When can I lie?

There is a fascinating gemara, which states that a talmid chacham may deviate from the truth in only three situations[1]:

  1. Masechta: He may downplay his learning for the sake of anavah (humility);
  1. Peria: He may lie about certain subjects that are not tznius (modest). (An alternative interpretation: on Purim, he is allowed to state falsely that he has fulfilled his mitzvah of being unable to distinguish between ‘baruch Mordechai’ and ‘arur Haman’ – i.e. he may say that he is drunk[2]);
  1. Ushpiza: He may understate the hospitality provided to him by his hosts, so that the hosts will not be bombarded with guests.

 

In all other situations, it seems, the talmid chacham must tell the absolute truth.

The commentators, however, raise an apparent contradiction: we can find numerous examples throughout tanach where anyone may depart from the truth for sake of darche shalom (peace). For example, we saw in last week’s parsha[3] how Hashem Himself changes Sarah’s words, so as not to cause upset to Avraham.

When Avraham and Sarah are promised a child, Sarah states “After I have aged, could I become young and my husband is old?!

When Hashem relates this to Avraham, He changes Sarah’s statement to “Could I give birth after I am old“. He omits any mention to Avraham being old.

 

There are several answers to this question, two of which are as follows:

  1. A talmid chacham is, of course, permitted to bend the truth for the sake of peace. The three situations described above are just examples of how he might do this[4].
  2. As above, a talmid chacham is permitted to lie for peace, as may any individual. However, there is no need for the gemara to explicitly state this, as promoting darche shalom is a mitzvah in any case. By contrast, the three examples given are not mitzvot, and therefore need to be explicitly cited[5].

We can see, therefore, that the Torah does, in very limited circumstances, permit us to bend the truth, in order to achieve the lofty goal of peace. However, the criteria are very limited.

 

How do we approach honesty at work?

It is unlikely that we help ourselves to laptops or computer screens. But how strict are we with the little things?

  • Are we careful not to use stationery for personal use?
  • Are we sure not to use our time at work for personal calls, when our employer would not approve?
  • Are we pulling our weight at work?
  • Is it okay for us to stay up very late one night, and be exhausted for work the next day?

These questions require some thought. Each will turn on the specific facts. But our general approach should be one of striving for honesty and shalom. These two aims may, on occasion, collide (as we can see above). But for the most part, they will work in harmony, and we can achieve a pure parnassah and peace with our colleagues simultaneously.

There is an idea that the generation of the flood was destroyed because they were guilty of theft, which they engineered in a way so as not to be accountable to a Beis Din. They would steal less than a perutah (the minimum measurement of halachic value), so that their victim would not be able to bring a claim. However, they were still very much liable in shamayim (heaven).

We should all renew our efforts to maintain the utmost honesty and integrity, both within the workplace and outside it. This will make our efforts to earn a parnassah truly worthwhile, and produce a kiddush Hashem in the process.

 

B’hatzlachah

 

The Working Jew

 

[1] Bava Metsia, Daf 23B-24A.

[2] Bava Metsia, Daf 23B, Maharsha.

[3] Beraishis, 18:10 – 18:12.

[4] Bava Metsia, Daf 23B, Tosafos (‘Ushpiza’).

[5] Bava Metsia, Daf 23B, Maharsha.

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