Most of us know from American courtroom dramas that witnesses are sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But might there be times when it’s OK to lie? On today’s daf we’ll examine situations when it might be OK not just to stretch the truth, but to lie outright.
We begin our examination with this teaching:
Rabbi Ile’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzvah for a person not to say that which will not be heeded. Rabbi Abba says: It is obligatory for him to refrain from speaking, as it is stated: “Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8).
For context, it helps to know that there’s a commandment in Leviticus to offer rebuke when someone is sinning. The verse from Proverbs, as interpreted by the rabbis, appears to scale that back: If someone is not going to listen, don’t bother. It’s better not to add to hatred in the world than to scold someone who isn’t going to pay heed. This isn’t exactly lying, but certainly could be construed as avoiding the whole truth.
Our next passage takes on lying more directly:
Rabbi Ile’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: It is permitted for a person to depart from the truth in a matter that will bring peace, as it is stated: “Your father commanded: So you shall say to Joseph: Please pardon your brothers’ crime, etc.” (Genesis 50:16–17).
First, you gotta love the phrase “depart from the truth.” It makes lying sound almost elegant. But more importantly, Rabbi Ile’a states that lying is permitted to keep the peace. His proof is an incident recorded in the book of Genesis in which Joseph’s brothers say that their father commanded them to ask Joseph for pardon. The problem is, their father never said anything of the sort. The brothers lied so that Joseph wouldn’t seek vengeance. Based on this, Rabbi Ile’a holds that lying for peace is acceptable.
In truth (no pun intended), this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are multiple midrashim that suggest peace is so important that it supersedes other obligations. One might even say that peace was so important to the rabbis that they scattered references to its overarching value throughout the Talmud and other sources to ensure that we get the point.
Returning to our page, we now move to the kicker: Even God lies for the sake of peace:
It was taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael: Great is peace, as even the Holy One, Blessed be He, departed from the truth for it. As initially it is written: “And my lord is old” (Genesis 18:12), and in the end it is written: “And I am old” (Genesis 18:13).
The verses cited here concern the news that Abraham and Sarah, despite their advanced age, are going to have a child. When Sarah hears the news, she responds that Abraham is too old to have a child. But when repeating this communication to Abraham, God fibs and tells him that Sarah had said she was too old to bear children. God lies to Abraham to ensure there’s no intrusion on the couple’s domestic tranquility.
This isn’t the only place the Talmud makes this point. When we get to Tractate Bava Metzia in almost two years’ time, we’ll revisit this topic in further detail. But today’s message is still quite clear: Peace is invaluable, maybe even more so than the truth.
Read all of Yevamot 65 on Sefaria.