Yehudah, your brothers shall acknowledge you… (Bereshith 49:8)
How different are God’s ways from the ways of man! One who admits guilt before men will be punished for his misdeed. On the other hand, one who admits a transgression before God [intending to change his ways] is granted Divine pardon. Such repentance is generally a private matter, between the sinner and God. Yehudah, however, confessed publicly to his sin involving Tamar.1
We must ask whether Yehudah was correct in making a public confession. Didn’t King Dovid say, “Happy is the one who covers his transgressions”?2 In general, it is not proper to admit to our sins publicly, since publicizing any sin diminishes God’s honor. Nevertheless, Yehudah acted properly, for if he had not admitted his guilt, Tamar would have been punished. In any situation that might lead to an innocent party being punished, or even being suspected of guilt, one should admit one’s guilt publicly, to prevent harming others.3
Therefore, if someone asks you directly if you are guilty of a given transgression, you should hide the facts if it is clear that this will affect no one else. If, however, your denial of guilt will lead to someone else being suspected of wrongdoing, you are obligated to reveal the truth. Even if no one else would be harmed through your admission of guilt, if concealing the facts would enable you to continue to sin, you must admit the truth.4
If someone is guilty of having lied, he should evaluate the situation in order to do a proper teshuvah. If no one will be harmed by the lie, he need not tell anyone, not even the person to whom he lied. He should confess before God, and keep his teshuvah a private matter.5 However, if he gained honor or some other benefit from the sheker, he must admit his untruth even if no one else was harmed by it, in order that his success not influence him to lie again in the future. If someone said something untrue about someone else, and that untruth could cause the other financial loss, the one who spoke must inform the other of what he has done to him.6
The above are basic guidelines for someone who rarely lies, but one for whom sheker has become a habit must be more stringent with himself. It is praiseworthy for a habitual liar to admit every untruth immediately after he says it, so that the embarrassment this causes him will prevent him from lying in the future.7 Such a habitual liar should try never to deviate from the truth, even in instances when it might otherwise be permitted, for he must put forth more than average effort to break his habit.8
1. Tosfoth Da’ath Zekeinim Bereshith 38:26.
2. Tehillim 32:1
3. Sha’arei Teshuvah, Orach Chaim 607.
4. Niv Sefathayim 4:8.
5. Rema, Responsa 11.
6. Niv Sefathayim 125.
7. Likutei Torah, cited in Niv Sefathayim, p. 125.
8. Ba’al Shem Tov, cited in MiDevar Sheker Tirchak, page 74.
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org