From HaGaon Rav Zevadia HaCohen Shlit”a, The Head of the Batei Din in Tel Aviv
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
[When May We and When Should We, Be Economical With the Truth]
This Shabbat we shall read that Yitzchak wished to bless Eisav. However, Yaakov, with his mother Rivka’s assistance, succeeds in receiving the berachot instead of Eisav. He wears Eisav’s best clothing and places on his hands and neck the goat skins, to the extent that Yitzchak says “The voice is Yaakov’s voice but the hands are the hand of Eisav” (Bereishit 27:22), and nevertheless, at the end Yaakov succeeds in receiving the berachot.
The question arises every year when reading the parasha, that how could Yaakov Avinu, about whom it is stated at the beginning of the parasha, “And Yaakov was a scholarly man who remained with the tents” (Bereishit 25:27), allow himself to appear as Eisav and not tell the truth. And in response to his father’s question, “But are you really my son Eisav?” (Bereishit 27:24), he replies, “I am”, and likewise when he had brought the delicacies to his father, he says, “It is I, Eisav your firstborn…I have done as you asked” (Bereishit 27:19).
Radak z”l (1160-1235) asks this in his commentary on the Torah. This is what he says, “Some are astonished, how could Yaakov, who was a tzaddik and G-d-fearing, speak falsely? But this is no wonder, for Yaakov knew that he was more fitting than his brother to receive the beracha and as such the prophecy rested on Yitzchak to bless him, Hashem was more sensitive to his beracha that that of his brother’s beracha, for he was more welcome to Hashem than he was. And conversely regarding falsehoods, in these circumstances, they are not considered disdainful and profane to the tzaddik.”
The implication is that changing things for an appropriate reason is not disdainful and doesn’t make a person a charlatan.
Radak brings a proof from Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu who both said that their wives were their sisters and yet they were not called liars, because there was a need for them to say this due to a fearful situation.
This principle, saying an untruth with one’s actual mouth for a genuine need is not considered a lie, is also seen with Yosef and his brothers. When the brothers came to Yosef and said “Before he died, your father gave us final instructions. He said, ‘This is what you must say to Yosef: Forgive the spiteful deed and the sin your brothers committed when they did evil to you’. Now forgive the spiteful deed that [we], the servants of your father’s G-d, have done.” (Bereishit 50:16), from here Chazal deduced in the Talmud (Yevamot 65b), “Rebbi Ilah said, it is permitted for a person to be economical with the truth for the sake of shalom.” Rashi explains that Yaakov gave no such command, but rather they made this change for the sake of shalom.
Rebbi Natan adds that not only is it permitted to change for the sake of shalom, but it is even a mitzvah to change for the sake of shalom!
The Talmud adds from Rebbi Yishmael, “Great is shalom, for even Hashem changed something, for Sarah Imeinu said about Avraham, “And my master is old” but HaKadosh Baruch Hu said in her name, “And I am old”.
We see this same principle in Masechet Kallah (9:1), “How do we dance before a bride? Bet Shammai said, the bride as she is, Bet Hillel say, a beautiful virtuous bride. Bet Shammai said to Bet Hillel, someone who married a lame or blind bride do we say a beautiful and virtuous bride, but the Torah said distance yourself from falsehood? Meaning, Bet Hillel say we are required to praise the bride even for those qualities that do not exist in her. Then Bet Shammai asked them but it is stated in the Torah distance yourself from falsehood, and so surely it isn’t appropriate to say something which is inaccurate.
Bet Hillel answered them, based on your argument, if something made a bad purchase from the market, when someone sees it after the purchase, should he praise it or denigrate it? I say he should praise it, therefore Bet Hillel said, “A person should always be congenial with others”.
The halacha is in accordance with Bet Hillel, that one may be economical with the truth and tell that chatan that his bride is beautiful and virtuous, even if she isn’t really. Even though the reason for the sake of shalom isn’t [so] relevant here, nevertheless it is permitted, since it is not considered an untruth, since from the chatan’s perspective she is a beautiful and virtuous kallah, for it is certain that she has found favour in his eyes and he wishes to marry her. We are simply endorsing this in his mind when we tell him that it is so, when he marries the beautiful and virtuous kallah.
From all this we see Chazal’s parameters in changing things out of necessity. Whether it is out of fear as with Avraham and Yitzchak, whether it is someone who is more fitting for a beracha as with Yaakov and Eisav, whether it is for the sake of shalom as with Yosef and his brothers, or whether it is for the truth as with the chatan and kallah.