He [Yosef] remembered what he had dreamt about them. “You are spies,” he said to them. (Bereshith 42:9)
It is forbidden to deceive someone for the sake of a joke.1 Yosef was only permitted to trick his brothers to enable him to fulfill the prophecy he had received decades earlier, in his dreams. Under any other circumstances his actions would have constituted a grave sin, as they caused his father tremendous pain.2
If someone asks you where he can buy food for his animal, you may not, as a joke, direct him to a person whom you know has never sold animal food.3 The Chatham Sofer relates that once the wife of a certain shochet bore a child, and the shochet invited a respected mohel named Reb Michael to perform the brith on the child. When the appointed day arrived, Reb Michael traveled a great distance to perform the milah, and when he arrived, discovered to his dismay that he had been tricked – the child was a girl, not a boy. Reb Michael became the laughing-stock of the town.4 The Chatham Sofer was asked if the shochet could be forcibly removed from his position because of this practical joke. The Chatham Sofer replied that this “joke” constituted both a monetary transgression, for the shochet had wasted the mohel’s time, and an emotional infringement, for he had caused him anguish and embarrassment. Therefore, if the beith din found the shochet guilty of deceiving the mohel, the shochet could indeed be removed from his post.
Just as it is forbidden to trick someone just to annoy him, it is also forbidden to steal something from someone to annoy him, even with the intention of returning the item after a short time.5 In fact, when the Torah says, “Do not steal,”6 it refers to just such a case. (The prohibition of outright theft is derived from the prohibition not to overcharge.)7 Even if the theft is intended to teach someone a lesson, the victim will suffer as long as the object is missing. It is therefore forbidden to take the item, allowing the victim to assume it has been stolen.8 On a similar note, it is forbidden to test someone’s honesty by setting a trap to see if he will steal from you or not.9
1 Chofetz Chaim, Sefath Tamim cited in MiDevar Sheker Tirchak (by Rav Hillel Litwak), p. 46. Messilath Yesharim, Ch. 11.
2 Ramban on Bereshith 42:9.
3 Bava Metzia 58b.
4 Responsa, Choshen Mishpat 166.
5 Rambam Sefer HaMitzvoth, Negative Commandment # 244; Beis Yosef and Prisha, according to the Tur on Choshen Mishpat 248:1 and SMA (Sefer Meirath Einayim) vol. 2 in the Shulchan Aruch 248:1.
6 Shemoth 20:13.
7 Bava Metzia 61b.
8 She’iltos of Rav Achai Gaon, 4.
9 Responsa Torah Leshmah 407 says that aside from being a violation of Lifnei Iver, (not to put an obstacle in front of a blind person) it is possible that he is normally honest but in this instance he was not able to stand up to the test.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org