Truth and Lies

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Truth is a virtue that stands aside when life is at stake. That is why Avraham could lie to save his life when asked whether Sarah was his wife (Gen. 12:12, 20:2). But a detail of his justification raises larger questions about situations when truth is not an option.

On confrontation by Avimelekh over his lie that Sarah was his sister, Avraham explained his action with two reasons:

And Avraham said, “(1) Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife. (2) But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.” (Gen. 20:11-12)

Avraham was scared that Avimelekh would kill him and, additionally, as a cousin Sarah can be legitimately called his sister. Why did Avraham offer the second explanation? Fear of death, piku’ach nefesh, is a sufficient justification for the lie. The second reason seems unnecessary.

I’d like to suggest an answer within the realm of anachronistic halakhic midrash. Halakhic authorities debate the nature of the prohibition to avoid lies. The Torah commands “mi-dvar sheker tirchak, distance yourself from lies” (Ex. 23:7). The language is unusual. It does not say “Do not lie” but instead that you must distance yourself from lying. Does it mean that lying is not only forbidden but so improper that you must take extra precautions to stay as far away from it as possible? Or is it less than an absolute prohibition, only requiring distance and not complete abstention?

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Dei’os 14:13) writes that a Torah scholar “does not alter the truth in his speech, not adding or subtracting, except for matters of peace and the like.” Later scholars infer that in matters of peace, you should preferably add or subtract rather than lie. In other words, you must stray only a minimum from the truth. However, Tosafos (Kesubos 17a sv. kallah & yeshabchenu) say that the permission to praise an ugly bride (for the sake of peace) extends even to falsely saying that she is beautiful, rather than requiring finding an honest praise.

Commentators explain that according to Tosafos, in situations where lying is permitted the prohibition is entirely non-existent. You do not have to minimize the non-truth. However, according to the Rambam, in such a situation the prohibition exists but is overridden. Therefore, according to the Rambam you must minimize the lie while according to Tosafos that is unnecessary (see R. Daniel Z. Feldman, The Right and The Good, pp. 79-81).

According to Tosafos, Avraham’s second explanation is puzzling because once piku’ach nefesh permitted lying, it is entirely allowed. He had no need to speak about Sarah with technical accuracy because the situation allowed for lying. However, according to the Rambam, the prohibition was overridden but still applicable and therefore Avraham still needed to minimize his lying. His reference to Sarah as his sister/cousin was accurate.

Indeed, Avraham’s second answer may be seen as teaching this very rule: Truth is so important that even when running for your life you need to remain as close to truth as possible.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, 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 of New Jersey, 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 recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and 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.

30 comments

  1. It seems to me that the lack of Rabbinic transparency — because it is not worth the pain, if I recall your expression — is a form of davar sheker that should be avoided.

    Given this analysis, Orthodox Rabbinic leaders should walk the walk in addition to talking the talk.

  2. It seems to me that the lack of Rabbinic transparency — because it is not worth the pain, if I recall your expression — is a form of davar sheker that should be avoided.

    Only in a polemic sense but that’s all you really meant.

    I would say that people with Conservative beliefs who call themselves Orthodox or post-Denominational also violate midvar sheker tirchak.

  3. Meow. And I meant what I said; it was not a polemic point.

  4. Incidentally, I still don’t understand what you mean by “Conservative beliefs”. As far as I can tell, you just use it as a lazy epithet.

  5. Great post! And I’m sure I would have liked it less without the acknowledgment of anachronistic Halakhic midrash technique.

  6. If you meant it literally then, no, you are confusing “vihyisem neki’im” with “midvar sheker tirchak”. Different obligations.

  7. I’d like to suggest an answer within the realm of non-anachronistic historical explanation.

    In order to understand Avraham’s justifications, we have to appreciate the difference between ancient and modern society. In ancient times, killing a man in order to take his wife was an acceptable and honorable course of action for many people, just like any battle launched to capture new resources. But taking a single girl was not acceptable without the permission of her father, or another guardian, such as her brother.

    Avraham therefore had two choices. If Sarah admitted to being his wife, he would be killed, and she would be taken. But if she claimed to be his sister, people would not attempt to take her against her will. Instead, they would try to befriend Avraham in order to be able to take Sarah with his permission.

    As we see from Avraham’s words, this strategy was used on many occasions, to great success. Sarah was not taken by anyone else; there was no harm done. This strategy was also practiced by Yitzchak with great success; he was able to live in Gerar for “a long time” without any troubles (Genesis 26:6-11), and his wife was never taken. Egypt was the first of two places where this strategy failed to work. This happened because Sarah was considered so beautiful by the Egyptians that she was taken by Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh, as ruler of Egypt, could take Sarah by force, although he would still compensate her “brother” for this privilege. The same disaster happened with Avimelech.

    Thus, when Avraham told Sarah to pretend to be his sister, his strategy was to both save his own life and prevent her from being taken – as opposed to telling the truth, which would result in his being killed and her being taken. Perhaps we can also now understand Avraham’s explanation of the technical truth of his statement that she was his sister. The intent may have been that, even by their standards, he was indeed responsible for granting permission to people to take her, and they should have waited for him to grant this permission.

    (For more, see http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/10/clever-jew.html)

  8. Gil,
    nice peace of drush.
    I am not challenging you right to the opinion that certain positions held in some more liberal quarters of Orthodox are beyond the pale. I even agree with you to some degree. But the people who are making these claims by and large honestly and sincerely beleive them to be legitimately Orthodox positions. There is no objective definition of Orthodoxy. These people may be guilty of many thing but they really beleive that they are telling the truth. Just like when frummies claim that they can rationally prove the truth of Torah, they are wrong and stupid, but are not lying.

  9. I always thought Avraham added in the bit sbout Sarah really being his sister in order to seem less dishonest in the eyes of Avimelech, not because that argument had any halachic relevance.

  10. Moshe: Do you really think Steve Greenberg believes he’s still an Orthodox rabbi? I give him more credit than that.

  11. If you statement refers to Steve Greenberg and not the entire YCT/JOFA crowd, it is certainly more palatable. But i dont think that I am the only one who misunderstood you.

  12. You understood me more or less correctly, although I can’t speak about the entire anything because individuals will differ. I was just making my point that some people know full wel they’ve gone beyond the pale but like the sociological category of Orthodox.

    Of course, it’s totally a side issue meant to respond to IH’s comment.

  13. Gil’s was a snarky response to a serious comment. I am happy to engage in the tangent if that becomes the thread of conversation here.

    Irrespective of politics, the Rabbinate (both in the US and in Israel) need to walk the walk if a crush like this post is to have any meaning. To wit, everyone thinks they have a good excuse for not remaining “as close to truth as possible”.

  14. “drush” not “crush” (auto-correct)

  15. Tachlis: From your and your chevra’s perspective, Gil, were R Steven Weil’s laudatory remarks – representing the OU — about the Jewish Center, and its woman (sole) President, truth or praise for an ugly bride (for the sake of peace)?

    [Ref: Minutes 03:20 through 05:30 on http://tinyurl.com/7ssrvfo%5D

  16. “She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.
    […]
    as a cousin Sarah can be legitimately called his sister.”

    On what planets do that sentence make any sense? How is a step-sister a cousin, and how is a cousin a sister??

  17. Gil, your broad stroke about Conservative beliefs held by people calling themselves Orthodox was indeed understood (by me) as a reference to YCT/JOFA types. It seems to me that to keep as far as possible from sheker in trhe way you discussed, you should specifically identify your targets (apparently, RSG)in order to avoid leaving the wrong impression.

  18. Shalom Rosenfeld

    You’re saying it’s a Machlokes Tosfos and Rambam whether hutra or dchuya?

    Rabbi Slifkin’s answer is an interesting one; I’d always assumed the “and also” was Avraham defending his wording. Thanks for the insight!

  19. Shalom Rosenfeld

    Yevamos 63a:

    רב הוה קא מצערא ליה דביתהו כי אמר לה עבידי לי טלופחי עבדא ליה חימצי חימצי עבדא ליה טלופחי כי גדל חייא בריה אפיך לה אמר ליה איעליא לך אמך אמר ליה אנא הוא דקא אפיכנא לה אמר ליה היינו דקא אמרי אינשי דנפיק מינך טעמא מלפך את לא תעביד הכי שנאמר (ירמיהו ט) למדו לשונם דבר שקר העוה וגו’

    Revenge of the baalabatish approach:
    I think everyone agrees that regardless of the need, it’s best to avoid flat-out lying; if not “midvar sheker tirchak”, then based on Jeremiah’s concern for what habits you’re developing.

    As for Tosfos — well certainly in the eye of the right beholder she’s “na’ah v’chasudah” (so it’s not an outright lie); and furthermore, if every other girl in her BY class had “na’ah v’chasudah” proclaimed at her wedding, then if this time suddenly they say something different, it’s going to be quite painful. So it’s necessary to say “na’ah v’chasudah.”

  20. I always thought Avraham added in the bit sbout Sarah really being his sister in order to seem less dishonest in the eyes of Avimelech, not because that argument had any halachic relevance.

    Absolutely. (And, ironically, Avraham’s statement to defend his honesty may not even be honest. From where do we know that Sarah was his half-sister, except from this statement? And would Avraham not be justified in fabricating such a claim, if he thought it might get him out of a dangerous situation?)

  21. Sigmund Freud is reputed to have said that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

    I’ve read Gil’s full post here at least twice, and I see no reference to Orthodoxy or non-Orthodoxy masquerading as Orthodoxy.

    Is it now standard to read everything he writes as REALLY being part of the ongoing polemics on that issue?

  22. I fully agree, LI Reader, the polemical tangent started with Hirhurim on November 16, 2011 at 10:26 pm in response to my comment about the substance of the post.

    I await a response to my tachlis question of 10:22am testing his drush.

  23. IH: Gil’s was a snarky response to a serious comment.

    I don’t doubt the seriousness of the comment but I doubt the relevance of insulting Jewish leaders in general for no reason.

  24. Any test of your drush can be perceived as insulting. You put it out there and public statements by community leaders is the least insulting way I can think of to test it.

  25. I second Can Read’s observation about Avraham refering to Sarah as his step-sister when she was allegedly his cousin. Perhaps R’ Gil meant to write ‘niece’, i.e., his father’s grandaughter (Haran’s daughter, Yiska) since grandchildren in Tanach are sometimes termed children. Such a supposition is preferable to taking Avraham’s words literally, that Sarah was his step-sister.

  26. Can read: You’re wrong. In Torah-times, sister and niece meant the same thing.

  27. “In Torah-times, sister and niece meant the same thing.”

    How do you know this?

  28. Sarah may not have been Avraham’s sister, but she was definitely his sista.

  29. Joseph Kaplan, I had been thinking of an example of the torah calling a grandfather, ‘father’. In Ex.2:18, as the daughters of Yitro coming home excitedly from the well where they had been rescued by an unknown ‘Egyptian’, the verse states that they came to their ‘father’, Reuel. However, Yitro is their actual father (assuming that Yitro and Reuel are different people), Reuel is presumably the grandfather. However, this week’s parsha gives the clearest example. In Gen. 24:48, the servant of Avraham finishes his story of encountering Rivka by stating, “…who lead me on a true path to take the daughter of my master’s brother for his son”. Now, Rivka is not Nachor’s daughter, she is Betuel’s daughter and Nachor’s granddaughter.

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