“Distance yourself from falsehood.”
It is well known that honesty is one of the most important character traits and its antithesis, falsehood, is one of the most undesirable. The Sefer Hachinuch speaks very strongly about how disdainful it is to lie: “falsehood is abominable and disgraceful in everyone’s eyes, there is nothing more disgusting than it,... Therefore the Torah exhorts us to greatly distance ourselves from falsehood, as it says, 'distance yourself from falsehood.' ” He then explains that the Torah does not use the language of ‘distancing’ with regard to any other negative mitzvo which indicates its severity. Moreover, this teaches us that we should distance ourselves from even the slightest possibility of falsehood. Given the severity of lying, it is worthwhile to clarify what is included within the prohibition of 'midvar sheker tirchak'.
It is instructive to analyze the following scenario: Reuven owes Shimon money and the date for repayment has already passed. Shimon phones Reuven to request his money, but Reuven’s wife answers the phone. Reuven does not want to speak to Shimon but he also does not want his wife to lie and say that he is not home when he really is. Therefore Reuven steps just outside his house and instructs his wife to tell Shimon that Reuven is not home - this is technically true, Reuven is now not in the house, even though he could speak to Shimon if he so desired. One may think that this does not constitute falsehood because no false words were spoken. Is this indeed the case?
The Gemara in Nedarim discusses a case in which a man was owed some money so he brought the borrower before Rava’s Beis Din and said to him: “Pay me back.” The borrower responded: “I already paid you.” Rava said to the borrower: “In that case, you must swear an oath that you have given him the money.” The borrower went to get his cane, hid the money he owed inside its hollow, and leant on the cane as he returned to the courtroom. He said to the lender: “Hold this cane in your hand,” ostensibly in order to free his own hands to take hold of the Torah scroll. He then took a Torah scroll and swore that he had already given the money into the lender’s hand. The lender, incensed at the man’s chutzpah, broke the cane. Suddenly all the money inside spilled to the ground and it emerged that he had indeed sworn the technical truth!”
The borrower was obviously guilty of terrible midos but did he actually commit a genuine transgression? The Gemara concludes that he did because an oath taker must adhere not only to the plain definition of his words, but also to the meaning they are meant to convey as well. Consequently, he was guilty of swearing falsely by taking an oath that was technically truthful but deceptive .
We learn from here that saying words that are technically true does not mean that a person can deceive others by saying true words with a misleading message. Therefore, it would seem that Reuven’s strategy of standing outside the house does not help avoid the transgression of ‘midvar sheker tirchak.” The words that he is not home may be true but the message is not - Shimon is not interested in the technical location of Reuven; he wants to know if Reuven is present so that Shimon can speak to him. Thus, by saying that he is not present is a misleading message. One may argue that the case in Nedarim was that of an oath, but that in day to day life, perhaps it is allowed to deceive others on condition that words we say are technically true.
The Gemara in Shevuos disproves this theory: The Gemara discusses a number of cases that involve a transgression of 'midvar sheker tirchak'. One is the case where a talmid chacham claims that someone owes him money but he does not have any witnesses to support his claim. Accordingly he tells his talmid that the 'borrower' is clearly lying so he suggests a plan to influence the borrower to admit to the truth. He asks his talmid to come with him to court so that he would appear to be a witness to the loan. The borrower, seeing the prospective witness will realize that he can not escape from the truth and will admit that he does indeed owe the money. The Gemara says that the talmid transgresses, ‘midvar sheker tirchak’ by his actions . In this case, the talmid did not even say anything - he merely walked in with his Rebbe and sent an unsaid message to the borrower that he was a witness to the loan. Moreover, in this case, there is no oath being taken and nevertheless it is an example of falsehood. This proves that even if a person does not even say anything but his actions imply a false metsius then he is considered to be lying. This is all the more so the case where a person says words that are technically true but are also misleading .
However, if we analyze one of the most famous incidents in the Torah it would seem that saying technically truthful words is allowed. When Yaakov Avinu pretends to be his brother, Esav, Yitzchak asks him for his identity and he answers, “I am Esav your firstborn.” Rashi explains that he meant by this, “It is I who bring this to you, Esav is your firstborn.” Consequently his words were technically true although Yitzchak could only understand their simple meaning - that he was claiming to be Esav. This would seem to strongly question the premise that has been thus far established. My Rebbi, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits Shlita explains that Yaakov’s deft wording in and of itself did not justify lying to Yitzchak. Rather, the commentaries explain that Yaakov was justified in deceiving Esav because Esav himself was a trickster and it is allowed to use deceit in order to overcome a deceitful person . Why then did Yaakov need to resort to the 'word games'? The Orchos Tzaddikim writes that even when it is permissible to lie it is still nonetheless preferable to say words that are technically true . As a consequence, Yaakov did not want to release false words from his lips.
Nonetheless we should not be mistaken into thinking that saying words that are technically true justifies misleading others when there is no valid justification to do so and it constitutes a clear violation of midvar sheker tirchak. It is very important to educate our children on this point so that they realize that the prohibition to lie is not avoided by clever wording . Moreover, it is necessary for us to clarify the gedarim of this easily misunderstood mitzvo. The Chinuch stresses that Hashem is a ‘G-d of Emes’ and that bracho only comes to a person who strives to emulate Hashem. May we all succeed in living lives of genuine emes.