Tell us Rabbeinu Yonah, Can we lie?

There is much going on today. It is 69 years since the official start of the Holocaust. While we know it was in planning for centuries during heavy antisemitism, the flames of Kristallnacht are considered the start of the destruction of European Jewry.

Today is also the yarztheit of Rabbeinu Yonah.

Today is also the parsha of Toldot.

So here are some thoughts about lying from Rabbeinu Yonah. In light of the story in the parsha, where Rivka makes Yaakov lie to his father, I though this would be insightful.

R’ Yona (Shaarei Teshuva 3:178-186.) lists nine different categories of lies. In order of severity, they are:
a. People who cheat in business, causing others financial loss;
b. People who exploit others after gaining their trust through deception;
c. People whose lies cause others to lose out on some gain or benefit that was coming to them;
d. People who fabricate stories merely for the sake of lying;
e. People who hold out the promise of giving another person material goods while never intending to follow up on their promise;
f. People who intend to keep a promise but do not honor their commitment;
g. People who act as though they did a favor or a good deed for another;
h. People who praise themselves for virtues that they do not possess;
i. People who change minor details when retelling an episode.

A careful analysis of these nine categories shows that all of the lies are told either for the purpose of cheating another person, or for no apparent reason.

R’ Yona, however, does not list those who lie for a “good” purpose or for a “good” reason.

The Torah has a generally negative view of falsehood.
1. Our Sages teach that the world is predicated on truth, as it says, “The world stands on three things, on justice, on truth, and on peace.”[ Avot, 1:18]
2. We are commanded to follow the ways of G-d. Just as He is truthful, so too, we should strive to be truthful in all of our ways.[ Deuteronomy, 28:9.]
3. Someone who distorts the truth is considered to be like an idol worshipper.[Sanhedrin 92A.]
4. The Gemara teaches that Jerusalem was destroyed because of a lack of honest men within its walls.[ Shabbat 119B]
5. In general, it is a good practice to be truthful. “Mi Davar Sheker Tirchak”. prohibits lying: “Keep far away from an untruth.”[ Exodus, 23:7.]
6. If a person lies in a court of law, he violates the Ten Commandments, “You shall not bear false witness.”[ Ibid, 20:12.]

These are general guidelines-none of which are included in the Tayrag Mitzvos.

Even a very likely candidate– “mi Davar Sheker tirchak” is written in the context of the Justice system. So for example: Don’t use flimsy evidence, hersay, or circumstantial evidence.

Three way dispute of Rishonim:
a) R’ Yerucham Perlow in commentary on Sefer Hamitzvos L’Rav Saadya Gaon (mitvah 23) claims that there is no prohibition on lying. He says all the p’sukim that pro

hibit lying are talking about witnesses or bet din. He says that it is not even prohibited rabinically. It is however, a bad middah.
b) Sefer Chareidim: says that it is a torah prohibition to say any lie.
C) Sefer Y’reim (mitvah 235): who says that lying is prohibited if it will cause damage.

The following, however, are some real-life situations with which the Poskim deal:

1. SECRETS? If one is asked information about a matter that is supposed to remain secret, he may answer, “I don’t know” (Harav S.Z Auerbach and Harav S.Y. Elyashiv quoted in Titen Emes L’yaakov pg. 7 )
2. DON’T WANT TO TELL? Similarly, although one is not allowed to lie in order to avoid telling bad news (YD 402:12.), it is permitted to say, “I don’t know” (Harav S.Z Auerbach, Harav S.Y. Elyashiv and Harav Y.Y. Fisher quoted in Titen Emes L’yaakov pg. 89. See also Metzudos Dovid Shmuel 2 18:29.)
3. EXAGGERATION During an appeal for funds, one is not allowed to announce a donation in an amount greater then he is planning to give, even if the aim is to spur others to commit themselves to larger donations (Minchas Yitzchok 3:97, based on Ma’harsha Sukkah 29a.).
4. DEVALUATION: A wealthy man is permitted to lie about his wealth if he fears “the evil eye” (Ayin H’ara) or if he does not want to arouse jealousy —Harav S.Y. Elyashiv quoted in Titen Emes L’yaakov pg. 78.
5. ADOPTED CHILD-AWKWARDNESS It is forbidden for an adopted son to be called to the Torah as the son of his adoptive father. Although this may not be considered a lie (See Rama Choshen Mishpat 42, Shu”t Chasam Sofer 76 and Shu”t Ha’amek Sheila EH 98), it is forbidden because it may lead to confusion when matters of inheritance and Chalitza, etc., arise (Minchas Yitzchok 2:115; 4:49; Harav S.Z. Auerbach quoted in Titen Emes L’yaakov pg. 96.).
6. RAISING FUNDS When collecting funds for a poor Talmid Chacham, one may say that he is collecting for Hachnasas Kallah if he thinks that people will be more receptive to that cause (Shu”t Mishne Sachir (end of vol. 1) quoting a story with the Chasam Sofer. Part of the ruling is based on the Midrash Rabba (Ki-Sisa) that compares a Talmid Chacham to a Kallah. In that story the Chasam Sofer allowed a Tzedaka fund intended for Hachnosas Kallah to support a well-known Talmid Chacham). It is also permitted to raise funds for Hachnasas Kallah, even when the collection is primarily for the benefit of the Chasan (Harav S.Z. Auerbach quoted in Titen Emes L’yaakov pg. 55.).
7. FOR FINANCIAL GAIN It is prohibited to lie for the sake of financial gain, even when no stealing is involved (R’ Yona (Shaarei Teshuva 180 & 186); Rashas”h (Shabbos 140b) and Sdei Chemed (vol. 4 pg. 87) opposing the Ma’harsha (Shabbos 140) who implies that it is permissible; Chofetz Chaim (Sfas Tomim 2).
8. TO SAVE SOMETHING If one fears that a package will be mishandled, it is permitted to write “glass” on it, even though it does not contain any glass (Harav S.Y. Elyashiv, Harav Y.Y. Fisher and Harav Chaim Kanievsky, quoted in Titen Emes L’yaakov pg. 66.).
9. TO NOT BE LATE If one sees that his wife will be late for Shabbos, he is permitted to tell her that the hour is later than it really is. →This is permitted only when it is clear that she is procrastinating. → If, however, she is rushing and harried and telling her that the hour is later than it really is will only pressure her further, it is forbidden to do so (Harav S. Y. Elyashiv quoted in Titen Emes L’yaakov pg. 86.). →Story from Detroit.
10. I’M NOT HOME/GOT NO TIME If, by refusing to receive a visitor, the visitor’s feelings will be hurt, one is permitted to leave instructions saying that he is not home (Harav S.Z Auerbach and Harav S.Y. Elyashiv quoted in Titen Emes L’yaakov pg. 76. See also Machtzis Ha’shekel OC 156 that → if one has no time to answer a question about a particular subject, he may say that he is not learning that subject now and cannot answer the question.). → One should not, however, instruct a minor to lie about his parents’ whereabouts, since that teaches the child to lie.
→ Lying is permissible if its purpose is to maintain love and harmony between a man and his wife. Abraham and Sarah.[ 7. Genesis, 18:12-13.] When G-d tells the aging Sarah that she will have a son, she laughs, saying how unlikely since her husband is so old. When G-d tells Abraham of Sarah’s laughter, he changes the story saying that Sarah blamed her own old age, not her husband’s. Our Sages teach that G-d lied to preserve “shalom bayit” between husband and wife, to safeguard the harmony in their marriage.[ Baba Metzia, 87A.]
This has many practical applications. For instance if a woman invariably puts too much salt in the Friday night soup, the husband can tell her that she is a wonderful cook without worrying about the prohibition against lying. Likewise, if a man is forty pounds overweight, his wife can still tell him that in her eyes he looks like a movie star.
12. HARMONY Harmony is so important that the permission to lie extends to bringing peace between any two individuals or groups.[ 9. Yevamot 65B.]
→The Sages of the House of Hillel taught that one can praise the beauty of a bride even though she is not particularly pretty.[ Ketubot, 17A.]
13. HUMILITY/PRIVACY It is also permissible to lie for the sake of humility. For instance, a Torah scholar of great quintessence is permitted to say that he hasn’t learned any tractates of Talmud when in fact he has learned them all.[Baba Metzia 23B.] Furthermore, to safeguard a couple’s privacy, a woman going to the mikvah on the night of her ritual immersion is allowed to say that she is going to the movies.[ibid]
14. WELL BEING The rabbis also permit lying in order to preserve a person’s wellbeing. For instance, if one was wined and dined royally at the Levy’s, if asked about the meal was, he can say it was “not bad” so that crowds of people won’t clamour for an invitation.[ibid]
15. TO AVOID EMBARRASSMENT, a person can lie. For instance, if someone has to enter the hospital for a hemorrhoid operation, he can tell people he is having his tonsils removed instead.[ P’ninei Halacha, Vol. 3, Pg. 159, based on the Rambam, Laws of Theft, 14:13]
16. While there are cases were lying is permissible, one should do so very carefully. Our Sages teach that a habitual liar will not witness the presence of the Shechina.[ Sotah 42A]

1 reply
  1. Miriam
    Miriam says:

    It seems that the main prohibition of lying is lying in court or lying when it will cause other harm e.g. monetary loss etc.
    It would seem then that the following would be fine – If I need to insure myself on my sisters car may I call up the insurance company as my sister with her bank card and insure myself on her car? Of course calling as myself they legally wouldnt allow me to use her card etc. My sister could easily call for herself but usually she is in a rush or too busy and it would seem silly to put her on the phone when I can easily do the job myself. If anything the insurance company only gains business from this!

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