Do I Have to Tell the Truth?
Question #1: The Truth
May I take credit for something that I did not do myself?
Question #2: The Whole Truth
Must I make a full disclosure when it may cause a negative outcome?
Question #3: Nothing but the Truth!
Is it permitted to “add” to the truth?
A person must maintain total integrity in all his dealings – after all, we are commanded to act as Hashem does in all our deeds, and Hashem’s seal is truth (Shabbos 55a). Furthermore, someone 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 leneged 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 bineveilasa velo seifoch bemilei, “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, Midevar 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).
Truth in education
Regarding chinuch, we are taught, “Do not promise something to a child without giving it to him, because this teaches him to lie” (Sukkah 46b).
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 notes: “Someone who lies is not believed even when he tells the truth” (Sanhedrin 89b).
The whole truth
Despite the importance of telling the truth, there are situations where the Torah allows one to be imprecise because of a greater good. It is of paramount importance not to hurt people’s feelings, harm their reputation, embarrass them or create machlokes (Bava Metzia 23b with Rif and Tosafos). When placed in a situation in which full disclosure will cause one of these negative outcomes, one should avoid fabricating a story, but should 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 is it permitted to alter the facts in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?
In general, the Torah does not accept 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, when there is no choice other than modifying the truth, one is required to do so.
When should the truth be modified?
There are five categories of cases 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 loshon hara. Therefore, if someone is asked, “What did so-and-so say about me?” and the true answer to this question will result in loshon hara 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 should resort to fabrication rather than telling the truth that includes loshon hara or creates machlokes (Chofetz Chayim, Hilchos 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 in order to avoid machlokes or hurting someone’s feelings (Rif, Bava Metzia 23b).
Here is an example: Reuven refused to lend Shimon money, because he felt that Shimon was a credit risk.Shimon discovered that Reuven loaned money to someone else, whereupon Shimon asked Reuven why his (Shimon’s) request was turned down. To avoid hurting Shimon’s feelings or creating machlokes, Reuven may tell him that, at the time, he had no money available to lend. 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 feel good, even if the performance was actually mediocre (Kesubos 17a). Similarly, one should tell the purchaser of a new garment that it looks great, even if he thinks the opposite.
What is the halacha when a woman who values your judgment asks you how her new dress looks? If the dress does not look nice, and the situation can be modified (such as, the dress can be tailored or exchanged), you should give the appropriate advice. However, if there is no option to do anything with the dress, 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, a Torah scholar who is asked how much he knows of Shas (the entire Talmud) is permitted to say that he is familiar with a few mesechtos, even when he knows the entire Shas thoroughly (Rashi, Bava Metzia 23b). This statement is permitted, even though it is technically not true. It should be noted that modifying the truth in this situation is not required (Rif, Bava Metzia 23b). For example, 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. A person who is asked about his chesed activities should downplay his role and understate his involvement.
If a posek (halachic 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 may 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. bemesechta).
A person heavily involved in chesed projects is permitted to describe his full role, in order to encourage other people to be involved in chesed.
Someone who observes a halachic stringency must try to keep it a secret. One is even permitted to give a false reason for his behavior, rather than explain that he observes a chumrah (see Brachos 53b). For example, while attending a simcha where one’s chumrah is not observed, he should hide the fact that he is not eating. If someone notices that he is not eating, he may say that he already attended another simcha and ate there. He may say this, even if he did not attend a simcha that night and ate at home, since his statement is true (he has attended other smachos previously). This is better than saying that one’s stomach is upset (when it is not), which is an outright untruth. However, if he feels that the only excuse he can use is that he has an upset stomach, he may say so, even if he is feeling fine.
It should be noted that, in such cases as well, modifying the truth to act modestly is not required, but merely permitted (Rif to Bava Metzia 23b; Sefer Hassidim #1061).
3. To save embarrassment
If necessary, one may modify the truth to save from an embarrassing situation or to protect 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 (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 asked about someone’s personal habits, I may modify my answer, if the truth reveals private information that the person does not want divulged (Maharal, Bava Metzia 23b).
It is permitted to modify the truth to save someone from embarrassment, even if it is myself that I am saving and I also created the uncomfortable situation. For the same reason, if 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 (see Rambam, Hilchos Aveidah 14:13and Lechem Mishneh).
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 (Kiddushin 30a).
It is forbidden to be untruthful if it causes financial harm. For example, it is prohibited to deny having damaged someone’s property — even if the goal is to avoid embarrassment — if this may exempt him from compensating the owner. Similarly, it is prohibited to tell the boss that one is late to work because of a fictitious traffic tie-up.
Similarly, one may not deceive someone about a shidduch by providing misinformation that might affect the other party.
Truth in litigation
There is no heter, whatsoever, to mislead a Beis Din, even if I know that the other side is misrepresenting the facts. I may set the record straight and say that information is being fabricated.
Money received through a din Torah because of misrepresentation is considered stolen. Furthermore, a lawyer or to’en rabbani (rabbinic legal adviser) who suggests withholding relevant information in order to win a 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, in this instance, the ends (avoiding sin) justify 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 the untrustworthy person that you ate at home, even if this is not true. Early poskim describe the following situation: “Someone who is asked how he was received as a guest may lie, to protect the host from becoming inundated with more guests than he can afford” (Rashi, Bava Metzia 24a).
Similarly, if I am asked by someone who is a poor 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 or placing them at risk.
It is permitted to modify the truth to prevent someone from sinning. In this context, there is a halacha that many people find surprising. Someone thinks that what he is doing is permitted, but you know that it is 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 you have no basis to say that he said this, so that the person accepts the halacha and, therefore, does not sin (Shabbos 115a).
The Gemara records several instances of this ruling (Eruvin 51a; Pesachim 27a; see Magen Avraham,Chapter 156). Here is one example: In pre-refrigeration days, vegetables cut up before Yom Kippur would spoil before the fast ended. Rav Yehudah noticed that the vegetables were being cut up on Yom Kippur in a way that violated the halacha, but was uncertain whether he would be obeyed if he told them to stop. To put an end to the practice, he told the perpetrators that he had received a letter from Rabbi Yochanan prohibiting it.
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 invent a family relationship with the woman, in order to improve her shidduch prospects (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 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 responded that this question cannot be answered. The Gemara points out that it states clearly that darkness existed before light(Bereishis 1:2-3). Nevertheless, the scholars refrained from answering Alexander, to forestall his asking other questions that might lead to blasphemy (Tamid 32a). Therefore, when you suspect someone may turn the conversation into a topic that you do not wish to discuss, you may change the subject or say that you do not know the answer to the question.
It is permitted to exaggerate, even though the literal meaning of one’s words is inaccurate. So long as one’s intent is clear, this is neither 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 this way (Shabbos 31a).
Some contemporary poskim justify the widespread practice of printing wedding invitations knowing that the time on the invitation is earlier than the simcha will take place. Since this is intended to give people a sense of when the simcha will actually transpire, it 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 accorded with the opinion of one of his students, although it was obvious that the halacha was otherwise. 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 (Eruvin 13a).
An opposite pedagogic usage is found in a different passage of Gemara (Moed Katan 16a). Bar Kappara, one of Rebbe’s disciples, once said something disrespectful about Rebbe. Realizing that he had a halachic responsibility to reprimand Bar Kappara, the next time Bar Kappara came to visit Rebbe, Rebbe told him eini makircha mei’olam, “I have never met you.” Bar Kappara understood that Rebbe meant that he did not want to have anything to do with Bar Kappara. Bar Kappara repented and Rebbe befriended him once again.
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, eini makircha mei’olam, could also mean “I do not truly know who you are,” words that are actually very truthful — does one human being ever really know another? (Orach Meisharim 9:ftn 2) Incidentally, we see that even a statement like this, which was fully understood, should preferably be expressed in a way that has a truthful meaning, as well.
From the foregoing, it is apparent that the halachos of telling the truth are far more complex than most people realize. 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.
The Gemara tells about the community of Kishuta where everyone was very careful never to lie. In reward for this, none of them ever died prematurely (Sanhedrin 97a).
Rav Yaakov Kamenetski was once asked why he lived so long. (Several Gemara discussions imply that it is proper to try 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.”
Why is telling the truth a merit for longevity?
As mentioned earlier, someone who is meticulously honest and truthful will merit receiving the Shechinah’s presence (Orach Meisharim 9:ftn 3). The pasuk in Mishlei (16:15) teaches, be’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 with long, productive lives. May we all merit this reward!