If you would say you are my sister… (Bereshith 12:13)
The wording of this request is somewhat confusing. Avraham is asking Sarah to cooperate with him for safety’s sake; he seems to be coaching her regarding how she should respond to the Egyptian border guards. That being the case, we would have expected Avraham to tell her the exact words he wanted her to say, such as “He [Avraham] is my brother,” or “I [Sarah] am his sister.”
Since the verse makes no mention of the specific words Avraham wanted Sarah to repeat, it seems that in fact Avraham had earlier asked Sarah to respond with specific words, but that she had refused because she did not want to lie. Then he asked her merely to imply her agreement with him; that is to say, Avraham would make the statement that Sarah was his sister, and she would not deny it. That is the intent of Avraham’s words in this verse.1 Sarah’s attitude teaches us that even in a time of potential danger the extremely righteous will make every effort to cling to truth, so long as circumstances allow for it and the threat to their lives is not imminent. When Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz wanted to reenter Poland after it had been captured by the Russians in the war, the Russian border guards questioned him regarding whether he was a Polish citizen. His entire future was at stake, and the situation was certainly potentially dangerous, yet he told them the truth – that he was indeed a Polish citizen. The guards were so impressed by his honesty that they allowed him to pass without any difficulties.2
In a situation in which one will possibly be killed, the halachah allows a person to lie in order to save a life.3 The sanctity of life is a fundamental axiom of Judaism, and saving a life supersedes almost any other consideration (except for situations in which one is obligated to give up his life to avoid sins such as idol worship.)
Considering what an exalted act it is to die sanctifying God’s name,4 would it not be preferable simply to admit under all circumstances that one is a Jew, and never to try to hide one’s identity? The answer is that life is so precious that we must do everything in our power to preserve it. If God has placed a person in a situation in which he has no choice but to forfeit his life for God’s sake, then certainly he must do so, but one is never allowed to surrender oneself to be killed.5
Life Or Death II …that it will go well with me for your sake, and through your efforts my life will be spared. (Bereshith 12:13)
Here Avraham is requesting of Sarah that she claim to be his sister. The words “it will go well with me,” refer to nothing less than the saving of Avraham’s life, for one is not required to tell the truth if it could cause death.6 Therefore, when Avraham was asked what was in the crate in which Sarah lay hidden, he responded that it contained only wheat.7 Although it was not true, this response was absolutely permissible.
Although it is permitted to deviate from the truth to save a life, this leniency does not apply in every situation. It is forbidden under any circumstances for someone to say that he is an idol worshipper, even to save his life. If the claim that he worships idols would save his life, it is clear that his adversaries have decided to kill him because of the fact that he is Jewish and he rejects their beliefs. In that case, claiming to be an idol worshipper would be tantamount to saying that he accepts their ideologies.8
Rav Tzvi Meiselman was a doctor in an American field hospital during World War II. The head of the hospital was extremely anti-Semitic, and Rav Meiselman did everything he could to hide the fact that he was an observant Jew. Eventually the head of the hospital caught on to his peculiar behavior and confronted him, asking him which faith he adhered to. Rav Meiselman unequivocally replied that he was Jewish, and as a punishment was sent to the front line. That hospital was later bombed. Everyone in it was killed, while Rav Meiselman lived for many years after the war.9
If someone is asked directly which religion he believes in, as in the above story, one must tell the truth. However, if at all possible, one must avoid being killed. It is therefore permitted to make a statement which may be misconstrued by others, such as a statement that would imply that one is not Jewish, although one has not actually said so.10 Rav Chaim Shor (author of Torath Chaim) described just such a situation. When a certain great rav was asked by the border guards if he was Jewish he responded “kein,” which means “no” in German and “yes” in Hebrew. They allowed him to pass, and he fled to safety.11 We may well ask how the border patrol could have been so easily duped. Would not his clothing have given him away as a Jew? The answer is that he had dressed himself as a non-Jew, for one is permitted to dress oneself in a way that disguises one’s true identity, if doing so will save one’s life.12
1. Moshav Zekeinim on Bereshith 12:13.
2. MiDevar Sheker Tirchak, p. 140.
3. Responsa Lev Chaim 1:5 This is derived from the actions of Yehudah, who lied to Yosef when he feared he would be killed (Bereshith 44:20).
4. Sanhedrin 74a.
5. Midrash Rabbah, Vayishlach 82:9.
6. Radak on Bereshith 12:13.
7. Midrash Tanchuma 5.
8. Rosh, Avodah Zarah 2:4. See also Sefer Chasidim 702, which cites an exception to this principle.
9. Heard from Rav Moshe Meiselman.
10. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 157:2.
11. Torath Chaim, Avodah Zara 17a.
12. Nemukei Yosef, Avodah Zara 40a.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org