Jews and Deception

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Jews are not obligated to be the world’s suckers. If someone punches you, you do not need to turn the other cheek and let him punch you again. Nor need you ignore signs of an impending attack and fail to prevent it. The Sages said that the proper response to someone who comes to kill you is to kill him first (Berakhos 58a). The same applies to someone trying to trick or cheat you. You may act with trickery to avoid his impending deception (Megillah 13b). But how far can you go?

Rashi (Gen. 29:12) quotes the Midrash as explaining Ya’akov’s intentions regarding Lavan: “If he comes to trick me then I am his brother in trickery but if he is a good person then I am the son of Rivkah his sister.” The Brisker Rav inferred from the language “brother in trickery” that Ya’akov was saying that he will be Lavan’s equal. The level of deception will be equal to Lavan’s and not one bit more. Generalizing from this, we can say that you can go as far as your opponent but no more. You may not initiate a disproportionate response.

However, R. Yitzchak Sorotzkin (Rinas Yitzchak, ad loc.) points out that the Targum Pseudo-Yonasan expands this verse in a way that is contrary to the Brisker Rav’s approach: “I [Ya’akov] am trickier and wiser than him [Lavan].” R. Sorotzkin explains that your boundary is not proportionalism of response but what is required to overcome your opponent’s deception. The measure of allowed trickery is not a matter of leveling the playing field by matching your opponent’s unsavory methods but defeating someone wicked who plays dirty.

This is, however, dangerous territory. People involved in this type of engagement must be cautious because they can easily become so used to these forms of deception that they utilize them casually, even when unnecessary. However, failing to use them when necessary is equally dangerous. The wise consult with trusted advisors before adopting such tactics, delicately balancing the need to be clever with the danger of becoming devious.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. off topic, but I rather like the phrase “Targum Pseudo-Yonasan” 🙂

  2. One should always be careful of being moreh heter for himself in situations involving this sort of practice. It is very easy to convince oneself that all sorts of dishonesty is justified. The Gemara is full of Rabbinic enactments to counteract this behavior; the first Mishna in Bava Metzia and the accompanying gemara provide prominent examples.

  3. emma, the question is, what does R’ Sorotzkin call it? 🙂

  4. Shalom Rosenfeld

    I assumed that was the Mercha-Kefula (double-panic) when Yaakov is giving his father some alcohol — fear of being caught in the deception on one hand; fear of becoming too good of a deceiver on the other.

  5. Michael Rogovin

    While this will put me risk of being accused of avot bashing, I think the Torah is very honest when dealing with the failings of our fore-bearers.

    The Torah twice (once quoting Lavan but the first time as an absolute statement) says Yaakov literally stole the heart of Lavan (ganav et ha lev) – meaning deceived (akin to gneivat daat). The use of the term geneva is more than just a colloquialism, it is a value judgement. Later, Jews would be warned against all forms of gneiva – “Al tignov.” It seems pretty clear that the Torah is suggesting wrongdoing on the part of Yaakov in that he is called a ganav. This is not to say that Lavan was a nice guy, or honest, or that Yaakov should not have taken steps to protect himself. But Yaakov certainly does not play the honest businessman to Lavan’s dishonesty. But seem to be trying to one up the other in deception. Perhaps that is why Lavan, upon meeting Yaakov for the first time, says “surely you are my flesh and blood” (ie: we are cut from the same mold). Hardly a compliment.

  6. There are many other practical reasons why trying to use a gemara kupp to outscam a scam artist is “dangerous territory.” To name a few: A) unless you really understand the deception and your response, and ramifications of each, you may be digging yourself in deeper; B) fair bet that scam artists don’t exclusively associate with reputable people — nothing beats a threat of physical violence that can be backed up with physical violence; C) Said scam artist may be deceiving you, but operating within the law, while your deception may be crossing the line into fraud.

  7. The quote from Berachot 58a needs to be translated in a better nuanced way: “the proper response to someone who comes to kill you is to anticipate him (rise up early) to kill him first.” It does not say that you should actually kill him. (leharego rather than VEharego). The Chachomim leave an opening that if you anticipate him in a pre-emptive way, you just MAY not need to kill him.

  8. “However, failing to use [deception] when necessary is equally dangerous.” I am not so sure that there is equivalence.

    Off topic — the Brisker/Sorotzkin dispute re proportionality parallels the dispute re Israel’s response in Gaza.

  9. When I was reviewing the parsha this week, it seemed to me that Yaakov did end up taking advantage of Lavan.

    Yaakov only deserved to be paid for 6 years, or arguably 13 years. How much does a shepherd earn, even one who’s very experienced and is an excellent worker? You wouldn’t expect any shepherd to be rich, even after saving all his income for 13 years (particularly one with such a large family!).

    It seems like Yaakov went well beyond “acting with trickery to avoid his impending deception”

    Anyone have any thoughts on this?

  10. what drives me nuts is how the Torah says that Yaakov took matters into his own hands in getting all the animals to be aroused to have discolorations etc., and when it comes to telling his family, he seems to lie and say a Malach handled that (of course there are some meforshim that say this was true and Yaakov put the rods out to minimize the Nase, but that clearly isn’t the simple reading). And Yaakov says Lavan tricked him ten times, but that isn’t shown here (of course again the meforshim say that we must trust Yaacov, though he doesn’t seem so trustworthy).

  11. I would agree that we should not rely on trickery or defense as a primary option of communal or individual defense. Yet, one must differentiate between the same and the age old denigrating portraits of Jews in culture such as in The Merchant of Venice where the Jew is consistently portrayed in a negative light because of his identification with law as opposed to love, as Anthony Julius pointed out in “The Trials of the Diaspora.”

  12. If you are having business dealings with a party who isn’t honest, here are two good options other than being dishonest yourself:

    (1) Break off the relationship and find a more honest party to deal with.

    (2) Continue the relationship but verify all representations that the other party makes, require performance bonds, collateral, etc.

  13. Gil, your distinction between being “as deceptive” or “more deceptive” is, as a practical matter, meaningless.

    First, I know of no metric by which to measure deception.

    Second, once you start down the path of dishonesty, there’s no stopping point. You must pile on deception after deception in order to protect the first deception. Either you’re all-in or all-out.

    In any case, what party to an ongoing relationship doesn’t feel at some point that he is ill-used by the other party? If this is a heter for deceptive behavior, it is well nigh a universal heter.

    Finally, though your post doesn’t mention Jews and gentiles, the reference to Jacob and Laban leaves the impression that the heter applies only when dealing with gentiles. Perhaps that isn’t the impression you wished to give, but it’s there nonetheless.

  14. Haverim, sometimes posts and comments, while not intended to guide someone directly, produce good results. You should know this. I have delved into this Torah for awhile now as I prepare to deal with a business associate who has defrauded and stolen from me. This has been very difficult for me and my family but coming to a calibrated response has especially weighed heavily on me as I do not wish him disbarred, since it will not necessarily bring restitution.

  15. meir,

    “and when it comes to telling his family, he seems to lie and say a Malach handled that (of course there are some meforshim that say this was true…but that clearly isn’t the simple reading).”

    If you’re looking at the simple reading, Yaakov is just relating a dream, not reality. See Ramban that the dream was a siman that he will succeed in his plans with the sticks.

    If you want to get midrashic and say that the dream was reality, then go all the way and follow the mefarshim who explain how Yaakov wasn’t lying.

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