Truth and Fiction

"This is the punishment of the liar ? even when he speaks the truth no one believes him." -The Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 89b)

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We have another word for these kinds of lies that have become a cultural reality in many Jewish communities and schools: exaggeration. OMG. I am so sick I could die. That job is killing me. You’ll never believe what happened to me last night! Every sentence deserves an exclamation point. We’re living on the edge. But we’re really not. Or what about the odd expression, “I’m not going to lie to you.” Well, that’s a relief.

We usually exaggerate because it entertains. In fact, the Talmud itself has a language for this sort of tale - a “guzma.” Elephants cannot go through the eye of a needle. Nevertheless, sometimes it becomes hard to distinguish the kernel of truth in the packaging of humor. And, as The Path of the Just warns, we can become habituated to forms of speech which are permanently altered by these kinds of lies. They are not malicious. They may be a good laugh, but over time, they hurt the reputation of the teller because the listener cannot separate truth from fiction.

Rabbi Luzzato alerts us to a subtle verb choice in Exodus 23:7, the verse that warns us to distance ourselves from falsehood. The verse does not say to guard oneself against lying but to restrain or withdraw ourselves from it in order to “awaken us” to the vigilance we must achieve in fighting falsehood. And no one suffers more from lying in the end than the liar himself.

The Talmud does sanction the telling of white lies in select circumstances. Learn more here.

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Erica Brown

Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and consults for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is an author-winning author and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award. Erica has served as an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University. She lectures on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership.