Truth and Lies in the Jewish Tradition
Jewish moralist literature sets a high standard of truthtelling, but one not without exceptions.
Reprinted with permission from the entry “Truth” in Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Generally speaking, while Judaism obviously attaches great significance to intellectual honesty, as evidenced, for example, in the constant quest for the truth in talmudic debates and among the medieval philosophers, the main thrust in the appeals for Jews to be truthful is in the direction of moral truth and integrity.
An often quoted rabbinic saying ([Babylonian Talmud] Shabbat 55a) is: “Truth is the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He.” In Rashi’s explanation [Rashi is the foremost medieval commentator on the Torah], this saying refers to the Hebrew word for truth, emet, formed from the first letter of the alphabet, alef, the middle letter, mem, and the final letter, tav. The God of truth is found wherever there is truth and His absence is felt wherever there is falsehood.
The prophet similarly declares: “The Lord God is truth” (Jeremiah 10:10) and the Psalmist declares: “Thy Torah is truth” (Psalms 119:142). Of the verse in Psalms: “And speaketh the truth in his heart” (Psalms 15:2), one explanation by the Jewish moralists is that the God-fearing man should keep his promise even if he only made it in his heart, even if it was no more than a promise he had kept to himself without revealing it to the one to whom he made it.
This is based on the talmudic tale of Rav Safra ([Babylonian Talmud] Makkot 24a). Rav Safra was approached to sell something he had and was offered a price which suited him, but he was unable at the time to signify his consent because he was reciting his prayers and was unable to interrupt them. The prospective buyer, under the impression that the rabbi had rejected his bid, kept on increasing the price but the rabbi insisted on selling for the original price to which he had consented “in his heart.” Naturally, this kind of exemplary conduct was not intended for all, otherwise it would not have been recorded for a saintly man like Rav Safra. But the stern injunctions throughout Jewish literature against cheating and dishonesty in business affairs and in other areas of life are directed toward every Jew, as when the prophet says of his people: “They have taught their tongue to speak lies, they weary themselves to commit iniquity” (Jeremiah 9:4).
Among the many rules regarding dishonesty in commercial transactions, the following can be quoted as illustrations. The Mishnah (Bava Batra 5:10) rules: “A shopkeeper must wipe his measures twice a week, his weights once a week, and his scales after every weighing.” On the verse, “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in meteyard, in weight, or in measure” (Leviticus 19:35), the Talmud comments: “ ‘In meteyard’ refers to the measurements of the land, that he may not measure for one in summer [when the measuring line is contracted through the heat] and for another is winter; “in weight,” he may not keep his weights in salt [to make them heavier]; “in measure,” he may not make the liquid produce a foam.”