim. When engaging in kachash, the opposing claimant pretends as though his interlocutor’s assertions are totally unjustified and flatly denies them.

Rabbi Yonah Wilheimer (1830-1913) explains that kazav and kachash refer to two different types of “lies”: kazav refers to saying about something that does not exist that it does exist (“fiction”), while kachash refers to saying about something that does exist, that it does not exist (“denial”). It would seem that, according to him, sheker is then an umbrella term that includes both of these types of lies.

Finally, Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) seems to explain that the three words in question reflect three different levels of falsehood. Sheker refers to a statement that everybody knows is false the moment it is uttered, kachash refers to a denial that has some plausibility but cannot be disproven outright, and kazav refers to any lie whose falsity can be discovered only later on.

For questions, comments, or to propose ideas for a future article, please contact the author at rcklein@ohr.edu

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