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Should Moral Individuals Ever Lie? Insights from Jewish Law
Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D. and Abraham C. Weisel, Esq.

Should Moral Individuals Ever Lie? Insights from Jewish Law

by Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D. and Abraham C. Weisel, Esq.

Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.
Professor of Business and Marketing
Director of Business Program
Department of Economics
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York

Abraham C. Weisel, Esq.

© 2003 Dr. H. H. Friedman and A. C. Weisel


Dishonesty and deception are serious crimes in Jewish law. The Torah explicitly demands that one should "Distance himself from a false matter." There are, however, situations in which Jewish law permits or even demands that one engage in deception. This paper will discuss when it is permissible in Jewish law to prevaricate and deceive.
Recently, a psychology study found that the average person lies about 150 to 200 times per day. (Geary, 2000; Walsh, 2001). At first blush, such numbers seem to stagger rather than inform. Most people would be offended if they were told that they tell an average of eight to twelve untruths every waking hour. Nonetheless, after additional reflection and careful consideration of true day-to-day social interactions, we almost intuit that lying is not only more common than we expect, it is more necessary as well.

Indubitably, truth is important for the welfare of society. The famous dictum by Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 1:18) proclaims "the world endures on three things: justice, truth, and peace." It is difficult to imagine a society surviving for long if no one cares about honesty. Are there situations where one is permitted, or even obligated, to lie? This is a question that has been of great interest to theologians, philosophers, and religious leaders.

It appears that Aristotle in his Ethics feels that it is never permissible to prevaricate. Plato, on the other hand, in his Republic, is of the opinion that there are situations when one is indeed permitted to lie. For instance, he allows physicians to lie to patients if it is for their own good and statesmen to deceive if it is for the welfare of the public. Similarly, Christian thinkers and modern philosophers have also divided into two camps: Those who take an absolutist position on lying, whereby it is always forbidden, and those who believe that falsehoods are sometimes necessary, and accordingly, permissible.

In De Mendacio (On Lying), written c. 395 C.E., Augustine takes an absolutist approach to lying. Citing Psalms (5: 6-7) he rhetorically queries: How can one ever prevaricate if the Lord abhors liars and will destroy them. Accordingly, Augustine does not agree with those that favorably point to the two Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who risked their lives by lying to the Pharaoh in order to save the newborn Israelite babies in Egypt (Exodus 1: 19-21), as proof that it may be praiseworthy to be dishonest. To Augustine, lies are abhorrent, even if for a good purpose. Augustine, however, espouses a hierarchy among eight types of lies, ranging from falsehoods "in religious doctrine" (the worst) to lies that do not hurt anyone. Similarly, Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologia, Part II, Question 110) also took an absolutist approach to lying and believed that "every lie is a sin" yet he too, makes distinctions among falsehoods. Jocose (made in jest) and officious (for the benefit of others) lies are not mortal sins and "the greater the good intended, the more is the sin of lying diminished in gravity." Unsurprisingly, injurious, hurtful lies that are harmful to others are deemed mortal sins.

Immanuel Kant also took the absolutist position and claimed that a lie is a "crime of man against his own person" and must therefore be shunned regardless of the costs. He also took the position that one is never permitted to lie even if there is a murderer at the door looking for his victim’s room.

Some religious leaders did not agree with the absolutist view on falsehoods. St. John Chrysostom believed that lying in order to benefit others is permitted. Cassian and Origen felt that sometimes lies are necessary but they should be used the way we use medicine, something we do with distaste but out of necessity (Catholic Encyclopedia). Martin Luther also felt that lying for the sake of the Christian church would not be a sin.

Grotius (1925), the seventeenth century Dutch theologian and legal scholar, by many considered "the father of modern international law," also rejects the absolutist position and asserts that falsehoods are only a problem if it violates the right of the individual who hears it. Suppose the individual telling the lie has wicked intentions, then s/he forfeits the right to hear the truth. Similarly, children are too young to have acquired this right and thus may be lied to.

Sidgwick (1966, 313-316) makes the argument that if we may kill to defend ourselves, why should we not be able to lie if this will provide us with a better means of protection. He asserts the following:

Where deception is designed to benefit the person deceived, Common Sense seems to concede that it may sometimes be right: for example, most persons would not hesitate to speak falsely to an invalid, if this seemed the only way of concealing facts that might produce a dangerous shock: nor do I perceive that any one shrinks front telling fictions to children, on matters upon which it is thought well that they should not know the truth.

Bok (1999; pp. 90 -106) feels that there are several conditions that may excuse a falsehood. A "test of publicity" should be used to determine whether a lie is justifiable. The test asks (p. 93): "Which lies, if any, would survive the appeal for justification to reasonable persons. It requires us to seek concrete and open performance of an exercise crucial to ethics: the Golden Rule, basic to so many religious and moral traditions."

Bok suggests that, as part of the test, one should first consult with her own conscience and ask how she would feel if roles were reversed and she were lied to. Also, will this lie encourage others to lie or even change the personality of the individual who has been untruthful so that she now finds it easy to lie, even when it is not justifiable? After introspection, one should consult with a small but representative group of people to see how they feel about the lie and would they approve of it. Clearly, lying to the murderer looking for his victim or to the Gestapo seeking Jews in hiding would easily pass the "test of publicity" and would be permissible.

According to Nietzsche, "lying is a necessity of life." Stiegnitz contends that lying starts with "how are you?" a question for which no one really cares to hear the answer. Stiegnitz believes that telling falsehoods are "an essential part of survival in everyday life" and "as necessary to life as air and water" (Geary, 2000; Walsh, 2001). Nyberg (1993) also believes that without lying, it would be virtually impossible to have a relationship. Society could not survive if we all felt compelled to always tell the truth.

Intuitively, it appears obvious that truth can be quite hurtful. Some secular writers seem to align themselves with the anti-absolutist position:

"A truth that's told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent" [William Blake]

"Tis not enough your counsel still be true;

Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do"

[Alexander Pope]

"The truth is an awful weapon of aggression.

It is possible to lie, and even to murder, with the truth"

[Alfred Adler]

The Jewish View on Lying

The Torah seems to be unequivocal with regard to lying: "Thou shall not bear false witness" (Exodus 20:16), "Thou shall not steal, thou shall not deny falsely, and thou shall not lie one to another" (Leviticus 19: 11), and "Distance yourself from a false matter" (Exodus 23:7). The first verse clearly applies to witnesses in a court; the second has been defined as a prohibition against swearing in order to avoid returning someone else’s property (see Sefer HaChinuch 226). A closer perusal of the latter verse reveals that the Torah is regulating in the context of a Jewish court of law. As such, there is much dispute as to whether the proscription of lying in a non-judicial context is Biblically or Rabbinically based. Some halachic decisors are of the opinion that the Torah only explicitly forbids lying by judges and witnesses, whereas others apply this prohibition universally. For the former, the prohibition against lying to cause another financial harm derives from the verse (Leviticus 19: 36): "You shall have just scales, just weights, a just ephah (a dry measure), and a just hin (a liquid measure)." The Rabbis homiletically (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 49a) translate hin to mean "yes" based on the similarity of the word hin to the Aramaic word meaning yes (hen). According to the Talmud, the verse "a just hin" teaches us that an individual’s "yes" should be just as should be his "no."

As far as lying in situations where no harm results, there is a dispute among the commentaries as to whether it is prohibited by the Torah. Yabrov (2000, pp.1-5) provides an extensive treatment and concludes that the majority of decisors are of the opinion that the verse "Distance yourself from a false matter" includes all kind of lies. We shall see, however, that the Talmud does not take an absolutist position on lying and permits and even encourages lying in certain situations.

There are four important Talmudic texts that deal with the issue of permissible deceptions. The first is the following (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 65b).

Rabbi Ille’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon: It is permitted for a person to deviate from the truth in the interest of peace, as it says (Genesis 50: 16-17): "Your father [Jacob] commanded before his death, saying: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘O Please forgive the offense of your brothers and their sin for they have treated you so wickedly.’"

Rabbi Nathan said it is a commandment [to deviate from the truth in the interest of peace], as it says (I Samuel 16:2): "And Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.’"

At the Academy of Rabbi Yishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace, seeing that for its sake, even the Holy One, blessed be He, changed the truth, for at first it is written (Genesis 18:12), ‘My lord [i.e., husband Abraham] is old, while afterward it is written (18:13), "And I am old."

The case dealing with Joseph’s brothers is as follows. After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers feared that Joseph would retaliate against them and get even for what they had done to him. They therefore fabricated a story that Jacob begged Joseph to forgive his brothers for having sold him into slavery. There is no record of such an instruction and the Talmud assumes that the brothers invented the story in the name of peace.

The second case is where God Himself suggests to the prophet Samuel to bring a heifer and say that he came to sacrifice it, though the prophet’s true mission was to anoint David as a successor for King Saul. The commentaries note that even though Samuel did indeed bring a sacrifice, the deception was in implying that this was the only purpose of his trip to Bethlehem.

Rabbi Yishmael’s proof is from the story of Abraham and Sarah. When Sarah overheard one of the three "guests" telling Abraham that she would have a son by the following year she laughed and said to herself that her husband was old. God gets angry and asks Abraham why Sarah laughed in disbelief saying she was old, i.e., too old to have children. Seemingly, God altered the truth in order to spare Abraham’s feelings.

It should be noted that Rabbi Nathan not only agrees that one is permitted to lie in the name of peace, he believes that it is a mitzvah (commandment) to lie if this will bring peace.

It appears that normative halacha agrees with the ruling of Rabbi Nathan [Yabrov 2000, p. 23].

The second text (Babylonian Talmud, Kethuboth 16b-17a) discusses the problem of what praises to say before a bride at her wedding.

The Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride [i.e., what does one say in praise of her]? The School of Shammai says: We praise the bride as she is. The School of Hillel says: We say that she is a beautiful and graceful bride. The School of Shammai said to the School of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say about her that she is a beautiful and graceful bride? But the Torah said (Exodus 23: 7): "Distance yourself from a false matter." The School of Hillel said to the School of Shammai: According to your opinion, if someone made an inferior purchase in the marketplace, should one praise it or deprecate it in his eyes. Surely, one should praise it. From here [the latter statement of the Hillel School] the Sages said: A person’s disposition should always be pleasant with people.

Tosafos notes that the School of Shammai agrees that if someone makes a bad purchase, others should laud the item. However, in the case of a bride, the sages should not institute a general rule that forces everyone to lie, given the Torah’s aversion of falsehoods. Rabbi Isaiah diTrani (Tosefot RI"D) also notes that the opinion of the Sages is that one has to be pleasant with people even if it means that he has to lie. The Ritva (Rabbi Yomtov ben Abraham), in his discussion of the above Talmudic passage, states in an unambiguous manner that wherever one has to be concerned about "the ways of peace" there is no prohibition of "Distance yourself from a false matter." This would probably include such statements as "you look good," "nice to see you," "thanks for the wonderful gift," "I really had a wonderful time," "You haven’t aged a bit," or "I missed you." Being told by friends that "You look terrible," "I couldn’t care less whether I saw you," "I hate your gift," "I had a lousy time," "Boy, did you age," or "I did not miss you at all" would not further the cause of peace.

The above passage regarding "how one dances before the bride" also appears in another tractate of the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Kallah Rabbathi 10). There, however, the Talmud notes that the School of Hillel connects the proscription (Exodus 23:7) of "Distance yourself from a false matter" with the end of the verse that states "And the innocent and righteous do not slay." The verse, therefore, is speaking of testifying falsely and thereby causing an innocent person to be executed. The Talmud concludes that the Hillel School believes that when the lie preserves life, e.g., strengthening the bond between bride and groom, lying is acceptable.

The third text (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 23b-24a) describes three situations when even scholars may lie.

Rabbi Yehuda stated in the name of Shmuel: In the following three matters it is the practice of the rabbis not to tell the truth: In matters of a tractate, a bed, and hospitality.

If a rabbi is asked whether he is familiar with a certain tractate, he may, for the sake of humility, answer in the negative even if he is knowledgeable in that tractate. Of course, one should not disclaim knowledge of a particular tractate if one asks because he seeks help. According to Rashi, the meaning of "bed" is that if a rabbi is asked whether he engaged in sexual relations with his wife, he may, for the sake of modesty, answer that he has not. Tosafos, does not accept this explanation since people do not normally ask someone whether or not he slept with his wife. Tosafos offers an alternative explanation. One may lie if he was asked whether or not he slept in a particular bed. The bed may be stained from an emission and this could be embarrassing. "Hospitality" refers to a situation where one is asked whether a host was hospitable or not. If one is too effusive in his praise, especially in front of ne’er-do-wells, he may cause problems for his host. It is therefore better to lie and downplay how good his host was.

The fourth case (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 27b) describes where lies to thieves are permitted in order to protect oneself from financial harm.

One is permitted to make a vow to murderers, plunderers, and [corrupt] tax collectors that the produce they wish to seize is terumah [which is only permitted to be eaten by priests and therefore of little value; an alternative explanation is that even murderers and robbers would not violate the prohibition against using terumah], even if it is not terumah, or that the property they wish to seize belongs to the Royal House, even if it does not.

We have a situation where one is dealing with immoral people and the victim has no other recourse. It should be noted that the dishonest tax collector discussed in the Talmud is an individual who pays the ruler a fee for the right to collect taxes, and then imposes exorbitant and inequitable taxes (the Talmud refers to this as "taxes without a limit") on the public. In a similar vein, later in the same tractate, (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 62b), Rava relates that a Torah scholar is permitted to declare that he is a "servant of fire" in order to evade paying communal taxes ― the pagan priests of the fire-worshippers were exempt from taxes. The two justifications given by the commentaries are: (1) it is clear that the purpose of this declaration is to avoid a tax and not to suggest that one is renouncing his belief in God; (2) the term "servant of fire" could refer to God who is compared in the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:24) to a "consuming fire." Moreover, the Ran explains that this law applies to every Jew and is not limited to Torah scholars.

Thus, there are several circumstances where one is permitted or sometimes required to lie:

  • Lying to preserve the cause of peace, not to hurt another person’s feelings, or to provide comfort.
  • Lying in a situation where honesty might cause oneself or another person harm.
  • Lying for the sake of modesty or in order not to appear arrogant.
  • Lying for the sake of decency, i.e., not telling the truth about intimate matters.
  • Lying to protect one’s property from scoundrels.

Lying to Preserve the Cause of Peace or in Order Not to Hurt Another Person’s Feelings

Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses, was known in Talmudic and Midrashic literature as a lover of peace. The following passage indicates that one may use deception in order to bring peace between people who are quarreling (Babylonian Talmud, Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 12: 3; Babylonian Talmud, Perek Hashalom).

When two people had a dispute, Aaron [the High Priest] went and sat near one of them and said to him: "My son, see what your friend is doing? He is beating his heart and tearing his clothing saying: "Woe is me. How can I lift up my eyes and look at my friend. I am ashamed of myself since I was the one who offended him." Aaron would sit with him until he removed the hatred from his heart. Aaron would then go and sit next to the other and say to him: "My son, see what your friend is doing? He is beating his heart and tearing his clothing saying: "Woe is me. How can I lift up my eyes and look at my friend. I am ashamed of myself since I was the one who offended him." Aaron would sit with him until he removed the hatred from his heart.

When the two met, they would they hugged and kissed each other.

The above story about Aaron makes it quite apparent that Jewish law recognizes that lying to bring peace is a commandment. Indeed, Aaron is praised in the Talmud as the lover and pursuer of peace (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 1:12).

The Talmud and Midrash (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 1:4; Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 9:9) relate that a certain woman was wont to attend the lectures given by Rabbi Meir. One evening, the lecture ended late, and upon arriving home, the woman’s husband vowed to her that she would not be permitted to reenter his house until she spat in the face of the lecturer. Upon hearing of the woman’s dilemma, Rabbi Meir devised a ruse whereby he pretended to be afflicted by an eye ailment that necessitated someone spit in his eye. After she spat in his eye seven times, Rabbi Meir told her to return to her husband and tell him that she had bested his requirement by spitting in the lecturer’s eye seven times, not just once.

The patriarch Jacob dissembled when he pretended not to believe Joseph’s dream and even rebuked Joseph and said to him (Genesis 37:10): "What kind of dream is this that you have dreamt! Shall we come — I, your mother, and your brothers — to bow down to you on the ground?" Rashi notes that Jacob did this in order to "remove the jealousy from the heart of the brothers." It appears that Jacob was not entirely honest with Joseph’s brothers in order to preserve the peace. Unfortunately, the ruse did not help since the next verse notes: "His brothers envied him; while his father kept the matter in his mind."

Judah prevaricated when he said to the Viceroy of Egypt, who was actually Joseph, (Genesis 44:20): "and his brother [Joseph] is dead." Judah was the one who, 22 years earlier, convinced his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave. Rashi and other commentaries feel that Judah lied because he was afraid that he would be asked to produce Joseph if he had said that he was alive. However, a Midrash (quoted in Torah Shleimah, Genesis 44:20) notes that Judah lied in the interest of peace. We assume that this refers to the possibility that the truth would cause additional problems for the family, i.e., Benjamin would have to remain a slave until Joseph is produced.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 53b) relates that Rabbi Yehoshua once stayed at a certain inn. The hostess served beans on the first and second day and he ate them. On the third day, she burned the beans and he did not eat them. When she asked him why he did not eat the beans, he politely told her that he had already eaten during the daytime. This story also demonstrates that in order to spare the feelings of another person, it is permissible to tell a falsehood.

There is evidence that even Heaven uses deception in order to protect the feelings of others. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Berachos 28a) relates that when Rabbi Gamiliel was the Nasi [President of the Sanhedrin], a proclamation was issued that "any scholar whose inside is not as his outside" [i.e., of perfect character] may not enter the house of study. This proclamation was nullified when Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah became the Nasi; the Talmud notes that either 400 or 700 benches had to be added to the academy. Rabbi Gamliel felt bad about this and was afraid that he was responsible for withholding Torah from good students. He was subsequently shown in a dream white casks full of ashes, indicating that the new students were not worthwhile. The Talmud concludes that this was not the case and the students were actually of high caliber. Evidently, Heaven did this to spare Rabbi Gamliel’s feelings.

Fish (1981, pp. 62-63) cites numerous sources that state that one may lie in order to comfort another person. One proof he cites is from the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 50a). There the story is told of how impoverished Rabbi Akiva and his wife, the daughter of the wealthy Kalba Sevuah, were. Kalba Sevuah disinherited his daughter when he heard that she was going to marry the poor, ignorant shepherd, Akiva. They were so impecunious that they had to sleep on straw. Elijah the Prophet disguised himself as a mortal and pretended to need straw for his wife who had given birth. Rashi and the Ran both note that Elijah did this in order to comfort them and make them realize there were people in the world in greater poverty.

Rabbi Meir’s two sons died on the Sabbath. Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir, lied to her husband when he asked where they were, and said the two boys were at the house of study. She waited until he made Havdalah, the prayer signaling the end of the Sabbath, and had to deceive a second time about his son’s whereabouts. After Rabbi Meir ate something she broke the news to him very gently by comparing their children’s lives to an object deposited with someone for safekeeping. The owner took back what belonged to him. She concluded by citing the verse (Job 1:21): "The Lord has given, the Lord has taken, May the name of the Lord be blessed (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Proverbs 31). Apparently, Beruriah did what was proper since the Midrash refers to her as "a capable wife" and relates this story in that regard.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 11a) enumerates several stories where someone prevaricated in order to prevent the humiliation of another person. For instance, once Rabbi Gamliel asked that seven scholars join him the following morning in the upper chamber for the purpose of intercalating the year [i.e., proclaiming a leap year]. The next morning, they noticed that there was an extra person there. Rabbi Gamliel asked: "Who is the one who came up without permission?" Jewish law mandates that the year may be intercalated only by a court whose members were specifically designated for that purpose the previous evening. Rabbi Shmuel Hakatan arose and declared: "It was I who came up without permission. My purpose was not to participate in the intercalation, but to learn how the law is applied in practice." The Talmud states that Rabbi Shmuel Hakatan was actually invited to join in the intercalation, but stated a falsehood in order not to cause embarrassment for the intruder.

Something similar happened when Rebbi was delivering a lecture and the strong odor of garlic caused a disturbance. Rebbi said: "Let the person who has eaten the garlic, please leave." Rabbi Chiya arose and left; then all the disciples arose and left. Again, it turned out that Rabbi Chiya had not eaten garlic, but left in order not to shame the true perpetrator.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 11a) relates another story in the same vein. To understand this story one must know how marriage worked in Talmudic times. In those days, the first stage of marriage known as erusin was followed a year later by the final stage known as nesuin. Erusin, could technically be done via cohabitation, but this method was strongly frowned upon. A woman appeared at the academy of Rabbi Meir and said that one of the students betrothed her [i.e., erusin] by cohabitation. Apparently, the woman did not remember which of the students betrothed her. The woman wanted the student to either complete the marriage [nesuin] or give her a divorce. Even though Rabbi Meir was not the guilty one, he gave her a bill of divorce and then all of the students gave her one as well.

Shechaniah also told an untruth in order not to embarrass others. Shechaniah told Ezra (Ezra 10:2): "We have trespassed against our God and have married foreign women of the peoples of the land." Shechaniah included himself in the sin of intermarrying with pagan women living in Judea. Actually, he had not committed the misdeed of intermarriage but included himself in order not to embarrass the others who had.

Fish (1981, p. 199) uses the famous story of how Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagiga 2:2; Rashi, Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 44b) captured 80 sorceresses who lived in Ashkelon and brought them to trial as evidence that one may lie to eradicate evil. In the story, Rabbi Shimon had 80 of his students hide dry clothing in a jar. During a downpour, he went with them to the cave where the sorceresses lived and had the young men hide nearby. Rabbi Shimon entered the cave and told them that he was a sorcerer who had the power to make 80 young people magically appear in dry clothing, despite the strong rain. Arguably, eradicating evil is another way of bringing peace to the world.

Lying in A Situation Where Honesty Might Cause Oneself or Another Person Physical Harm

Abraham asked his wife Sarah to lie and say that she was his sister because he was traveling with her to ancient Egypt, a place known for its lack of morality (Genesis 12:10-13). Ramban believes that Abraham unintentionally committed a "great sin" and endangered his wife’s virtue because he should have had faith that God would save him and his family. After all, it was God who told Abraham to leave the land of his birthplace. However, even the Ramban would have to agree that, where one does not have the personal assurance of God, one should be permitted to lie. In fact, Abraham used the same ruse again when sojourning in Gerar (Genesis 20: 1-3). Isaac also used the same lie when traveling in lands where the morality of the inhabitants is questionable and claims that his wife Rebeccah is his sister (Genesis 26: 7).

According to the Midrash (Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 5), Abraham hid Sarah in a locked box when traveling to Egypt. When the Egyptian customs officials asked him what was in the box, he tried to convince them that it contained barley. When the officials did not believe him and said that it might contain wheat, Abraham offered to pay the tax on wheat. The officials then claimed that it might contain pepper, so Abraham offered to pay the tax on pepper. They then claimed that it might contain gold. Eventually, they opened the box and found Sarah. This Midrash also demonstrates that lying is permitted in order to protect someone from harm (Fish, p. 110).

The two midwives in Egypt, Shifra and Puah, undoubtedly did the right thing by lying to Pharaoh and thereby not take part in the attempt to murder newborns. There is no question that Jewish law obligates one to prevaricate in order to save one’s own life or the life of another person. Rahab the harlot prevaricated in order to save the life of the two Jewish spies sent by Joshua to Jericho (see Joshua 2). The Midrash (Pirka D’Rabeinu Hakodosh 15) notes that Rahab told a lie yet inherited life in this world and in the world to come. In fact, eight prophets descended from her (Babylonian Talmud, Megilla 14b).

The following involves a deception over a remedy (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 28a) and deals with a considerably more complex ethical situation.

Rabbi Yochanan suffered from tzafdina [a dangerous disease of the gums or teeth] and went to a certain heathen lady who made a remedy for him to use on Thursday and Friday. He said to her: "What should I do tomorrow [the Sabbath]"? She replied: "You will not need the treatment." Rabbi Yochanan said: "But what if I do need it?" She replied: "Swear to me that you will not reveal the remedy to anyone." Rabbi Yochanan swore to her: "To the God of Israel I will not reveal it." She then disclosed the remedy to him and the next day he taught it in his public lecture.

The Talmud asks: But did he not swear to her not to reveal it? The Talmud answers: He swore that he would not reveal it to the God of Israel, but to His people, Israel, he would reveal it. The Talmud asks: But is this not a profanation of the name of God? [when a Jew commits a misdeed, especially something as serious as swearing falsely, it causes people to denigrate Judaism and the Torah]. The Talmud answers: That from the beginning he revealed to her that his oath was not binding [and that he wanted to help the public].

The above story is problematic since deception (geneivat da’at) is prohibited, even with an idolater. The loophole that Rabbi Yochanan employed does not take away from the fact that he deceived her. I believe the answer to this question is that to save a life, even one’s own life, one is permitted to lie. Tzafdina was a deadly disease and Rabbi Yochanan wanted to save the lives of many people who were afflicted with this malady. It is interesting to note that the above story is also told in the Jerusalem Talmud. There the Talmud has two opinions as to what happened to the heathen woman. One opinion was that she committed suicide. Another opinion was that she converted to Judaism presumably because she was impressed with Rabbi Yochanan’s decision to go public with the cure rather than trying to enrich himself by selling the remedy. Rabbi Akiva (Babylonian Talmud, Kallah Rabbathi 2) used Rabbi Yochanan’s approach to deceive a Jewish woman. He was trying to determine the status of her son who impudently uncovered his head in front of the sages.

In a converse situation, Shmuel (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 129a) deceived Ablat, a pagan because he did not want him to learn about the value of sunbathing at certain times of the year. Instead, he told Ablat that he was sunbathing because he had just been engaged in bloodletting. This story is used by Fish (1981, p. 82) to prove that one is permitted to deceive a wicked person and thereby not provide him with a medical remedy.

Jewish law generally allows one to commit a sin if one’s life is at stake. There are three serious transgressions, however, where a Jew is required to give up his life rather than violate Jewish law (yehareg v’al ya’avor): idolatry, illicit sexual relations with an ervah (e.g., adultery or incest between very close relatives), and murder (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 157a). Jewish law does not obligate one to give up his or her life for other transgressions. Thus, if a Jew is told to desecrate the Sabbath or be killed, s/he should desecrate the Sabbath. (It should be noted that one may be obligated to become a martyr for a "lesser" transgression if the individual is told to violate the law publicly or if it is a epoch of forced conversion.) Lying is not, however, one of the three "serious" transgressions for which a Jew is obligated to become a martyr. There is however one possible exception to this rule. Is a Jew permitted to lie and say he is not Jewish in order not to be killed? Rabbi Abin mentions (Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zarah, 2:1) that a Jewish woman may save her life in a time of danger by saying that she is not Jewish. The Rosh, however, explains this passage differently and states that a Jew is not permitted to state that s/he is not Jewish, even to save one’s life since this is tantamount to denying one’s religion. According to him, the above passage is talking about a Jewish woman dressing in a manner so that people believe that she is not Jewish in order to save herself. This would be permitted. The discussion by the commentaries over whether a Jew may lie and say he is not Jewish in order to save his life is very complex and beyond the scope of this paper.

Naaman the Aramean accepted monotheism after he was cured of his leprosy by the prophet Elisha (II Kings 5). He indicated, however, to Elisha that he would have to bow to the pagan deity, Rimon, when he accompanied his master to the House of Rimon since his master would lean on him while he prostrated himself. Elisha told him (II Kings 5: 19) to "go in peace" and, in effect, condoned the simulation of idol worshipping. Naaman was permitted to deceive his master rather than die for his beliefs since he had not converted to Judaism and thus only had the status of a Noachide who observes seven precepts (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74b-75a).

According to the Talmud, Jacob distorted the truth when his brother Esau offered to accompany him (Genesis 33:12-16). Jacob, realizing that it might not be wise to travel with Esau, who might still harbor resentment over what happened regarding Isaac’s blessing, told Esau (Genesis 33:14): "Let my lord go on ahead of his servant; while I will travel slowly at the pace of the work and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Se’ir [Esau’s land]." Of course, Jacob never went to Se’ir. The Midrash (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 78:14, cited by Rashi) notes that Jacob will one day go to Se’ir – in Messianic times. The Midrash is trying to show that Jacob did not actually lie.

The Talmud, however, derives an interesting principle from the above story that does permit lying in a potentially dangerous situation. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 25b) states that one should always "broaden the journey" when speaking to idolaters [or anyone who could be a possible highwayman]. When asked about a destination, one should reply that he is traveling to a town that is actually well beyond his actual destination. The reason: If the idolater has plans to rob him along the way, he may wait until the Jewish traveler is near the end of the trip and by then the Jew will have already arrived at his destination. In fact, the Talmud notes that this stratagem saved the students of Rabbi Akiva from some armed robbers.

When Rabbi Eliezer was arrested by the authorities on suspicion of being a heretic, he saved himself by using a white lie involving some double talk (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 16b-17a). The governor asked him: "How can a wise man such as you occupy himself with such nonsense?" Rabbi Eliezer replied: "I acknowledge the Judge as being right." The "Judge" Rabbi Eliezer referred to was God, not the judge who was interrogating him. The ruse worked and the governor said to him: "Because you have acknowledged me as being right, by his [the idol that the governor worshipped] mercy I am acquitting you."

There is another type of deception that is permitted where one’s life may be in danger. Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi states (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 41b) that "It is permitted to flatter wicked people in this world." He derives it from a verse in Isaiah (32:5) that refers to the Hereafter: "The vile person shall no longer be called generous, nor shall a deceitful person be said to be noble." Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish agrees but derives this ruling from a statement made by Jacob to Esau (Genesis 33: 10): "for therefore I have seen your face, which is as though I had seen the face of a Divine being." This appears to contradict numerous negative statements about flattering evildoers such as "Every individual in whom there is flattery will fall into Hell," and "Whoever flatters the wicked [some texts have "his fellow human"] will eventually fall into his hand." (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 41b). Tosafos explains this apparent contradiction by asserting that it is permitted to flatter the wicked in a dangerous, life-threatening situation. He provides proof for his view by citing a story involving Ulla who traveled with two people from Chozae to Israel (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 22a). One of his fellow travelers slaughtered the other and asked Ulla: "Did I do well?" Ulla replied in the affirmative and felt guilty but was later assured by Rabbi Yochanan in Israel that what he did was permitted since he said it to save his life.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 29b) avers that "a person is accustomed not to make himself appear sated with wealth." This Talmudic principle is used to explain the reason that if an individual claims to owe another party money, we do not necessarily consider this as a true admission; this is why the "creditors" must furnish additional proof. Many people do not wish to arouse the envy of others so they pretend to be debtors.

Lying for the Sake Of Modesty or in Order Not to Appear Arrogant

There is an interesting story in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Kethubos 77b) that supports the principle that one may utter a falsehood for the sake of modesty. When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi passed on to the next world, he was asked by Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai whether or not a rainbow ever appeared during his lifetime. A certain type of rainbow is a sign that the world actually deserves to be destroyed but is not because of God’s promise to Noah after the Great Flood (see Genesis 11:12). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi responded in the affirmative. Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai replied: "Then you are not the son of Levi" since the merit of one true saint is sufficient to protect the entire world. The Talmud concludes, however, that the rainbow did not appear during Yehoshua ben Levi’s lifetime. The reason he did not tell the truth was that "he did not want to boast about himself."

Another story in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 23b) about Abba Chilkiyah also demonstrates that one may lie because of humility. The rabbis sent scholars to Abba Chikiyah during a drought to ask him to pray for rain. While the scholars were waiting for Abba to finish his meal, he surreptitiously went to the roof with his wife and prayed for rain. Clouds immediately appeared and it began to rain. He went back to the scholars and asked them why they had come, knowing very well the reason. Abba tried to convince the scholars that the rain came on its own accord, and not because of his (and his spouse’s) prayer. The scholars, however, knew what had caused the rain to come.

Judaism also commands the converse of the above insofar as one is obligated to ensure that he does not benefit from others’ misconception about his status or scholarship. The Talmud (Jerusalem Talmud, Maakot 2:6) states that if one is being honored by the public as a scholar who is proficient in two tractates but only knows one, he is obligated to disabuse the misconception and explicitly state "I am only knowledgeable in one tractate, and no more." Similarly, the Talmud earlier discusses the case of the scholar who is exiled to the city of refuge owing to his unintentional murder of another person. Should the people of the city wish to honor him, the scholar is duty-bound to proclaim that he is in town because he has taken a life.

Lying for the Sake of Decency

The following story/parable (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a) demonstrates the harm that may result from a lie for the sake of decency.

Rava said: At first I used to say that there is no truth in the world [i.e., that no person speaks the truth all the time]. Whereupon one of the Rabbis said to me, and Rabbi Tavus was his name, and some say Rabbi Tavyome was his name, that even if he would be given all the wealth in the world, he would not tell a lie. He related the following story: Once, I came to a certain town called Kushta [this name means truth in Aramaic] whose inhabitants would never tell a lie and no person ever died before his time.

He married a woman from among them and had two sons from her. One day his wife was sitting and washing her hair when a neighbor came and knocked on the door. Thinking to himself that it was not proper [to tell the neighbor that his wife was washing her hair], he said to the neighbor, "she is not here." His two sons died [as a punishment for his lying]. The people of the town came to him and asked, "What is the cause of this?" He related to them what had happened. They said to him: "We beg you to leave our town and do not incite death against us."

Rabbi Yaakov Emden explains why Rabbi Tavus was punished if one is permitted to lie for the sake of decency. In this case, Rabbi Tavus could have simply told the truth to the neighbor who would have understood and left; the white lie was totally unnecessary (Hagahos Yaakov Emden). Not all commentaries take the above story literally (e.g., Maharal).

Jacob’s Deception of His Father

One of the more difficult cases of dishonesty to explain is Jacob’s deception of his blind father, Isaac (Genesis 27). Was Jacob permitted to deceive his father and pretend to be Esau? Some commentaries take the approach that Jacob did not actually lie. When asked by his father who he was (Genesis 27: 18), he replied: "I am Esau your firstborn." Rashi and other commentators try to show that this was not really a falsehood. They say that Jacob responded as follows: "I am [the one who is bringing you the savory meats]; [whereas] Esau is your firstborn." Ibn Ezra does not accept this interpretation and points out that other prophets had to resort to deceptions. This difference of opinion also affects the explanation of a later verse (Genesis 27:35), when Isaac tells Esau: "your brother came with mirmah and took your blessing. Rashi interprets mirmah as wisdom; Ibn Ezra apparently translates it in the usual way, "deceit," because his comment on the word is that Jacob did not tell the truth. One important law that can be derived from the above is that if one does find himself or herself in a situation where they must lie, the correct way to do this is to use words that may have another meaning, vague statements, or through the use of half-truths (Chofetz Chaim, Hilchos Issurei Rechilus 1:8; Sefer Chassidim 642). This is somewhat similar to the "mental reservation" loophole discussed by Bok (1999, pp. 35-36). A mental reservation works as follows: "If you say something misleading to another and merely add a qualification to it in your mind so as to make it true, you cannot be responsible for the ‘misinterpretation’ made by the listener."

Nechama Liebowitz (1985, pp. 322-323) asserts that even the sages who take the side of Jacob "detect the workings of strict justice which is no respecter of persons, in what had befallen Jacob." She cites the following Midrash Tanchuma that describes what happened after Laban switches Leah for Rachel. Laban promised Jacob the hand of his beloved Rachel after seven years of labor.

All that night Leah pretended to be Rachel. When Jacob arose in the morning and saw that it was Leah, he said to her: "Daughter of the deceiver! Why did you deceive me? Leah said to him: And you, why did you deceive your father? When he said to you: "Are you my son Esau?" You replied (Genesis 27:19): "I am your son Esau." Yet you say to me, "why did I deceive you?" Did not your father say about you (Genesis 27:35): "Your brother came with guile."

It should be noted that the expression that Jacob uses when speaking to Laban after he switched Leah for Rachel is (Genesis 29:25): What is this that you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why have you deceived [rimitony] me? The word used by Jacob is very similar to the word used to describe what Jacob had done to Esau. In fact, other commentators note that the words used in this passage "deceit," "younger," and "elder/firstborn" serve the purpose of reminding the reader of the similarity of the two situations, except that it is now Jacob who is being deceived by a substitution. Jacob is deceived several more times in his life. Laban switches his compensation several times (Genesis 31:7) and his children deceive him into believing that his beloved Joseph was dead. Whether Jacob was justified or not in deceiving his father, his entire life is turned upside down by deception.

Frimer (1973) uses a Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 29:12, Section 124; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 70:13) to make an interesting observation about dissembling. The Midrash, cited by Rashi, is on the following verse (Genesis 29:12): "And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother [i.e., relative] and that he was Rebeccah’s son; then she ran and told this to her father." There is an obvious redundancy in this verse, hence the Midrash: "If he comes to cheat, I am his brother in deceit; If he is an honorable man, then I am the son of Rebeccah [i.e., a man of integrity]." The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 123a; Megilla 13b) has a slightly different explanation: Yaakov declares to Rachel that "I am his brother [match] in deceit." Rachel suspected that her father would try to deceive Jacob and try to make a substitution. The Talmud asks whether the righteous may indeed engage in deceit? The Talmud answers with the following verse (II Samuel 22:27): "with an honest person, act honestly; and with a corrupt person act perversely." Although this verse speaks of God, the Talmud is homiletically interpreting this verse to teach us that one may use guile when dealing with a cheat.

Frimer (1973) notes that Jacob tried his best to deal with Laban as honestly as possible (see Genesis 31:6-7). Moreover, Laban had a reputation for engaging in fraud. His reputation was so renowned that even his own daughter warned Jacob that her father was a cheat. Frimer therefore requires the following five conditions before allowing the honest person to "act perversely":

(1) The antagonist’s record of general conduct is negative.

(2) There is adequate motivation and testimony to justify one’s anticipated concern in the immediate and specific condition.

(3) The intended victim is acting only in self-defense and after the attack has been initiated.

(4) There appears to be no alternative to one’s present course of action. Other options have been tried or are judged not to be viable.

(5) That which is at stake has tremendous seriousness to the intended victim involving a high investment of one’s person or property.


Lying to Protect One’s Property From Scoundrels

Frimer (1973) proves his position that deception is permitted when the above five conditions are met by citing the following case (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 335:5 based on Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 75b):

When does this principle [that workers may quit their job] apply? Where the loss is irreparable [davar ha’avud]. If the loss is irreparable, for example, if one hires laborers to remove his flax from the steeping water or hires a donkey-driver to bring flutists for the dead or for a bride, or something similar, then neither a laborer not a contractor may quit his job unless there has been an emergency such as sickness or if he heard that there has been a death in the family.

The Shulchan Aruch states that if the worker, however, does attempt to quit when the loss is irreparable, and a replacement worker cannot be found, then the employer has a right to deceive the employee. This deception involves promising the laborer a much higher wage to continue working and then only paying the wage originally agreed upon after the work is completed. This is a case where the employer has much at stake (spoiled flax or a ruined wedding) and has no alternative (no replacement workers); therefore Jewish law allows one to be dishonest.

Fish (1981, pp.66) maintains that Rabbis Elyashiv, Fisher and Kanievsky were of the opinion that one may write "glass" on a package in order to ensure that it is handled properly, even if it does not contain glass. As proof, Rabbi Kanievsky cites the Talmudic view (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamos 115b) that people would sometimes write "terumah" (consecrated to the priests) on a jar that did not contain unconsecrated produce as a means of protecting it, i.e., to ensure that people would not take it.

Daat Zekenim M’Baalei Tosafot (Genesis 25: 34) quotes Rabbi Yehuda HeChasid and states that one is permitted to deceive a wicked person who has a Torah scroll or another item used for a mitzvah. This principle is derived from Jacob who "tricked" Esau into selling his birthright to him (Genesis 25) for some lentils. According to the Daat Zekenim, Esau was abusing the birthright even before Jacob purchased it from him.

Habitual Lying

Dratch (1988) claims that even when prevaricating is permissible, habitual lying will still be forbidden. He uses the following Talmudic passage to support his position (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamos 63a):

Rav was constantly tormented by his wife. When he asked her to prepare him some lentils, she would prepare peas. When he asked for peas, she would prepare lentils. When Chiya, Rav’s son, grew up, he would reverse his father’s request. Once, Rav said to Chiya: "Your mother has improved." Rabbi Chiya replied: "It is I who reversed your requests to her." Rav remarked to Chiya: "This is what people say, ‘Your own offspring teaches you reason.’" However, you should not continue to do so, for it says (Jeremiah 9:4): "They have taught their tongues to speak lies."

It is interesting to note that Rabbi Zera (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkot 46b) uses the same verse from Jeremiah (9:4) to make the point that one should not promise to a child that he will give him something and then not give it to him, because this will teach the child to lie.

Deceptions in Business

Lest one think that Jewish law is very flexible about lying for financial gain, the following is just a small sample of what one has to be concerned with. The Talmud has special rules about geneivat da’at (literally, theft of one’s mind, thoughts, wisdom, or knowledge), i.e., fooling someone and thereby causing him or her to have a mistaken assumption, belief, and/or impression. The sages believed that there are seven types of thieves and, of these, the most egregious is the one who "steals the minds" of people (Tosefta Bava Kama 7:3). "Shmuel asserts (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 94a-b): It is forbidden to steal the mind of anyone, even idolaters."

Geneivat da’at includes situations that result in someone getting undeserved goodwill (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 94a), something considerably weaker than an outright lie. Thus, a person should not urge his friend to dine with him knowing that he will refuse. One should not offer gifts to another person knowing that the latter will not accept them. In a business setting, this would include misleading customers into thinking that the quality of the item they purchased is much better than it really is or making people believe they are getting a special deal when they are not. For additional information, see Friedman (2002).

Other kinds of deceptions that are prohibited include "deceiving the eye" by placing the better quality items in a bin on top in order to make it appear that the merchandise is of uniformly high quality throughout; soaking meat in water to make it appear fatter; and painting animals or utensils so that a buyer will think they are younger or newer (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 60a-b).

It is obvious that there are few situations where dissembling would be permitted in a business setting as a way of increasing one’s profits. Rabbi Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 3: 178-186) describes nine types of liars and states explicitly that the businessperson who cheats others out of money is the worst of all. Another category of liar (third worst) is one whose prevarications cause someone to lose out on a future benefit or profit. For instance, making someone believe that a business deal is a bad idea when it really has excellent profit potential.

One situation that occurs quite frequently in business is where one party agrees to sell a product at a certain price. When the buyer shows up with the money, the seller changes his mind and asks for a higher price. Sometimes this occurs because market conditions have changed, i.e., prices have gone up or down. There is an argument in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 49a) as to whether a verbal commitment alone (i.e., no money has changed hands) to engage in a transaction obligates one from an ethical point of view to go through with the deal. Rav states that the individual who changes his mind is "not lacking in honesty." Rabbi Yochanan disagrees and says that the individual is "lacking in honesty." It is not clear whether this passage refers to a situation where market prices have changed.

The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 204:7) states that an individual who has made a verbal commitment, even if no money has changed hands, should stand by his word. People who retract after making a verbal commitment are "lacking in trustworthiness" and "the spirit of the sages is not pleased with him." There is a disagreement among the commentaries as to whether a person who changes his mind because the market price has changed is considered "lacking in trustworthiness." Several (e.g., Rosh, Tur) believe that a change in the market price is a legitimate reason for retracting and does not cause one to be considered as "lacking in honesty." The Remah (204:11) remarks that individuals who make verbal commitments to buy or sell ─ even if no kinyan (act of acquisition when title actually transfers) has taken place ─ should abide by their word; the "spirit of the sages is not pleased" with those who retract. If, however, the market price has changed, the individual who changes his mind about the deal is not considered "lacking in honesty."

The Aruch Hashulchan (Choshen Mishpat 204:8) asserts that if the market price has changed, and the seller therefore changes his mind about the selling price, he is not considered "lacking in honesty." It is, however, considered "the way of the pious" not to retract from a verbal agreement even if the market price has changed.

In Jewish law, title does not change hands until a kinyan (an act of acquisition) has been made by the acquirer. One example of a kinyan for a moveable object is meshichah, the act of pulling the object towards oneself. Suppose one party purchases an object from another party, money has changed hands, but there has been no kinyan. There is a public curse that may be proclaimed by the aggrieved party. The curse is as follows: "The One who punished the people of the generation of the Flood, the people of the generation of the Dispersion, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Egyptians in the sea, He will punish the person who does not stand by his word" (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 48a).

The Talmud lauds Rabbi Safra for his exemplary behavior in business and claims the verse (Psalms 15:2) "speaks truth in his heart" refers to individuals such as he. The Talmud (Maakot 24a, see commentary of Rashi) relates that one day, while Rabbi Safra was in the midst of prayer, a man offered to buy some merchandise from him. He made an offer, but Rabbi Safra was praying and could not respond. The prospective buyer mistakenly thought that Rabbi Safra was holding out for more, and kept increasing his bid. When Rabbi Safra finished his prayer, he told the buyer that he would sell the item at the original price because he had "agreed in his heart" to this price and his silence was misconstrued. Legally, of course, making up one's mind does not constitute a binding agreement but demonstrates an unusually high level of ethical behavior.

Rabbi Yehuda HeChasid (Sefer Chassidim, 311) states that merchants are prohibited from misleading customers by falsely claiming that another party wishes to pay so much for the item or by stating how much that they paid for the merchandise when it is not true. Regarding these type of deceptions the verse (Zephaniah 3:13) avers: "The remnant of Israel shall do no wrong, and not speak falsehood, and a deceitful tongue shall not be found in their mouths."

Rabbi Yehuda HeChasid (Sefer Chassidim, 395) tells a story of a businessman who wanted to know how to gain the World-to-Come (i.e., Paradise) if he had no time for studying Torah, except for the Sabbath. He was told by a rabbi to conduct his business as follows: giving something extra to the buyer when weighing out the merchandise, being honest in business with Jew and Gentile, doing business with a friendly disposition, not losing one’s temper, not being overly trusting (by lending money without witnesses one may tempt others to steal), and paying one’s debts on time. "If you heed the above principles," the rabbi stated, "then I wish that my share in the World-to- Come would be equivalent to yours."

Fish (1981, pp. 79-80) discusses the question as to whether one may lie in order to get back money that was stolen from him. He uses the following story from the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Yuma 83b) to prove that it is permissible. Before the Sabbath, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi asked their host, Kidor, to hold their money for safekeeping. When the Sabbath ended, they asked Kidor to return their money; he denied ever having been given anything. Subsequently, they saw him outside with lentils on his moustache. They surmised that he had eaten lentils. They went to his house and told his wife that her husband requested that she return their money and as a sign that they were telling the truth, he told them to tell her that he had eaten lentils for his meal.

Other Situations Involving Lying

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Kallah Rabbathi, 2) relates that Rabbi Tarfon was wealthy but did not give as much to charity as he was capable. Rabbi Akiva offered to purchase some cities for him and he was given four thousand gold dinarim. Rabbi Akiva took the money and distributed it to poor people. When Rabbi Tarfon asked where the cities were, Rabbi Akiva took him to the house of study and brought a schoolchild who read the verse from Psalms (112:9 ) "he [the righteous person] distributed widely to the impoverished." Some use this story to prove that deception may be permitted in some situations involving charity collection to help the impoverished (Fish, pp. 54-55).

Fish (1981. p. 197) cites several sources that indicate that one should lie to an individual who is very ill when the truth could demoralize the person and possibly hasten his death. Thus, one should not tell a sick person that his friend has died, if he asks how the person is doing, especially if the individual passed away from the same illness.

The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 116a-b) relates a story of how Imma Shalom and her brother Rabbi Gamliel pretended to be involved in a dispute in order to expose a heretical judge. The judge had an undeserved reputation for honesty and they went to him to settle their "dispute" over the division of their deceased father’s estate. The judge ended up taking bribes from both of them. Apparently, they felt that the situation called for lying, in order to expose the corrupt judge.

In an example of the sages’ concern for potentially conveying an appearance of falsehood, the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 30a) rules that when a judicial verdict is handed down via majority (not unanimously), the decision is proclaimed "through the words of the Court, so and so was found not liable." This is the opinion of Rabbi Elazar and is the halacha. Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion was that the verdict is written simply as "not liable" since Rabbi Yochanan was concerned with the problem of gossip mongering (prohibited by the Torah – see Leviticus 19:16). Revealing how the individual judges voted is tantamount to gossip mongering. After all, little good can come from the losing party knowing which judges voted against him. Resh Lakish disagrees with Rabbi Yochanan and says the wording must indicate which judge voted to acquit and which judge found the defendant liable; otherwise, the verdict will appear to be untrue. The view of Rabbi Elazar protects the truth and, at the same time, does not violate the prohibition against gossip mongering.

There is a problematic story in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Berachos 43b) that suggests that Rabbi Pappa fabricated a legal statement in order to avoid embarrassment. The Talmud first discusses the dispute between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel as to which blessing is made first when one is given oil and myrtle at the end of a meal (fragrant oil was used to clean off the food odors and the myrtle was smelled for its pleasant scent). The School of Shammai states that the blessing is first made over the oil and then over the myrtle; the School of Hillel disagrees and says that the benediction over the myrtle is made first. Rabbi Gamliel said that he would "decide" the issue and favors the opinion of the School of Shammai (since oil has two uses whereas the myrtle only has one). Rabbi Yochanan (in a later generation) asserted: "the law is in accordance with the decider."

Rabbi Pappa was at the house of Rabbi Huna ben Ika and they brought oil and myrtle before him and he made the blessing on the myrtle before the oil. Rabbi Huna was surprised and asked: "Does not the master hold that "the law was in accordance with the decider." The Talmud then states that Rabbi Pappa was ashamed of having done something wrong so he told a falsehood and claimed that Rava had stated that the law is agreement with the School of Hillel, a statement that Rava had never made. This story presents many difficulties. However, according to Tosafos and Rif there is an error in the text and they delete the phrase that says Rabbi Pappa made up the statement of Rava. Those who delete the phrase obviously believe that lying about a legal matter in order to avoid embarrassment is not allowed. This is clearly true. An alternative explanation, however, of the above story is that Rabbi Pappa did not agree with the view of Rabbi Yochanan and rather than stating that he did not agree and that the law is in accordance with the School of Hillel, he attributed the statement to his teacher, Rava (see Rama MiPano). According to this view, if one is absolutely sure of a law, one, because of modesty, may attribute it to someone else.


This paper demonstrates that Jewish law does not take an absolutist approach to prevaricating and, indeed, will obligate the individual to lie in various circumstances, for instance, lying to save a life or to bring peace. This, by no means, makes light of the seriousness of lying. The Talmud is replete with statements that stress the importance of truth-telling and remarks that "the seal of God is emeth [truth]" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 55a); "God hates one who speaks one thing with his mouth and another thing in his heart" (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 113b); "Whoever breaks his word is regarded as though he has worshipped idols" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 92a); and "liars will not receive the Divine Presence (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 42a)." The extreme importance of honesty is appropriately summed up by the Talmudic belief that the first question a person is asked in the hereafter at the final judgment is (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a): "Have you been honest in your dealings?" Despite all this, the Talmud recognizes that there are situations where one may be untruthful.



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Posted to July 30, 2003

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