Dear Jew in the City –
I know that George Washington once said, “I cannot tell a lie.” Is that the Jewish approach or is lying justified sometimes?
Pants on Fire
As the story goes, young George Washington once chopped down a cherry tree with his hatchet. When his father confronted him and asked who did it, George responded with “I cannot tell a lie” and confessed to the deed. This legend is an invention – it never happened! Nevertheless, it still contains an important lesson. How so? I’ll explain with a story:
The Chofetz Chaim was once called upon to serve as a character witness in a court case. When asked the Chofetz Chaim’s qualifications, the lawyer proceeded to relate stories of the rabbi’s great piety. Those familiar with such “rebbe stories” know that they tend to be a little over-the-top. Accordingly, the judge asked the lawyer, “You don’t really believe all that, do you?”
“No,” the lawyer replied, “but they don’t tell such stories about you and me.”
Now I don’t know if this courtroom drama ever actually occurred – and I know George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree – but the accuracy of such histories is immaterial. The Chofetz Chaim had a reputation for piety and George Washington had a reputation for honesty. This is why stories such as these “have legs.”
As far as the position of honesty in Judaism, I can say without fear of contradiction that it is one of the most highly-treasured values.
The Sages demonstrated the value of truth through some clever wordplay. In Hebrew, truth is emes (emet in Sephardi pronunciation; emeth in Yemenite); falsehood is sheker. Emes is spelled alef-mem-sav and sheker is spelled shin-kuf-reish. The letters of emes are the first letter (alef), the middle letter (mem) and the last (sav), demonstrating that truth is all-encompassing; it runs the gamut from A to Z. The letters of sheker are three consecutive letters at the end of the alphabet; falsehood is marginalized.
Not only that, the letters that make up emes all have two legs or a solid base; if they were three-dimensional, they could stand. The letters that make up sheker all have one leg or a point for their base; if they were solid, they would tip over. This demonstrates that the truth can stand on its own but falsehood, if not propped up, collapses.
So much for the clever wordplay. Let’s look at some nitty gritty:
Here’s an example of how far one must carry truth. Let’s say that there are three lenders; we’ll call them Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And they all have the same borrower; we’ll call him Moe.
Let’s say that Moe borrowed $1,000 each from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and he didn’t repay any of them. There are no witnesses and no paperwork. If Abraham, Isaac or Jacob takes Moe to beis din (the Jewish court), it’s one man’s word against the other’s. The burden of proof is on the one trying to collect and in such a situation it’s unlikely that any of the litigants would be able to recover their money.
Now let’s say that Abraham takes Moe to court and claims that Moe borrowed $3,000 from him alone, and Isaac and Jacob appear as witnesses substantiating his claim. In this manner, Abraham can easily collect $3,000 from Moe, recover his $1,000 and repay Isaac and Jacob the money they borrowed as well.
This is completely prohibited. One is not permitted to lie even to reach a just outcome (Talmud Shevuos 31a).
Nevertheless, there are situations in which it is, in fact, permitted to lie – and we learn this from God Himself!
When God told Avraham and Sarah that they would have a child (in Genesis chapter 18), Sarah laughed, saying that she and her husband were too old. When God related Sarah’s words to Avraham, He only mentioned that Sarah said that she was old. God selectively edited Sarah’s words to prevent Avraham being embarrassed and getting upset at Sarah. We learn from this that a “white lie” is permitted to promote shalom bayis (peace in the home – Talmud Yevamos 65b).
This was also the modus operandi of Aaron, brother of Moshe. Avos d’Rabbi Nosson (chapter 12) details how Aaron would make peace between feuding friends. He would approach each party separately and tell them that the other person was sorry and wanted to make up. Aaron was so beloved because of this that the nation mourned his passing even more than they did that of Moshe, their great leader! (See Rashi on Number 20:29 and Deuteronomy 34:8.)
There are other situations in which one might tell a white lie. These include concealing one’s own accomplishments for the sake of humility, protecting others from embarrassment, and saving people from trouble or inconvenience. Nevertheless, there are parameters. For example, one should try to avoid uttering an outright untruth; it is preferable to tell a “half-truth” (as God did when He merely omitted half of Sarah’s statement). Similarly, one should only use this tactic when absolutely necessary. (There are other permitted scenarios and other parameters for their usage. This is not the place for an exhaustive overview of all the laws.)
So we see that truth is extremely important, so much so that one cannot lie in court even to reach a just verdict. Nevertheless, white lies that make peace and hurt no one are permitted. I think that even Presidents George Washington (who could not tell a lie) and “Honest Abe” Lincoln would be okay with that.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent