Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion


“I wasn’t lying…I was just being economical with the truth”[1]

While the Torah itself does not (explicitly) criticize the deviations our ancestors made from the straight and narrow path, Chazal were more forthright in their remarks. The great 13th century commentator, Ramban, for example, refers to Avram’s action as “a great sin,” for rather than play with the truth in order to preserve his life, he should have “trusted in Hashem to save him (12:10[2] ).” And Nechama Leibowitz[3] of our own times brilliantly portrays how “The vicissitudes of Ya’akov’s life teach us, at every step, how he was repaid – measure for measure – for taking advantage of his father’s blindness. His sons deceived him when they presented him with Yosef’s bloodstained coat of many colors.” Moreover, “Lavan’s statement – ‘it must not be done so in ourcountry to give the younger before the firstborn [rather than the elder] (29:26)’ – contains a veiled allusion to Esav’s bitter plaint (‘he has taken my firstbornright’) [as if to say] ‘In our country it is not done for the younger to usurp the rights of the firstborn as you did.’”

By contrast, Radak, writing in the 12th century, defends the behavior of the Avot: “How could righteous and God-fearing Ya’akov have spoken falsely? This does not pose a problem, for Ya’akov knew that he was more fitting to receive his father’s blessing than his brother and more worthy in God’s eyes; and therefore lying in circumstances such as these is not reproachable… The same applies to Avraham and Yitzchak who called their wives “my sister”… for they acted out of fear; and similarly Ya’akov, if he did ‘change his word’ this did not amount to a falsity.” For Radak then, ‘being economical with the truth’ for a worthy purpose is not despicable behavior.

What constitutes a ‘worthy purpose’ which may justify the utterance of an untruth? The Talmud in Yevamot (65b) sheds light on this question: “…It is permissible for a person to deviate from the true facts in the interests of peace, as the Pasuk states (50:16): [Yosef’s brothers instructed that Yosef be told] ‘Your father gave orders before his death, saying: Thus shall you say to Yosef: ‘O please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin…’ And as Rashi comments: “Ya’akov gave no such orders; but the brothers altered matters for the sake of peace [family unity].”

Chazal went so far as to even suggest that God Himself “deviated from the truth for the sake of peace”: When Avraham and Sarah are informed that they will give birth to a baby boy, Sarah is incredulous: “After I have withered shall I again have delicate skin?And my husbandis old!” (18:12). By contrast, when Hashem reports back to Avraham Sarah’s words (18:13), “for the sake of peace between husband and wife, the Torah [i.e. God] now changes the uncomplimentary reference from her husband to herself[‘Shall I in truth bear a child when Ihave aged?’]” (Rashi)!

We stated above that Avraham and Yitzchak “altered their words” by representing their wives as their sisters. Why did Chazal not derive from these incidents, or from Ya’akov’s pretending to be his brother, Esav, in our Parsha, that it is permissible to deviate from the true facts in the interests of peace or for the sake of obtaining a blessing or other worthy cause?

It may be[4] that Chazal wished to avoid elevating the acts of Avraham and Yitzchak as “ideal lies” because their situation involved placing another person in danger for the sake of their own survival. Chazal preferred to illustrate their normative principle regarding the permit to lie in certain circumstances specifically in the Yosef-story which involved both a worthy cause (preserving family unity) and the use of admissible means – not causing harm to another person: because it is possible that even if Ya’akov did not, in fact, make the statement, he almost certainly would have agreed with it! Ya’akov’s pretense to be his brother, Esav, is not a worthy model, in Chazal’s eyes, being an expression of unfaithfulness to the truth in order to obtain an exclusive blessing, depriving his other brother of any blessing in the process. Chazal preferred to use as their model a case involving a possible untruth which was intended to bring about family harmony, rather than a case in which the lack of commitment to the truth was intended for the sake of suppression and triumph (as is made clear by Yitzchak’s blessing to Ya’akov (27:37): “Behold I have made him your lord, and all his kin have I given to him as his servants”).

This principle of prioritizing family unity over strict truth is also illustrated in the famous dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel regarding “how one should dance before a bride” (Ketubot 16b-17a). Beit Hillel held that all brides must be praised, without exception, as to their beauty. Beit Shammai objected, saying: “Each bride – as she is!” According to Beit Shamai, those who follow the ruling of Beit Hillel are liars, for if they happen to be at the wedding of a bride who is not beautiful – how can they sing to her a song which contains untrue statements?!

Beit Shammai seem to be standing firmly on a principle, which is in fact difficult to contradict, that a person must speak the truth. If the bride is not beautiful, how can one praise her beauty? How can Beit Hillel possibly defend a position which opposes speaking the truth? One answer could be that according to Beit Hillel the value of praising a bride exceeds in importance the value of sticking to the truth!

On the other hand, Beit Hillel’s response to Beit Shammai’s question is extremely instructive: When one sees the purchase of another in the market – even if it seems to him to have been an unwise purchase – he should praise the buyer about his purchase and not criticize it thereby causing the buyer sadness. According to Beit Hillel, the proper reaction in this case is to empathize with his partner (in marriage or in dialogue) – because from the groom’s viewpoint the bride is for him, in one way or other, a beautiful and gracious kallah! Were it not so, he would not marry her! In other words, Beit Hillel might argue that in the case of someone or something one’s partner finds dear, truth is not necessarily objective – it may, in fact, be subjective!

One final illuminating source is Shmuel’s statement in Bava Metzia 23b, which states that in three cases, Talmidei Chachamimmay alter their words: when questioned about their learning (in order not to become complacent about how much they know), about marital matters (which deserve to be kept private) or when asked about families who have hosted them (so that others will not burden these same hosts!)

Question for thought: Would Halakha/Israeli Law recognize as a worthy cause a false claim made by a defendant in court if this is the only way to prove his innocence against a rogue plaintiff who has brought him to court? See next week’s column for the answer!