DISTANCE YOURSELF FROM FALSEHOOD Part 1
In the midst of outlining the laws for Judges the Torah tells
us; “Distance yourself from falsehood.1 ” In this context it teaches that a Judge must strive
to cling to the truth in his assessment of the case in hand. However, the
Rabbis teach that this commandment is not restricted to the Jewish Law
courts, rather it applies to many aspects of our everyday life. Indeed it
is one of the most important and yet easily misunderstood commands in the
Torah. Over the next few weeks we hope to define clearly what does and
does not constitutes falsehood.2
It is commonly assumed that falsehood is dependent on whether the words
that one speaks are technically accurate or not - if one can say words
that are technically accurate then there is a tendency to assume that it
is permitted to say them even if they are actually misleading. For
example, John phones Bill because Bill owes John money and John wants to
collect the debt. Bill’s wife picks up the phone but Bill has no desire
to speak to John and wants to hide the fact that he is in fact home and
available to speak to John. Therefore he steps outside the house and
tells his wife to say that he is not home. This is technically true - he
is now not actually in the house. Is this permitted? The answer is that
this is in fact a transgression of the Torah’s command to distance oneself
from falsehood. Why is this the case, she did not say anything untrue?
The answer is that the Torah’s definition of falsehood is not based merely
on the words that are said - what is of far more significance is the
message being conveyed. If that is misleading then it is forbidden to
speak that way3 even if the words are
technically true. In this case, John is not really concerned as to
whether Bill is standing inside the house or just outside it - he wants to
know if Bill is available to speak to about the debt4 and the truth of the matter is that Bill is indeed
We now understand the first aspect of the prohibition to lie- that one
cannot mislead other people even if the words are technically true. This
is very important, because it teaches us the principle behind this
command. The Torah does not want us to go around misleading and tricking
people but saying things that are technically true. The Torah wants us to
be intrinsically honest people and not spend our time deceiving people.
1 Mishpatim, 23:7.
2 There are a number of facets to these laws and it is
important to note that with regard to this law in particular we cannot
apply what is written in these essays until they are all completed. Even
then, it is strongly advisable to not make a personal judgment in
specific cases, rather to ask a Rabbinic authority for his guidance.
3 There are cases where it may be permitted to mislead people
but at present we are discussing the majority of situations where there is
no special leniency to lie.
4 We deliberately made this case one in which John had every
right to speak to Bill. However, as we will discuss in the coming weeks,
in situations where John has no right to demand Bill’s time, then it may
be permitted to lie in some form.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and Torah.org