Do I Have to Tell the Truth?
This week in Eretz Yisrael, we read the parshiyos of Acharei and Kedoshim. Those of our readers who are in chutz la’aretz will be reading the parshiyos of Tazria and Metzora. Since both of these readings have to do with telling the truth, I am presenting:
Do I Have to Tell the Truth?
A person must maintain total integrity in all his dealings – after all, we are commanded to act like Hashem in all our deeds, and Hashem’s seal is truth (Shabbos 55a). Furthermore, someone who is meticulously honest and truthful will merit receiving the Presence of the Shechinah.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 103a) teaches that habitual liars will not merit receiving the Shechinah’s Presence. This is derived from the pasuk, “Dover shekarim lo yikon l’neged einai,” “He who speaks lies shall not remain steadfast 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 meeting Hashem (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:181; 186) in the World to Come. This category 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,” “Distance yourself from falsehood,” (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). Similarly, 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 points out, “Someone who lies is not believed even when he tells the truth,” (Sanhedrin 89b).
WHY MAY I MODIFY THE TRUTH?
Notwithstanding how important it is to tell the truth, there are situations where the Torah allows being imprecise to avoid damage. In other words, despite the importance of being truthful, there are other values which the Torah considers even greater. Although, in general, the Torah does not accept that the end justifies the means, and one is normally not permitted to do something wrong in order to accomplish a positive result, digression from the truth is permitted at times, since the alternative may cause greater harm. 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 telling the truth will cause one of these negative results, one must find an alternative solution.
Even in these situations, changing the truth should be a last resort. When the situation can be resolved without telling an untruth, one must choose the alternate path. 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 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 the part of the story that has no negative ramifications. If there is no choice, one must offer a fabrication, rather than telling the truth that includes lashon hora 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 (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. I discuss the details of this halacha in a different article.) 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 her new dress looks because she values 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 it is, technically, not true. It should be noted that modifying the truth in this situation is not required, but merely permitted (Rif to Bava Metzia 23b; Sefer Hassidim #1061 states that it is preferable not to tell 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 his chesed activities should downplay his role and understate his involvement.
If a posek is asked whether he is qualified to answer 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” 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 to ask (Tosafos, Bava Metzia 23b s.v. b’mesechta).
Similarly, a person who is heavily involved in chesed projects is permitted to describe his full role in order to encourage other people to be involved as well.
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 Brachos 53b).
For example, let us say that one follows a particular chumrah and he is invited to attend a simcha where one’s chumrah is not observed. Or alternatively, one is invited to a simcha where one has qualms about the kashrus standard maintained by the hechsher, and therefore one has chosen not to eat there. One should try to hide the fact that one is not eating. If someone else notices that one is not eating, one may explain that he attended another simcha earlier and had already eaten. One may say this even if he did not attend a simcha that night and ate at home, since this 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 a person feels that the only excuse he can use is that his stomach is upset, he is permitted to do so.
3. TO SAVE SOMEONE FROM EMBARRASSMENT
If necessary, one may modify the truth to save a person 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 who is asking.
Similarly, if I am asked about my own or someone else’s personal habits, I may modify my answer, if the truth could reveal private information that I do not want to divulge (Maharal, Bava Metzia 23b).
One may modify the truth to save oneself from embarrassment, even if he himself caused the uncomfortable situation. 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 (Kiddushin 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 a person. 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.) Money received through a din Torah because of 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 in this instance the end (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 to the potential host, you may tell the “guest” 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, or having them lend money to someone when they should not.
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 is 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), in order that the person accept what you say and not sin (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 would 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 (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 or darkness was created first, they answered that this question has no answer. The Gemara points out that although a pasuk (Bereishis 1:2-3) clearly states that darkness existed before light, the scholars refrained from answering Alexander to forestall his discussing questions that might lead to blasphemy (Gemara Tamid 32a).
Therefore, if you know that someone may turn the conversation toward 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.
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 neither deceptive nor dishonest, but simply an accepted way of expression. Therefore, it is permitted to say that something has happened “millions of times”, since everyone understands that this is an accepted, commonly used 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 than the time printed on the invitation. Since it is known that the time on the invitation is earlier than when the simcha will take place, and is intended to give people a sense of approximately 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 according to the opinion of one of the students, although it was obvious to all of them that it was otherwise. In the context of the discussion, stating that the halacha was the same as his student’s ruling meant that the student’s reasoning was very solid, and the compliment would encourage the students to study with more enthusiasm (Eiruvin 13a).
An opposite pedagogic usage is found in a different 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 “Aini makircha mei’olam,” “I have never met you.” 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.
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, “Aini makircha mei’olam,” could also mean, “I do not truly know who you are,” words that are actually very truthful. Does any 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 has a truthful meaning as well.
As we can see, the halachos of telling the truth are far more involved 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 the truth only as required by halacha.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky was once asked why he lived so long. (We see in Gemara discussions that this is a topic worthy of discussion.) 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 receiving 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!