By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
While lying is certainly a habit that no one should accustom themselves to, there are times however, when it may be justified. Nevertheless, even in such situations it is recommend not to deviate from the truth more than is absolutely necessary. We are taught to keep as far away from lying as possible, and that the seal of God is “truth”. Telling the truth is said to be a segula to be saved from disease and epidemic. Someone who is known to lie will not be believed even when he is telling the truth. Even saying one thing when really intending another is also considered crooked. Lying is so severe that it is considered comparable to the transgression of worshipping idols. It is even forbidden to lie when the result would cause no one any harm or loss. It is forbidden to lie to any human being, Jew or Gentile.
That being said, there are a number of situations when bending the truth may be in order. The most frequently cited example of this is lying in order to bring peace between people. The Talmud relates that when two people had ceased speaking to each other as the result of a dispute, Aharon would go and tell one of the parties that the other individual was deeply distressed at what had taken place. Aharon would then go to the other party and do the same thing. Afterwards, with each one believing that the other had deeply regretted what had transpired, they would embrace and make up the next time they saw each other. Similarly, Yosef’s brothers had lied to him when they said that their father had asked Yosef to forgive them for having sold him off to Egypt. Even in such situations of justifiable lying it is imperative that deviating from the truth will not possibly harm or otherwise disadvantage any of the parties involved. This includes the requirement to omit any “lashon hara” components even if requested regarding them.
It seems from the Talmud that bestowing an undeserved compliment is to be preferred over saying a truth which would insult another person. For example, if one is not interested in eating food that one has been served, it would be permitted to decline the offer by saying that one has recently eaten and not hungry. One should not say that the food one had been served tastes bad and is not how one would have preferred it. It is also permitted to say that an unattractive bride looks beautiful or that ugly clothes that someone had purchased are actually nice.
Additionally, it is permitted to lie out of modesty regarding one’s achievements, both material as well as spiritual ones. Another area where lying might be the right thing to do, is in order to save another person from being embarrassed or harmed. The Midrash relates a famous story to this effect. When Avraham was traveling to Egypt, he hid Sara in a box and lied about the box’s contents when asked about it at customs. Avraham knew that if Sara were to be discovered she would be taken by for immoral purposes.