לא תענה ברעך עד שקר
Following our analysis of the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness,” we will now see some examples of exceptional cases where lying may be justified.
Shelom Bayit: Lying to promote or maintain peace in the family is justified, as long as this lie does not cause harm to any other person. The rabbis deduced this important principle from Yosef’s brothers. When Yosef was young, he was betrayed by his brothers who abducted him and sold him as a slave. After many years, Yosef became the ruler of Egypt. Yosef behaved with them without resentment, but they thought (mistakenly) that Yosef still held grudges and that he behaved positively with them only to prevent more anguish to his father, Ya’aqob. When Ya’aqob Abinu died, the brothers thought that now Joseph would take revenge on them. So they lied to Yosef (Genesis 50: 15-18). The brothers asked, “What will happen if Yosef still holds a grudge against us and makes us pay for all the evil we did to him?” Then they sent a message to Joseph, saying: Your father ordered the following before he died: Say to Yosef, please: forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin…”. In fact, Ya’aqob, had not sent any message to Yosef (it is possible that Ya’aqob never knew, or did not want to find out, what the brothers did to Yosef). The Hakhamim justified this lie because Yosef’s brothers thought that otherwise the harmony of the family would have been compromised forever. And the Hakhamim also observed that this type of “white lies” is only allowed when this lie does no harm any other human being, as in the case of Yosef and his brothers.
There are other cases in which the Rabbis indicated that the truth could be modified (leshannot min ha-emet): when it contradicts other important Jewish values.
1. Masekhta (Talmudic Treaty). According to Rashi, if a person, for example, knows perfectly and by heart, a Talmud treatise and someone asks him how well he knows this Talmudic treatise, one can hide the truth and say that he does not know it very well. We Jews value humility immensely, and since in this case, by modifying the truth, no harm is done to anybody, is permitted. Other rabbis (Magen Abraham) added that in this same way one could also behave with humility in other religious or spiritual areas. For example: if someone is doing an act of Hesed (charity) or practicing an extra severity (humra) he can (or should!) hide it from others.
2. Puraya (sexual intimacy): In matters of intimacy, it is also allowed not to reveal the whole truth or even modify the truth. If someone asks something inappropriate, for example: “Will your wife go to the Mikve tonight?” or something similar, you can hide the truth for reasons of Tseni’ut (= discretion).
3. Ushpiza (guest): Ba’ale haTosafot explain it this way. In the past, there were no hotels, and travelers often looked for someone that would offer them a bed for the night and a piece of bread for breakfast. Now, I stayed in someone’s house, and they treated me exceptionally well. And I suspect that if I make public my praise to my hosts, many other travelers –some of whom might not be honest or could behave abusively– will try to stay in that house, it is permissible to deviate from the truth and hide the praise to the host for his exceptional treatment. Since otherwise everyone will want to stay in that house, and involuntarily, I might be causing a possible abuse situation towards my generous host. In this and other similar circumstances (a generous donor, etc.), it is allowed to hide the identity of my benefactors or to minimize their generosity.
As we see, although the truth is a very high value in Judaism, and the Tora warned us to move away from lying, sometimes, to behave humbly, with morality or to avoid harm or abuse to generous people, we can deviate from the truth.