Speaking Falsely Part 2

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
Based on a shiur by HaRav Yehuda Amital
Summarized by Yitzchak Ben-David
Translated by David Silverberg
C. Falsehood That Results in Damage
     The Rambam, as we saw, does not include "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" in his list of the mitzvot.  The Semag, on the other hand, indeed lists this obligation as a separate, independent mitzva (mitzva 107).  After mentioning several examples from the aforementioned Gemara in Shavuot, the Semag then qualifies the prohibition by noting the halakha of Beit Hillel in our Gemara: "However, it is permissible to deviate [from the truth] for purposes of peace and to deal pleasantly with people… How does one dance before the bride… Beit Hillel say: A beautiful, graceful bride."  These comments require explanation.  After bringing the laws derived by the Gemara from "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak," all of which, without exception, relate to the judicial setting, the Semag extends the prohibition to include all areas of speech, and therefore had to invoke the factor of darkhei shalom (peaceful relations with people) in other areas.  From where did the Semag derive this expansion of the prohibition?
     The source of the Semag's position is likely the comments of the Yerei'im (in siman 235), by whom the Semag was strongly influenced:
"Our Creator commanded us in Parashat Mishpatim, 'You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood.'  One must distance himself, but only from falsehood that can[1] bring damage upon one's fellow.  One must pay careful attention in this regard, to see if one's falsehood can cause damage.  Our Sages z"l explained some [examples] in Shavuot…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.'… All God-fearing people should make a point of distancing themselves, for it may result in harm.  And should one say: I did not realize that this would result in harm – this depends entirely on one's heart, and it therefore says [in this context], 'You shall fear your God.' 
But falsehood that does not result in harm – the Torah did not forbid, for we learn about this matter from its context, and the verse speaks here of an evil person who does people harm, as it is written, '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.'"
We may conclude on the basis of this passage that according to the Yerei'im, the prohibition against speaking falsely is not limited to judges.  The examples given by the Gemara in Shavuot do not define the parameters of the prohibition, but rather serve as examples of falsehoods that can bring harm to others.  According to the Yerei'im, the Torah forbids false speech that can cause harm, regardless of whether or not the given speech has any connection to judicial proceedings.  This position thus forms the basis of the comments of the Semag, who applies the prohibition of "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" generally, and does not limit it to the context of Beit-Din.
     According to this approach, the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai need not revolve around the issue of whether the prohibition applies outside the framework of Beit-Din, as we suggested within the Rambam's view.  Rather, according to the Semag, both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai might agree that the Torah forbids speaking falsely in any context, only Beit Hillel limit the prohibition to falsehood that can cause damage[2], whereas according to Beit Shammai, one may not speak falsely even if no harm will result.
D.   Imprecise Praise: Beneficial or Harmful?
The Yerei'im himself advances a different approach to understand the debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai:
"That which the berayta states in Ketubot: 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'… That [false speech] involves harm to people, as Beit Shammai maintain, as it appears as though one deceives the husband."
According to the Yerei'im, Beit Shammai agree that we must limit the prohibition against speaking falsely to situations where the falsehood causes or may cause damage.  In their view, however, undeserved praise to a bride is harmful, not beneficial.  Logically, it is difficult to understand why this is the case.  What harm can possibly befall a bride or groom through undeserved compliments for her looks?  Apparently, the Yerei'im felt that a certain risk is involved in engendering an unrealistic self-image, as this can lead to disappointment in the future.  In any event, in his view, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai do not argue at all regarding the parameters of the prohibition against speaking falsely.  They both agree that the prohibition applies only to falsehood that causes harm.  They debate merely the very specific point of whether it is beneficial to bestow exaggerated compliments upon the bride.
     To summarize our discussion thus far, we have seen three possible approaches to explain the dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in our sugya.  Their argument perhaps involves the fundamental question as to whether "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" applies outside Beit-Din.  Alternatively, both views may agree that the prohibition indeed applies in all settings, only they debate whether it is limited to cases where the false speech can cause harm.  According to the third approach, advanced by the Yerei'im, both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai restrict the prohibition to instances where harm can be caused, and they argue only in this specific instance, debating the question of whether the exaggerated compliments to the bride cause her and her husband harm, or are for their benefit.
E. Falsehood That Causes No Harm
     It emerges from the comments of the Rishonim we've encountered thus far that according to Halakha, there is no prohibition against speaking falsely when doing so causes no harm.  From the Ritva's comments in our sugya, however, it appears that he applies the prohibition even to cases where the false speech will not harm anyone.  Commenting on Beit Hillel's remark to Beit Shammai – "should one praise it in his eyes, or denigrate it in his eyes," the Ritva writes, "Meaning, that anything involving darkhei shalom does not violate 'Mi-dvar sheker tirchak'."  According to the Ritva, Beit Hillel permit praising the bride imprecisely only because of the concern for darkhei shalom.  Otherwise, the prohibition of "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" would have forbade one from falsely praising the bride, despite the fact that this falsehood would cause no harm.[3]
     What we deduced from the Ritva's comments appears explicitly in the Sefer Charedim, who was among the early Acharonim: "There is a mitzvat asei to speak the truth, even in general matters that do not involve monetary obligation, as it says, 'Mi-dvar sheker tirchak'" (4:26).  In his view, we should not restrict the prohibition to cases where the false speech would cause harm, because we speak of a general prohibition against speaking falsehood, regardless of its context or purpose.[4]
     The basis for the Sefer Charedim's position is perhaps found in the comments of the Mordekhai (end of Mo'ed Katan, 933): "Someone who lost a relative and is unaware, there is no obligation to inform him, even regarding his father and mother… If, however, he inquires about them, one may not lie and say, 'He is alive,' for it says, 'Mi-dvar sheker tirchak'."  The Mordekhai deals with a situation that does not involve monetary matters, and he nevertheless invokes the prohibition of "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak."  Quite possibly, however, the Mordekhai applies the prohibition to this case because he believes that this would cause no less severe harm, or perhaps even more severe harm, than financial damage.  If so, then even the Mordekhai agrees that no prohibition applies if the false speech causes no monetary or emotional harm to others.[5]
     In Rabbenu Yona's "Sha'arei Teshuva," too, we find expression of this distinction between falsehood that causes harm and that which does not (3:178-186).  Rabbenu Yona lists nine different categories of false speech, only the first of which, where monetary loss is involved, constitutes a Torah violation.  All the other types, which do not cause financial damage, are forbidden only mi-de'rabbanan.  He also posits a novel theory concerning the parameters of the halakha permitting distortion of the truth for purposes of peaceful relations.  Whereas the Semag applies this heter even to false speech that can potentially cause harm, Rabbenu Yona restricts this halakha to falsehoods spoken without intent to cause harm.  Rabbenu Yona writes:
"If one lies in reporting information he had heard and intentionally distorts some of it, and his lies serve him no purpose and cause no harm to his fellow, but this is what he does because of his affinity for falsehood… and sometimes he invents complete accounts: On the one hand, this person's punishment will be light, insofar as his falsehoods and indiscretion cause no one harm.  But his punishment will be very severe due to his brazenness and affinity for falsehood… This component was permitted for purposes of mitzva fulfillment and the pursuit of propriety and peace.  They said that one may praise the bride before the groom and say that she is beautiful and graceful even if this is not true.  And they said that one may distort the truth for purposes of peaceful relations… "
In truth, however, we need not detect here an actual debate, for Rabbenu Yona perhaps deals with one who intends to cause harm to another, in which case even the Semag agrees that one may not distort the truth for purposes of darkhei shalom.
1. The printed text in the Yerei'im reads, "she-yukhal li-dei chaveiro nezek"; it appears that there is a printing error, and the text should in fact read, "she-yukhal lavo li-dei… "
2. Accordingly, we have no need to invoke the heter of darkhei shalom to permit the untruthful praise of the bride, for the prohibition against speaking falsely does not apply at all when no harm is caused.  The Semag nevertheless brings this heter, presumably to avoid the separate, rabbinic prohibition mentioned earlier, involving the "group of liars."
3. It appears from Tosefot's comments in our sugya (s.v. yeshabechenu) that even according to Beit Shammai, we should not apply "Mi-dvar sheker tirchak" in our context, only in their view, Chazal would not have instituted a general provision requiring one to speak falsely.
4. Later in his discussion, the Sefer Charedim bases himself on the comments of the "Zohar Ha-rakia" (siman 59), which he understands as indicating that it is forbidden to speak falsely even if it causes no harm.  This reading of the "Zohar Ha-rakia," however, is far from clear.  The Tashbatz tries proving the prohibition against lying from the Gemara's comment in Bava Metzia (49a), "Your 'yes' shall be just, and your 'no' shall be just."  This comment appears in the context of actual monetary loss, and we may thus deduce that according to the Tashbatz, the prohibition against speaking falsely applies specifically to cases involving financial loss.
5. A similar principle arises in the famous responsum of Rav Moshe Feinstein allowing a mourner to participate in his child's wedding during shiva, for this situation is no less than one of financial loss, in which case Chazal permitted a mourner to disrupt his observance of shiva.
(This adaptation was reviewed by Rav Amital.  The Hebrew original appears in Alon Shevut #163.)