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Lying for Peace of Mind


Rabbi David Samson

11 Elul 5763
Last year I made Aliyah. Some months ago, I joined the Israeli Army. I serve in some pretty dangerous locations, but I tell my parents back in the States that I am working as a clerk in an equipment warehouse in a base near Tel Aviv. Is it OK to lie to them so that they won’t worry.
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.”[1] 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.[2] Someone who distorts the truth is considered to be like an idol worshipper.[3] The Gemara teaches that Jerusalem was destroyed because of a lack of honest men within its walls.[4] In general, it is a good practice to be truthful. In fact, there is a commandment in the Torah which prohibits lying: “Keep far away from an untruth.”[5] If a person lies in a court of law, he violates the Ten Commandments, “You shall not bear false witness.”[6] However, there are times when an individual can lie.Lying is permissible if its purpose is to maintain love and harmony between a man and his wife. We learn this from the life of Abraham and Sarah.[7] 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.[8] 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. Harmony is so important that the permission to lie extends to bringing peace between any two individuals or groups.[9] The Sages of the House of Hillel taught that one can praise the beauty of a bride even though she is not particularly pretty.[10] 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.[11] 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.[11] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] In terms of lying to one’s parents to prevent them from worrying, it is better not to lie outright, but to present one’s explanation in a manner that is truthful without disclosing all of the disquieting details. So if you are serving in terrorist-infested Jenin, you can tell your parents that your are posted just north of Jerusalem. Since Jenin is merely an hour’s drive away from Jerusalem, you won’t be guilty of a lie. 1. Avot, 1:18. 2. Deuteronomy, 28:9. 3. Sanhedrin 92A. 4. Shabbat 119B. 5. Exodus, 23:7. 6. Ibid, 20:12. 7. Genesis, 18:12-13. 8. Baba Metzia, 87A. 9. Yevamot 65B. 10. Ketubot, 17A. 11. Baba Metzia 23B. 12. P'ninei Halacha, Vol. 3, Pg. 159, based on the Rambam, Laws of Theft, 14:13. 13. Sotah 42A.
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