Is It Okay to Lie?

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, contains a famous verse: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.”  Today, I would like to pose to you a question that the answer may seem obvious.  Nevertheless, I think it is worth discussing the Jewish perspective on this issue, particularly in light of recent news items:

Is a moral individual ever allowed to lie?  Can there be a situation where prevarication is not only permitted, but perhaps even encouraged?

A psychology study shows that people lie frequently, perhaps as much as 8-12 times every waking hour! (Geary, James (2000), “Deceitful Minds: The Awful Truth About Lying,” Time Europe, Vol. 155 (10), 56-61.) Jewish law strictly forbids deceipt and deception, and cautions one to stay far away from such situations, as in the verse, “Distance yourself from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7).

Yet, there are times when Judaism would actually encourage one to lie.

Ponder these situations for a moment:

–          May a physician ever lie to his patients?

–          May telling someone, “nice to see you,” ever be untrue?  How about, “You look good”?

–          When you ask someone, “how are you,” are you actually interested in the answer?

–          May one lie to retrieve something that was stolen from them?

–          In a business setting, may one make the customer believe that they are getting a better deal – “This is the best price you’ll find anywhere!” – than they actually are?

–          Is a parent allowed to promise a child a reward for good behavior and then provide it?

The Bible cautions us against lying in numerous places, including the prohibition of testifying as a false witness,  lying to cause financial loss, and, as mentioned above, the general warning of staying away from falsehood.

Remember Abraham and his wife Sarah?  Pretty righteous folks, right?  Let me remind you of an incident that took place in their lives, way back in the book of Genesis.  Angels arrive for a visit to Abraham’s tent.  Each angel has a different mission, and one of them has come to tell Abraham that Sarah – at the old age of 90 – will give birth to a son.  Abraham himself is 100 years old.

Sarah overheard the angel tell Abraham that she will bear a child; she laughs, saying, “After I have withered, will I (now) have smooth skin? And my husband is old!” (Genesis 18:12). In the very next verse, G-d Himself says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Is it really true that I will give birth, even though I am old?’”

Notice anything here?

When G-d repeats the incident to Abraham, He changes her statement! She said, “Abraham is old,” but G-d tells Abraham that she said that she is too old!

The Talmud (Yevamot 65b) offers an explanation: “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, ‘My lord [i.e., husband Abraham] is old,’ while afterward it is written, ‘And I am old.’”

Another pertinent Talmudic passage (Ketubot 16b):

The sages taught: How should one dance [i.e. what should one say] before a bride? Beit Shammai says, “[refer to her] as she is [i.e. her beauty or lack thereof]; Beit Hillel says, “[one should say] such a beautiful and kind bride [even if that is not the case].” Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel, “If she was crippled or blind, would you still say that she was beautiful and kind?! But doesn’t the Torah say, ‘Distance oneself from falsehood’?! Beit Hillel responded, “According to you, if someone makes a bad purchase in the marketplace, should one praise it or denigrate it in front of the purchaser? One should certainly praise it [in front of the purchaser]!” From here our sages say that one should always deal sweetly with others.”

We see from these sources that Judaism indeed permits lying in certain situations.  One may be permitted to lie for the sake of peace, or to avoid offending someone.  Thus, telling someone that you like their new jacket – even if you don’t – may be permitted.

Even if one may encounter a situation where it may be permitted or even encouraged to lie, one should take to heart the words of Jeremiah, “They have taught their tongues to speak lies” (9:4), which emphasizes that one should never become accustomed to prevarication, and one must be extra cautious when it comes to education.

This essay is intended to get you thinking about honesty, truthfulness and how we define and apply them to our lives.  It is important to conclude that Judaism places great emphasis on the importance of dealing honestly in business and being truthful.

Our sages even tell us that the first question a person is asked after they pass away and stand before the heavenly courts is, “Have you been honest in your dealings?” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).