Do I Have to Tell the Truth?
This article was originally published in the American Edition of the Yated Neeman
A person must maintain total integrity in all his dealings – after all, we are commanded to act like Hashem in all our deeds, and His seal is truth (Gemara Shabbos 55a). Furthermore, someone who is meticulously honest and truthful will merit receiving the presence of the Shechinah.
Conversely, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 103a) teaches that habitual liars will not merit to receive the Shechinah’s presence. This is derived from the pasuk, “Dover shekarim lo yikon l’neged einai,” “He who speaks lies will not be established in My sight,” (Tehillim 101:7). A person who gains nothing from his lies and simply has no regard for telling the truth, is included in the “kat shakranim” (pack of liars) who will not merit to meet Hashem (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:181; 186). This category also includes people who fail to keep their word (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:183).
Truth is so important that the Gemara teaches, “Hafoch b’neveilasa v’lo seifoch b’milei,” “Turn over a carcass and do not turn over your words,” (Pesachim 113a). This means that it is preferable to do unpleasant, malodorous work rather than talk deceitfully.
Therefore the Torah warns, “Midvar sheker tirchak,” “Keep distant from a false matter,” (Shemos 23:7). Nowhere else does the Torah command that we must “keep distant” from an activity (Sefer HaChinuch #74), which emphasizes how far we must keep from falsehood (Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 11).
Even taking credit for something that one did not do is considered a falsehood (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:184).
In addition to the halachic requirement of being meticulously honest, there is also a tangible benefit in being known as someone who always tells the truth. As the Gemara points out, “Someone who lies is not believed even when he tells the truth,” (Sanhedrin 89b).
Similarly, regarding chinuch, we are taught, “Do not promise something to a child without giving it to him because this teaches him to lie,” (Gemara Sukkah 46b).
Despite the importance of being straightforward, there are situations where the Torah allows being imprecise to circumvent damage. For example, it is more important to avoid machlokes, embarrassing someone, or hurting his feelings or reputation, than it is to tell the entire truth (Bava Metzia 23b with Rif and Tosafos). When placed in a situation in which full disclosure will cause one of these negative outcomes, avoid fabricating a story but omit the harmful information (see Chofetz Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 1:8). However, if machlokes may result if one answers truthfully, one must modify the truth, rather than create ill feeling.
WHY MAY I MODIFY THE TRUTH?
Why is it permitted to alter the facts in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?
In general, the Torah does not accept the theory that the end justifies the means. Thus, one is generally not permitted to do something halachically wrong in order to accomplish a positive result. However, altering the truth to avoid machlokes or to save someone from hurt is an exception to this rule.
Even in these situations, changing the truth should be a last resort. When the situation can be resolved without resorting to untruth, one must do so. Furthermore, it is preferable to give a truthful answer that omits the harmful information rather than modify the truth (see Chofetz Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 1:8). However, if there is no choice other than modifying the truth, one is required to do so.
WHEN MAY ONE MODIFY THE TRUTH?
There are five situations when modifying the truth is permitted. They are:
One is required to avoid dispute or ill feeling even if it requires distorting the truth. This also includes situations where telling the truth will result in lashon hora. Therefore, if someone is asked, “What did so-and-so say about me?” and the true answer to this question will result in lashon hora or ill feeling, one may not give a complete answer. As mentioned above, it is preferable to answer in a way that is not an outright untruth, such as telling part of the story that has no negative ramifications. If there is no choice, one must say a fabrication rather than telling the truth that includes lashon hora or creates machlokes (Chofetz Chayim, Hilchos Issurei Rechilus 1:8).
It should be noted that when there is no way to avoid modifying the truth for the sake of shalom, it is not only permitted but obligatory (Rif, Bava Metzia 23b).
Here are some examples. Reuven refused to lend Shimon money because he felt that Shimon was a credit risk. (One is not required to lend money if there is valid reason to suspect that it will not be repaid.) Later, Shimon discovered that Reuven loaned money to someone else and asked Reuven why his (Shimon’s) request was turned down. To avoid hurting Shimon’s feelings or creating machlokes, Reuven may tell him that he had no money available to lend at the time. As mentioned above, this approach should be used only as a last resort. It is preferable for Reuven to change the subject or respond to the answer in a different inoffensive way that is not a fabrication.
For the same reason (to avoid hurting a person’s feelings), it is permitted to praise a person’s performance to make him/her feel good, even if the performance was actually mediocre (Kesuvos 17a). Similarly, if someone purchased a new garment, one should tell the purchaser that it looks great even if one thinks the opposite.
What happens if someone asks you how their new dress looks because they value your judgment? If the dress does not look nice, and the situation can be modified (such as, the dress can be tailored or exchanged) then one should give appropriate advice. However, if there is no option to do anything with it, you should remark that it looks nice. After all, there are certainly some people who will think it looks nice on her.
It is advisable to act humbly and to answer questions modestly. For example, if a Torah scholar is asked how much he knows of Shas (the entire Talmud), he is permitted to say that he is familiar with a few mesechtos (tractates) even though he actually knows the entire Shas thoroughly (Rashi, Bava Metzia 23b). This statement is permitted even though it implies that he does not know most of Shas and is an untruth according to halacha. It should be noted that modifying the truth in this situation is not required (Rif, Bava Metzia 23b; Sefer Hassidim #1061 states that it is preferable not to say a lie in order to be modest but instead to change the subject).
Likewise, one should be careful not to boast or advertise the chesed that one performs. Someone who is asked about one’s chesed activities should downplay one’s role and understate one’s involvement.
If a posek (halacha authority) is asked whether he is qualified to pasken a certain shaylah, he should answer truthfully but not boastfully. He can say something like, “There are people who ask me shaylos,” or “Rav so-and-so told me that I can pasken” which, if said in a humble tone of voice, is informative and not boastful. In this situation, underplaying his knowledge is counterproductive, since the person who has a shaylah will not feel comfortable that he can ask (Tosafos Bava Metzia 23b s.v. b’mesechta).
Similarly, a person who is heavily involved in chesed projects is permitted to describe one’s full role in order to encourage other people to be involved in chesed.
Someone who observes a halachic stringency (a chumrah) must try to keep this a secret. One is even permitted to give a false reason for one’s behavior rather than explain that he observes a chumrah (see Gemara Brachos 53b).
For example, while attending a simcha where one’s chumrah is not observed, one should try to hide the fact that one is not eating. If someone notices that one is not eating, one may explain that one attended another simcha earlier and ate already. One may say this even if one did not attend a simcha that night and one ate at home, since one’s statement is true (he has attended other simchos previously). This is better than saying that one’s stomach is upset (when it is not) which is an outright untruth. However, if one feels that the only excuse one can use is that one’s stomach is upset, one is permitted to do so.
It should be noted that modifying the truth to act modestly is not required, but merely permitted (Rif to Bava Metzia 23b; Sefer Hassidim #1061).
3. TO SAVE SOMEONE FROM EMBARRASSMENT
If necessary, one may modify the truth to save someone from an embarrassing situation or to protect one’s privacy. Therefore, if someone asks me a question that infringes on my privacy, I may give him an untrue answer if there is no other way to avoid the situation without being offensive (Gemara Bava Metzia 23b). It is usually better to give an untrue answer than to point out that the question was inappropriate, which might embarrass the person asking the question.
Similarly, if I am asked about someone’s personal habits, I may modify my answer, if the truth might reveal private information that the person might not want to divulge (Maharal, Bava Metzia 23b).
One may modify the truth to save oneself from embarrassment even if one caused the uncomfortable situation oneself. For the same reason, if I am asked a question on a Gemara to which I do not know the answer but should, I may reply that I have not learned that Gemara recently even if I have (Rambam, Hilchos Aveidah 4:13).
Although it is permitted to modify the truth to save oneself from embarrassment, it is not preferred behavior (Orach Meisharim). Of course, the best thing is to know the Gemara adequately enough to answer the question (Gemara Kidushin 30a).
It is forbidden to give an untrue answer if it deceives or causes someone financial harm. In financial matters, one must be absolutely truthful. Therefore, it is prohibited to deny having broken someone’s property to avoid paying for it. It is also prohibited to deny breaking it even if one’s goal is to avoid embarrassment, if this might exempt one from paying for the broken item.
It is forbidden to mislead someone. It is therefore prohibited to tell the boss that one is late to work because of a fictitious traffic tie-up.
There is no heter whatsoever to mislead in Beis Din, even if I am convinced that I am in the right and the other side is misrepresenting the facts. (It is permitted to say that the other side is fabricating information.) Receiving money through a din Torah because of a misrepresentation is stolen money (Urim V’Tumim 34:1). Furthermore, a lawyer or to’en rabbani (Rabbinic legal adviser) who suggests that someone withhold information in order to “win the case” violates several serious prohibitions.
4. PROTECTING SOMEONE
One may modify the truth to protect a person from harm or to prevent him from sinning. Again, the halachic principle is that the ends (avoiding sin) justifies the means (altering the facts).
A few examples will clarify what we mean. An unsavory or untrustworthy person asks you where you were a guest last Shabbos because he wants to invite himself to the same host. Since the results may be detrimental, you may tell him that you ate at home. Early poskim describe the following situation: “If someone is asked how he was received as a guest, he may lie so that the host does not become inundated with more guests than he can afford” (Rashi, Bava Metzia 24a). This does not mean that the guest says that he was ill-treated, which would be lashon hora, but that he should imply that he was treated in a nice, but not spectacular way (Maharal).
Similarly, if I am asked by someone who is a bad credit risk where he can borrow money, I may tell him that I don’t know, rather than putting potential lenders in an uncomfortable position.
It is permitted to modify the truth to prevent someone from sinning. In this context, there is a halacha that many people find surprising. You find yourself in a situation where a person thinks that what he doing is permitted, but you know that it is definitely forbidden. You know that the perpetrator will not accept your halachic opinion unless you quote it in the name of a well-known posek. It is permitted (but not required) to quote the psak in the name of a well-known posek (even if he said no such thing) so that the person accepts what you say and does not sin (Gemara Shabbos 115a).
The Gemara records several instances of this ruling. In Rav Yehudah’s house, they used to cut up vegetables on Yom Kippur afternoon so that they should be ready to serve immediately following the fast. (In pre-refrigeration days, vegetables cut up before Yom Kippur could spoil by the end of the fast.) Rav Yehudah noticed that the vegetables were being cut in a way that violated the halacha, but was uncertain whether he would be obeyed. In order to stop the practice, he told them that he had received a letter from Rabbi Yochanan prohibiting it. Several similar stories are told in the Gemara (Eiruvin 51a; Pesachim 27a; Beitzah 20a; see Magen Avraham Chapter 156).
Under the category of protecting people from undesirable situations, the Gemara tells us a very interesting story about the great tzaddik, Iyov. When he heard about a widow who wanted to remarry but was not receiving any shidduch suggestions, Iyov would advertise that she was his relative in order to improve her shidduch prospects (Gemara Bava Basra 16a).
If I am asked questions that will lead in an undesirable direction, it is permitted to modify the truth in order to politely cut off the questioning. The Gemara tells us the following story: Alexander the Great (whom the Gemara calls “Alexander the Macedonian”) once met the Talmudic scholars of the Negev and asked them several philosophic questions. When he asked them whether light was created first or darkness, they answered that this question has no answer. The Gemara points out that although a pasuk (Breishis 1:2-3) clearly states that darkness existed before light, the scholars refrained from answering Alexander to forestall him from discussing questions that might lead to blasphemy (Gemara Tamid 32a).
Therefore, if you know that someone may turn the conversation into a topic that you would not wish to discuss, you should change the subject or say that you do not know the answer to the question.
On the other hand, one may not be untruthful if it deceives or causes someone personal or financial harm. For example, one may not deny having broken someone’s property even if one’s intent is only to avoid embarrassment, if this might exempt one from compensating the owner. Similarly, one may not deceive someone about a shidduch by providing misinformation that might affect the other party.
It is permitted to exaggerate even though the literal meaning of one’s words are inaccurate. So long as one’s intent is clear, this is not deceptive nor dishonest, but simply idiomatic. Therefore, it is permitted to say that something has happened “millions of times” since everyone understands that this is an exaggeration. Similarly, it is permitted to call a fellow Jew “my brother,” since all Jews are related and, furthermore, we are all brothers in mitzvos. It is also permitted to call a student “my son,” since the pasuk refers to our students as our children (Shabbos 31a).
With a similar line of reasoning, some contemporary poskim justify the widespread practice of printing wedding invitations with a schedule when everyone knows that the chupah will take place later that the what is printed on the invitation. Since it is known that the time on the invitation is earlier than the simcha will take place, and is intended to give people a sense of when the simcha will actually transpire, this is considered an exaggeration that does not violate the mitzvah of being truthful.
There are a few other instances where one is permitted to say something even though the literal meaning of one’s words is not exactly true. Following a halachic discussion with his disciples, Rabbi Akiva said that the halacha was like one of the students, although it was obvious to all of them that the halacha was otherwise. In the context of the discussion, stating that the halacha was like this student meant that the student’s reasoning was very solid, and the compliment would encourage the students to study with more enthusiasm (Gemara Eiruvin 13a).
An opposite pedagogic use is found in a different Gemara. Bar Kappara, one of Rebbe’s disciples, once said something disrespectful about Rebbe. The next time Bar Kappara came to visit Rebbe, Rebbe told him “Aini makircha mei’olam,” which can translate into English as “I do not know who you are.” Bar Kappara understood that Rebbe did not want to have anything to do with him, as if they had never met. Bar Kappara repented and Rebbe befriended him once again (Moed Katan 16a).
However, how could Rebbe make an untruthful statement? Because Bar Kappara understood Rebbe’s intent, this was not regarded as an untruth. Furthermore, Rebbe’s words, “I do not know who you are” were actually very truthful – Does one human being ever really know another? (Orach Meisharim). Incidentally, we see that even a statement like this, which was fully understood, should preferably be expressed in a way that it has a truthful meaning as well.
As we can see, the halachos of telling the truth are far more involved than most people realize. An excellent sefer on the subject is by Rabbi Daniel Travis, entitled “Priceless Integrity.”
Those who tell the truth will receive the presence of the Shechinah. Many special blessings are bestowed on someone who is meticulous about telling only the truth as required by halacha.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky was once asked why he lived so long. (We see in Gemara discussions that it is considered an area of halacha to answer this question accurately.) After contemplating the question for a while, Rav Yaakov reluctantly answered, “Probably in the merit of the fact that I have never told a lie”.
The Gemara tells about the community of Kishuta where everyone was very careful to never lie. In reward for this, none of them ever died prematurely (Sanhedrin 97a).
Why is telling the truth a zechus for longevity?
As mentioned earlier, someone who is meticulously honest and truthful will merit to receive the Shechinah’s presence. The pasuk in Mishlei (16:15) teaches, “B’or pnei Melech chayim,” “Those who are in the light of the King will live.” Furthermore, Hashem’s brachos rest on those who imitate His ways, and His essence is truth (Sefer HaChinuch #74). Therefore, those who live with meticulous honesty are rewarded to live long productive lives (Orach Meisharim).
May we all merit this reward!