Not to Be Brutally Honest by Rabbi Daniel Feldman


The inability of human beings to dictate the circumstances of their lives leads, on occasion, to irreconcilable clashes be­tween even the most resolute principles.  While truth, “the seal of God” (Shabbat 55a), stands at the center of the Jewish value sys­tem, the necessities of peaceful existence often challenge total adherence.  The Talmud’s cognizance of this is seen in a passage dealing with this week’s Parsha (Yevamot 65b).  Yosef’s brothers, fearing that now that Yaakov had passed away, Yosef would take revenge for their selling him into slavery, tell Yosef that their father had instructed him to forgive them (Bereshit 50:16-17).  This was actually untrue, yet the Talmud allows it: “R. Ilai says … it is permitted to alter the truth for the sake of peace.”

This notion is then taken further.  “R’ Natan says [based on another biblical proof], it is a Mitzvah to do so.”  The Talmud concludes: “The house of R’ Yishmael taught, great is peace, for even the Holy One, blessed be He, changed the truth for it.”  This occurred when Hashem told Avraham that Sarah was worried about her own ability to have a child, when the concern she had expressed had actually been for Avraham’s abilities (Bereshit 18: 12-13).

The Rama in his Teshuvot (#11) discusses these ideas.  In his view, this passage is reflective of many in­stances in which we are permitted to compromise religious values for peace.  The formidable prohibition of Sheker bows to harmony.

Many authorities (see Mitzvot HaShalom, pp. 570-579; Iyyim BaYam [Ketubot 2:1]; Shut D’var Yehoshua [I, Mafteichot, #19]; and Shut Yacheil Yisrael I,39)  observe that there are at least two methods to explain these concepts.  The Pasuk (Zechariah 8:19) identifies two pillars of God’s world: “And truth and peace are beloved.”  It appears that these two values are equivalent, sharing the role of ultimate ideals.  In an irreconcilable conflict, one must be sacrificed. This is consistent with the Rama: to uphold peace, truth at times must be jettisoned.  The Shulchan Aruch HaRav (156:2) writes “Since peace is greater than all the Mitzvot... it was permitted to alter the truth for the sake of peace.”

However, it may alternatively be that the prohibition of Sheker is defined by the intent of the speaker.  The Torah’s prohibition would thus refer to falsehood that is perpetrated for personal gain.  If, on the other hand, one’s aim is peace, this falsehood may not be within the injunction.  Thus, the comments of the Talmud would mean that when one alters the truth in pursuit of harmony, he does not bear the stigma of Sheker in the eyes of HalachaIn fact, the Yereim (#235) held that the only type of lie prohibited by the Pasuk is that which harms another.  Rav Joseph D. Epstein (Mitzvot HaShalom, p. 579.) suggests more directly:  the prohibition is rooted in its destructive impact; when the intent is harmony, it is the complete opposite of the prohibition.

The Ritva states as much, commenting on Beit Hillel’s view that one should compliment a bride’s beauty re­gardless of one’s real opinion (Ketubot 16b.).  He notes, “Whatever is for Darchei Shalom (the ways of peace), the prohibition …. does not apply.”  The alternate view is expressed by the Shlah (Amud HaShalom, p. 154): “If it is possible to create a situation where the other will be appeased without deception, then ‘keep far away from falsehood.’ ”

Thus, one could explain two of the views in the Talmud.  Is the alteration of truth for peace an option, or an obligation?  If the first approach is correct, it appears that this is an option rather than a mandatory act.  Truth and peace are equals, as the verse indicates, and when they clash, one must defer.  “It is permitted to alter the truth...,” and thus choose harmony , but it is also permissible not to, ascribing priority to truth.  Alternatively, if Sheker is not applicable to dishonesty in the pursuit of peace, then such alterations are compulsory; there is no excuse for not bringing about peace.  Hence, “It is a Mitzvah.”

R. Yitzchak Sternhill (Kochvei Yitzchak 1:16) offers an interpretation of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that also reflects these possibilities.  It is surprising that Beit Shammai, who presumably agree to the priority of peace, do not also allow lying about the bride for its sake.  It must be, he explains, that they, too, would sanction dishonesty if necessary; however, in this instance, the lying serves to preemptively strengthen harmony, which is not actually threatened, rather than combat discord.  While that is cer­tainly worthwhile, it is not enough to justify Sheker.  Beit Hillel, however, are willing to allow dishonesty as long as it contributes to peace, even if it is not absolutely necessary.

Often the complexities of a mature religious existence preclude an easy satisfaction of all fundamental tenets simultaneously.  The careful balancing of conflicting pillars of the Halachic value system remains one of the foremost challenges of the dedicated Jew.  One reality, how­ever, remains undisputed: the role of pursuing and maintaining a peaceful existence as a paramount priority of the Torah’s vision, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.”

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