Exceptions to the Exceptions
By Rabbi Daniel Travis
Yehudah recognized [his seal, wrap, and staff] and said, “She is more
innocent than I am!” (Bereshith 38:26)
Under certain circumstances the Torah permits one to deviate from the
precise facts in order to further a different spiritual cause (e.g., for
the sake of peace).1 Nevertheless,
since God expects a Jew to represent absolute truth at all times, these
cases must necessarily be exceptions, not the rule. Departing from what is
the absolute truth in every detail is permitted only if there is no other
possible way to achieve what must be accomplished in a given situation.
Even when there seems to be no solution other than to deviate from the
facts, one may do so only within certain halachic guidelines.2
However, there are times when it is forbidden to veer from the truth even
if all the guidelines are followed. The above verse, which demonstrates
Yehudah’s honesty on discovering that he bore responsibility for the
situation, illustrates one such case. Since Yehudah was standing before a
beith din (Jewish court of law) at the time, he was obligated to state the
whole truth, regardless of any other factors that might otherwise have
affected the situation.3 The Torah has
established that the function of the beith din is to arrive at the
absolute truth; accordingly, one must make sure that every word spoken
there is entirely true. Even if someone is aware that a fraud is being
perpetrated in the beith din, one may not hire false witnesses to expose
the matter in order to arrive at a correct verdict. Rather he must make
every effort to ensure that the truth is achieved through honest
“They have taught their tongues to speak lies.”5 Our Sages derive from this verse that it is forbidden
to tell a child anything that is not completely true, or that does not
exactly and clearly describe a given situation. So, too, when speaking to
an adult who lacks the maturity to differentiate between the fine points
of the halachoth, if we do not relate the facts exactly as they are, it is
tantamount to teaching that individual to lie.6
Another instance when we may not deviate from the truth is when we are
wearing tefillin. The halachah states that one is permitted to wear
tefillin only with a guf naki (i.e., if one’s body is clean). This refers
to the physical cleanliness of one’s body. On a deeper level this halachah
pertains to one’s spiritual state as well. While wearing tefillin one must
act in a more exalted manner than usual. Even at times when it would
otherwise be permitted, one must avoid altering the truth even the
slightest bit while wearing tefillin.7
One who has previously stumbled and spoken falsehood must always speak
only the truth, even in a situation in which he would otherwise be
permitted to change the facts. Since this person previously lied, he must
make every effort to avoid any form of speech that could reinforce his
proclivity for falsehood.8
One who does not tell the truth harms himself not only physically, but
emotionally as well. A person who lies is often in a state of anxiety,
concerned that people will discover his untruths and worrying that he not
contradict himself, inadvertently revealing his lies.
1 See article on Bereshith 18:13, “For The Sake of Peace I ”
2 See essays on Bereshith 20:12, “Keep Your Distance II and
III” (pp. 111 and 113).
3 Midrash Rabbah 85:13.
4 Urim V’Tumim 34:1.
5 Yermiah 9:4.
6 Yevamoth 63a.
7 Chatham Sofer, Shabboth 49a.
8 Baal Shem Tov cited in MiDevar Sheker Tirchak p. 74.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org