White Lies

Jewish tradition is tolerant of those who bend the truth in order to spare the feelings of others or end a dispute.

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Excerpted with permission from The Book of Jewish Values, published by Bell Tower.

The Talmud records an usual debate between the houses of Hillel and Shammai concerning the words celebrants should sing when dancing in front of a newly married woman [as part of the wedding festivities]. According to the House of Hillel, the dancers should chant the same words in front of all brides: “What a beautiful and graceful bride!” Their opponents, the House of Shammai, disagree. “If she is lame or blind, are you going to say of her, ‘What a beautiful and graceful bride?’ Does not the Torah command, ‘Stay far away from falsehood’ (Exodus 23:7)?” They thus oppose reciting a standard formula; rather, each bride should be described “as she is” (see Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 17a).

Hillel’s position is accepted as Jewish law. One praises the beauty of all brides and, in any case, the bride is likely to appear beautiful in the eyes of her groom.

white lie

When it comes to trying to reconcile feuding parties, Jewish law is remarkably tolerant of “white lies.” Of Aaron, Moses’ brother and Israel’s first high priest, the Rabbis [of ancient Judaism] relate that he would utilize untruthful means to make peace between people who had fought. He would go to one, telling him how sad his adversary was about the dispute, and how ashamed and disheartened he felt. Then he would go to the other and tell him the same thing. As the Midrash concluded, “Later, when the two met, they would embrace and kiss each other” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12:3).

A friend of mine told me he utilized this technique once, and had unhappy results. When the two parties met, one said to the other, “I’m happy you now realize that you acted unfairly,” and my friend’s white lie was quickly exposed. Still, the fact that Jewish tradition endorses Aaron’s behavior means that in instances of personal feuding, when truth and peace conflict, peace usually should take precedence.

It is also worth modifying the truth when it can only inflict hurt without any benefit. Thus, is, before going to a party, your spouse or a friend asks you if he or she looks good, and you think they look awful or are dressed inappropriately, you should tell them the truth. Doing so in as tactful a manner as possible will spare them from embarrassment. But if somebody at a party asks you how they look, and you think they don’t look well at all, a blunt statement of what you feel may cause the person terrible discomfort, and accomplish no good whatsoever.

Before you tell a truth that can cause only pain and inflict gratuitous hurt, ask yourself why you should tell it. There are indeed times when a pretty lie is preferable to an ugly truth.

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.