Speaking Falsely

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
 
Based on a shiur by HaRav Yehuda Amital 
Summarized by Yitzchak Ben-David
Translated by David Silverberg
 
  1. "How does one dance before the bride?"
The Gemara says towards the beginning of the second chapter of  Ketubot (16b-17a):
 
"The Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? 
Beit Shammai say: [one describes] the bride as she actually is. 
Beit Hillel say: 'A beautiful and graceful bride.' 
Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel: Say she is lame or blind; we say to her, 'A beautiful and graceful bride'?  But the Torah said, 'You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood!'
Beit Hillel said to Beit Shammai: According to your view, one who made a poor purchase in the market – should one praise it in his eyes, or denigrate it in his eyes?  Surely we would say, he should praise it in his eyes. 
From here the Sages said: One's disposition must always be pleasant towards people."
 
The Gemara here presents the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai regarding the proper way to celebrate with a bride and groom.  According to Beit Shammai, one may not deviate at all from the truth and speak imprecisely.  Beit Hillel, by contrast, maintain that one should show flexibility in terms of truthfulness in order to bring satisfaction to the couple.  To substantiate their claim, Beit Shammai cite an explicit verse from which they conclude that a person may not utter any falsehood: "Mi-devar sheker tirchak" ("You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood" – Shemot 23:7).
 
     Beit Shammai's comments indicate that in their view, there exists an issur asei (prohibition expressed in the form of a positive commandment) forbidding false speech, and we derive this prohibition from the aforementioned verse.  Beit Hillel's response, however, gives us no clear indication as to their position concerning the parameters of this prohibition.  In light of the Rishonim's comments, we may raise three different approaches to understanding this debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai:
 
  1. Beit Shammai maintain that this verse introduces a general prohibition against speaking falsely, whereas according to Beit Hillel, the prohibition applies only to judges, and not to people in general.
  2. Both views believe in principle in a prohibition against speaking falsely; their debate surrounds the issue of whether this prohibition applies to any false speech, as Beit Shammai claim, or specifically to falsehoods that inflict harm.
  3. Both Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel limit the prohibition to instances where the false speech inflicts harm, only they argue as to whether imprecise compliments work in favor of the person about whom they are spoken, or cause him harm.
  1. Judges, or All People?
Let us take another look at the aforementioned verse and its context:
 
"You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.  You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood; do not bring death upon those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer.  Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right." (Shemot 23:6-8)
 
The prohibition against speaking falsely appears in the context of the mitzvot involving a judge's conduct.  Alongside the prohibition against subverting people's rights or taking bribes, the Torah introduces the command to distance oneself from words of falsehood.  In light of the context, the commentators on the Chumash debate the scope of this prohibition.  Ibn Ezra understood that the prohibition relates specifically to judges: "From matters of falsehood – this speaks to the judge, that he should not render false judgment, similar to 'Justice, justice shall you pursue' (Devarim 16:20)."  The Rashbam takes this approach, as well: "You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood – if you detect a false case with false witnesses, but you cannot disprove them, distance yourself from that case, and do not preside over it at all."  Seforno, by contrast, appears to have understood that this verse refers to a general prohibition that applies to all people, not merely judges:
 
"You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood – from any matter that can involve falsehood, as they z"l said: 'Exercise care with your words, lest people learn to speak falsely from them."[1]
 
     Corresponding to this debate among the commentators, the Rishonim argue as to the halakhic parameters of the prohibition.  The primary Talmudic source for the prohibitions emerging from this verse is the sugya in  Shavuot (30b):
 
"The Rabbis taught: From where do we know that a judge should not appoint advocates for what he has to say?  The verse states: 'You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood.' 
From where do we know that a judge should not assign an ignorant student to sit before him?  The verse states: 'You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood.' 
From where do we know that a judge who knows his fellow [judge] is a thief, or a witness who knows his fellow [witness] is a thief, should not join with him?  The verse states: 'You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood.' 
From where do we know that a judge who knows the case is false should not say, 'Since the witnesses testify, I will decide it [the case] and let the blame rest on the witness' neck?'  The verse states: 'You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood.' 
… From where do we know that if two come for trial, one dressed in rags and the other dressed in a one-hundred 'maneh' suit, that we say to him, 'Dress like him or give him clothing to wear like yours'?  The verse states: 'You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood.'"
 
The Gemara brings many examples (twelve) of applications of "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak," and they all involve legal settings.  This, of course, raises the aforementioned question of whether the prohibition applies only to legal scenarios, or even generally, whenever some harm or loss will be incurred as a result.  The fact that all the Gemara's examples deal with judges and legal deliberation appears to indicate that the imperative to distance oneself from falsehood applies strictly to judges.  According to the second approach, however, we might explain that generally speaking, instances of falsehood resulting in damage occur in the courtroom setting, but fundamentally, the prohibition is not restricted to the legal realm.
 
     A study of the Rambam's rulings reveals that in his view, the prohibition of "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" does not apply generally, and refers only to judges.  The Rambam codifies all the examples mentioned in the Gemara[2], citing the verse 'Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" in reference to each, with one exception:
 
"If there were two litigants, one dressed in expensive clothing and the other dressed in dishonorable clothing, he says to the prominent one, 'Either dress him in clothing like yours before standing trial with him, or dress like him, so that you are equal; only then can you stand trial."     (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 21:2)
 
The Gemara explicitly bases this requirement to try the litigants only when they are similarly dressed, on the verse, "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak."  The Rambam, however, does not mention the verse in reference to this halakha, as he does in reference to all the Gemara's other examples.  It is likely that the Rambam here relies on what he wrote in the previous halakha:
 
"There is a positive mitzva to judge a case fairly, as it says, 'You shall judge your kinsman fairly' (Vayikra 19:15).  What does a 'fair judgment' mean?  It means equating the two litigants in every respect: one should not be allowed to speak as much as he wishes, whereas to the other he [the judge] says, 'Keep your words brief'; he should not show favor to one and speak to him softly, while showing disdain for the other and speaking to him harshly." (ibid., halakha 1)
 
In this halakha, the Rambam cites the general verse from which we learn that a judge must conduct a case fairly: "You shall judge your kinsman fairly."  After citing this verse, the Rambam does not, in the following halakha, where he mentions the requirement of similar dress, bring the verse, "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak," since he views this halakha as falling under the general obligation to conduct fair trials.  Evidently, he understood the imperative of "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" as intended to expand the parameters of the general obligation of "Be-tzedek tishpot amitekha" ("You shall judge your kinsman fairly").  Whereas this obligation to judge fairly applies only to judges, the command to distance oneself from falsehood comes and extends the obligation of fairness to other participants in the judicial process: witnesses, litigants, etc.
 
     We may thus conclude that according to the Rambam, "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" applies to a judge presiding over a case, as well as to all those who take part in the judicial process, but only to them.  The purpose of this command is to promote the general ideal of fair judgment, and does not stand on its own.  We deal not with an independent prohibition, but rather with one component of a series of measures to be taken by Beit-Din so as to ensure a fair and honest judicial ruling.  Consequently, the Rambam had no reason to bring the verse requiring distancing oneself from falsehood, once he had already, in the previous halakha, noted the general obligation of "Be-tzedek tishpot amitekha," for this latter imperative includes as well the obligation to avoid falsehood in judicial proceedings and decision-making.
 
     In fact, elsewhere the Rambam clearly indicates that in his view, no prohibition exists at all against speaking falsely outside the judicial framework.  The Rambam brings the verse, "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" only in Hilkhot Sanhedrin (seven times), Hilkhot Eidut (17:6), and Hilkhot To'en Ve-nit'an (16:10).  Nowhere do we find the Rambam mentioning this verse regarding speaking falsely outside the context of judicial proceedings and reaching legal decisions.
 
     This understanding of the Rambam explains why in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot, the Rambam does not list the obligation to distance oneself from falsehood as one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot.[3]  According to what we have seen, the reason is obvious: the Rambam views this obligation not as an independent mitzva, but rather as part of the general imperative to render fair judgment.
 
     However, in order to gain a full understanding of the Rambam's position in this regard, we must also consider his comments in Hilkhot Dei'ot (2:6):
 
"It is forbidden for a person to conduct himself with false speech and flattery; he should not have one thing in his mouth and something else in his heart; rather, his interior should correspond to his exterior, and matters in his heart should be what is spoken by his mouth."
 
This ruling is based on the Gemara's comments in  Sota (32a):
 
"Rabbi Yirmiya Bar Abba said: Four groups of people may not greet the Shekhina: the group of cynics, the group of flatterers, the group of liars, and the group of gossips… The group of liars, for it says, 'He who speaks untruth shall not stand before my eyes' (Tehillim 101:7)."
 
We cannot conclude from either the Rambam's ruling or the Gemara on which it is based that there is a prohibition against lying.  Besides the fact that we likely deal here not with a bona fide Torah prohibition, but rather with a rabbinic enactment, the Rambam's formulation clearly indicates that he speaks not of uttering something false, but rather of accustoming oneself to false speech.  He refers here to the requirement of avoiding becoming a "chronic liar," meaning, someone who regularly speaks differently than what he really feels.
 
     The Rambam there also mentions the prohibition against "geneivat da'at ha-beriyot," or deceiving people:
 
"It is prohibited to deceive people, including gentiles.  How?  One may not sell to a gentile non-kosher meat as if it is properly slaughtered meat, nor a shoe made from [the leather of] an animal that died [naturally] as if it is from a slaughtered animal; one may not implore of his fellow to eat with him if he knows that he will not eat; one may not prepare a large gift for someone if he knows he will not accept it; one may not open for someone barrels [of wine] that he must anyway open to sell, in order to have him think that he opened them in his honor – and the like.  Even a single word of flattery or a misleading word is forbidden.  Rather, truthful lips, a proper spirit and pure heart [is better] than any dishonesty or treachery."
 
This prohibition overlaps somewhat with the prohibition against lying, but fundamentally differs from it.  As it clearly emerges from the Rambam's examples, this prohibition does not include all types of false speech; conversely, the prohibition of geneivat da'at includes some forms of speech that do not involve falsehood.
 
     In any event, from the fact that these are the only two prohibitions the Rambam mentions in this regard, we may deduce that the actual utterance of falsehood per se is not forbidden at all.  We learn, then, that according to the Rambam, the prohibition of "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" applies only with respect to judges and does not constitute a general prohibition applicable to all circumstances.  We may perhaps draw proof for the Rambam's stance from the Gemara's comments in  Bava Metzia (23b):
 
"Rav Yehuda said in the name of Shemuel: With regard to three matters Rabbis are accustomed to speaking untruthfully: regarding [whether or not he is proficient in a given] masekhet, his bed [marital relations], and his host.  What is the practical ramification of this?  To return a lost item [he claims is his] based purely on his general impression of form."
 
The Gemara first brings Shemuel's list of the three areas regarding which Torah scholars customarily speak imprecisely, and then seeks to determine the halakha Shemuel thereby conveys.  The Gemara answers that Shemuel's comment affects the laws of hashavat aveida – returning lost items.  One may return a lost item to a Torah scholar who identifies the object based on its superficial appearance, because we do not suspect Torah scholars of lying, except in these three areas.  At first glance, however, the Gemara could have presented a far simpler halakhic ramification of Shemuel's remark, namely, that a Torah scholar may speak dishonestly with regard to these three matters.  From the fact that the Gemara did not mention this as the halakha embedded within Shemuel's comment, we may conclude that even in other areas there is no prohibition to speak falsely.  Shemuel informs us merely that in only these three areas Torah scholars actually have the practice of speaking falsely.[4]  It emerges, then, that this Gemara reinforces the Rambam's view, that the prohibition against speaking falsely applies strictly in the framework of judicial proceedings, and stems from the general obligation to judge fairly.[5]
 
     On the basis of the Rambam's view, we may establish the first approach mentioned to understanding the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  Beit Shammai hold that the prohibition of "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" has relevance not only with respect to judges, but in all areas, and may therefore be applied when determining how to "dance before the bride."  Beit Hillel, by contrast, limit the prohibition to judges, such that there is no prohibition against lying outside the context of judicial hearings.
 
     It would appear that this understanding of the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai is reflected in the following comments in  Kalla Rabbati (10:1):
 
"How does one dance before the bride?  Beit Shammai say: [one describes] the bride as she actually is.  Beit Hillel say: 'A beautiful and graceful bride.' 
Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel: Say she is lame or blind; we say to her, 'A beautiful and graceful bride'?  But the Torah said, 'You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood'! 
Beit Hillel said to Beit Shammai: According to your view, one who made a poor purchase in the market – should one praise it before him, or denigrate it before him?  Surely we would say, he should praise it before him.  Beit Hillel therefore say: One's disposition must be pleasant towards people. 
Beit Hillel also [argue]: Do we not have here 'beautiful' in terms of her conduct?  Perhaps [when we compliment the bride we mean] 'beautiful in family background, graceful in her conduct' – for we do not presume one to be evil! 
Beit Shammai [respond]: Is it written, 'You shall distance yourself from sheker [falsehood]'?  [It rather says,] 'mi-dvar [sheker]' ['from MATTERS of falsehood'] – implying even plainly [if the comment is subject to various interpretations]. 
Beit Hillel [respond]: Regarding what does the Torah say, 'Mi-dvar sheker tirchak'?  Only because of [the continuation of the verse], 'do not bring death upon those who are innocent and in the right'; but to sustain [rather than kill] – this is permissible."[6]
 
It clearly emerges from here that according to Beit Hillel, the prohibition of "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" applies only with regard to judges, as we understood within the Rambam's position.
 
This shiur will be continued next week.
 
 
NOTES:
 
1. Although Seforno cites as his basis Chazal's comment in  Avot within the context of judges, the Seforno himself makes no mention of the prohibition's limitation to judges.
 
2. Hilkhot To'en Ve-nit'an 16:10; Hilkhot Sanhedrin 21:7,10; 22:2,3,10; 24:3; Hilkhot Edut 17:10.
 
3. As we will see later, other listings of the mitzvot indeed count the command to distance oneself from falsehood as one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot.  See our discussion below concerning the Semag's position.
 
  1. From the Rif's comments (13a in the Rif), however, it emerges that the Gemara indeed means to say that one may speak untruthfully in these three areas.  The Rif distinguishes between distorting the truth for purposes of shalom, when it is in fact a mitzva to speak untruthfully, and the three areas mentioned in the Gemara, regarding which it is permissible, though not a mitzva, to distort the truth.  Tosefot (23b s.v. be-ushpiza) likewise appear to interpret the Gemara as establishing the permissibility of speaking untruthfully in these three cases, for they maintain that these cases are included under the heter of distorting the truth for purposes of shalom.
 
5. This proof, however, becomes problematic in light of the fact that when it comes to Torah scholars, even the Rambam agrees that there is a general prohibition against lying:
 
"A Torah scholar… should not speak untruthfully, and should not add or detract [from the truth] except for matters of peace and the like.  In short, he speaks only in matters of wisdom or of kindness and the like.  And he should not converse with a woman in the marketplace, even if she is his wife, sister or daughter." (Hilkhot Dei'ot 5:7)
 
But then the question remains, why does the Gemara not say that Shemuel intended to introduce the halakha permitting a scholar to distort the truth specifically in these three areas, as opposed to all other matters, in which they are forbidden from speaking falsely?  We might explain, based on the context of these comments of the Rambam, that he speaks not of an actual prohibition, but rather the proper and advisable mode of conduct for Torah scholars.
 
6. Rav Amital understood that this passage expresses the Rambam's position, limiting the prohibition to the judicial context.  Perhaps, however, we can reach a different conclusion from the final words of this citation: "to sustain – this is permissible."  This might suggest that the prohibition against lying applies whenever one thereby causes damage, but not when one speaks falsely for the benefit of another.  According to this approach, the prohibition applies even outside the framework of Beit-Din, so long as it causes harm.  As we will soon see, this is precisely the position of the Semag.
 
 
(This adaptation was reviewed by Rav Amital.  The Hebrew original appears in Alon Shevut #163.)