"…That it will go well with me for your sake, and through your efforts my
life will be spared." (Bereshith 12:13)
Here Avraham is requesting of Sarah that she claim to be his sister. The
words “it will go well with me,” refer to nothing less than the saving of
Avraham’s life, for one is not required to tell the truth if it could
cause death (1). Therefore, when Avraham was asked what was in the crate
in which Sarah lay hidden, he responded that it contained only wheat (2).
Although it was not true, this response was absolutely permissible.
Although it is permitted to deviate from the truth to save a life, this
leniency does not apply in every situation. It is forbidden under any
circumstances for someone to say that he is an idol worshipper, even to
save his life. If the claim that he worships idols would save his life, it
is clear that his adversaries have decided to kill him because of the fact
that he is Jewish and he rejects their beliefs. In that case, claiming to
be an idol worshipper would be tantamount to saying that he accepts their
Rav Tzvi Meiselman was a doctor in an American field hospital during World
War II. The head of the hospital was extremely anti-Semitic, and Rav
Meiselman did everything he could to hide the fact that he was an
observant Jew. Eventually the head of the hospital caught on to his
peculiar behavior and confronted him, asking him which faith he adhered
to. Rav Meiselman unequivocally replied that he was Jewish, and as a
punishment was sent to the front line. That hospital was later bombed.
Everyone in it was killed, while Rav Meiselman lived for many years after
the war (4).
If someone is asked directly which religion he believes in, as in the
above story, one must tell the truth. However, if at all possible, one
must avoid being killed. It is therefore permitted to make a statement
which may be misconstrued by others, such as a statement that would imply
that one is not Jewish, although one has not actually said so (5). Rav
Chaim Shor (author of Torath Chaim) described just such a situation. When
a certain great rav was asked by the border guards if he was Jewish he
responded “kein,” which means “no” in German and “yes” in Hebrew. They
allowed him to pass, and he fled to safety (6). We may well ask how the
border patrol could have been so easily duped. Would not his clothing have
given him away as a Jew? The answer is that he had dressed himself as a
non-Jew, for one is permitted to dress oneself in a way that disguises
one’s true identity, if doing so will save one’s life (7).
1. Radak on Bereshith 12:13.
2. Midrash Tanchuma 5.
3. Rosh, Avodah Zarah 2:4. See also Sefer Chasidim 702, which cites an
exception to this principle.
4. Heard from Rav Moshe Meiselman.
5. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 157:2.
6. Torath Chaim, Avodah Zara 17a.
7. Nemukei Yosef, Avodah Zara 40a.