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A Harmless Lie?

Kids in camp often ask counselors when color war will be, and they often respond that they don’t know, when they actually do. Does this violate the prohibition of lying?


Rabbi Daniel Mann

Tevet 3 5782
Question: Kids in camp often ask counselors when color war will be, and they often respond that they don’t know, when they actually do. Does this violate the prohibition of lying?

Answer: The term sheker in the Torah’s halachic contexts is found regarding oaths (Vayikra 19:12), testimony (Shemot 20:12), and "Distance yourself from falsehood" (Shemot 23:7, in the context of instructions to judges). The gemara’s (Shvuot 31a) several examples are in the realm of adjudication, referring to any of the participants (including the litigants) giving a false impression even without lying.

The Yereim (235) posits that the prohibition applies even to non-judicial matters, but in cases where the lie causes damage. The gemara (Chulin 94a) forbids doing even nice things without lying if it may cause the recipient to be more grateful than he would be if he knew the truth, which could cause him to reciprocate at a cost. In non-judicial cases, we find an assortment of leniencies. The gemara (Yevamot 65a) allows distortions to preserve peace, citing three biblical precedents: 1) The brothers told Yosef that Yaakov had asked to forgive them; 2) Shmuel told Shaul he was going to Beit Lechem to bring a sacrifice, when his goal was to choose David as Shaul’s successor; 3) Hashem told Avraham that Sarah had called herself, rather than Avraham, too old to have a baby. Whereas #3 was to save someone else from dispute, #1 and #2 allow even saving oneself; whereas #1 and #2 carried the potential of grave danger, #3 refers to only hurt feelings. Torah Lishma (364) brings dozens of Talmudic examples of altering the truth for altruistic reasons. The gemara (Bava Metzia 23b) permits denying having learned a certain Talmudic massechet, out of humility (Rashi ad loc.). Another is lying to hide matters of relations between spouses (ibid.), which extends to not divulging when a woman is going to the mikveh (Rama, Yoreh Deah 198:48).

It is not limited to cases when the need could outweigh the prohibition, as not all the needs are great. Beit Shamai say that one violates lying if he praises the beauty of an unattractive bride, whereas Beit Hillel (Ketubot 17a), whom we accept, posit that this is okay, to make the chatan happy. The need there or due to humility (above) is not enough to overcome prohibitions. Rather, whereas most mitzvot are more absolute, the prohibition of non-judicial lying is contextual, and benevolent lying is not morally or halachically problematic.

Our answer is that counselors may, at least usually, say they do not know when color war is. Let us use your case to highlight some of the many distinctions that affect what is permitted. The accepted practice regarding color war in camp is that the staff tries to make it a surprise. The camper who is trying to find out is in essence saying, "It is my ‘job’ to try to guess; it is your job to try to deceive me." This is equivalent to what I answered a young child of mine, who asked how I could try to fake out defenders when playing basketball. Along similar lines, if the counselors do not hide the truth, the campers, including the one who asked, will be damaged (i.e., have less fun). Misleading and even lying is permitted when the benefit to others outweighs any disadvantage (see Chulin ibid.; Titen Emet L’Yaakov p. 334).

When it is justified to alter the truth, one should try to limit the degree of deception. It is better to mislead than to directly tell a lie (see Aruch La’ner, Yevamot 65a). "I don’t know," when one does know, is particularly palatable. In fact, Chazal instruct us to get used to saying we do not know (Berachot 4a). Kalla Rabbasi (4:22) learns this from Achima’atz, who knew that Avshalom had been killed and told David he did not know. It is not only farther from a full lie but apparently is also a "self-fulfilling prophecy." In other words, once it is acceptable to say "I don’t know," when is told that, he should consider that it might mean "I would rather not say" (one may use a literally incorrect statement when it is not particularly misleading).
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