An Eye For Deception
By Rabbi Daniel Travis
And the sons of Yaakov answered Shechem and [his father] Chamor with
mirma. After all, they were speaking to those who had defiled their sister
Dinah. (Bereshith 34:13)
The word mirma means “cunning.”1
Although in this instance the brothers may have acted a bit too freely in
accordance with their exceptionally astute perception, this is not a
reflection on the attribute itself. It is an especially crucial trait for
someone who serves as a judge in a beith din (a Jewish Court of Law), and
who must constantly deal with crooked people.
The Gemara tells us that someone who judges a case “emeth
le’amitho” (i.e., arriving at the ultimate truth) is considered a
partner in Creation.2 There are two
elements required to judge a case in accordance with emeth
le’amitho: knowledge of Torah law, and understanding human nature, so
that one can recognize duplicity. A judge cannot succeed with Torah
knowledge alone; understanding people is equally important.3
When Rav Chaim Leib Auerbach (Rav Shlomo Zalman’s father) served on a
beith din, he was once placed in a position in which he arrived at the
truth only through craftiness. A woman approached Rav Chaim Leib together
with her husband. The woman insisted that her husband had divorced her,
while the husband denied it. According to halachah, if a woman claims, in
her husband’s presence, that he has divorced her, she is believed, for it
is assumed that she would not have the audacity to lie about such a matter
when her husband is standing before her.
In any situation in which a judge feels that an injustice is being
perpetrated, he may not judge the case only by following the halachoth,
but must use creative means to arrive at the truth.4 Although halachah dictates that a woman making such a
claim is believed, having sized up the situation, Rav Auerbach concluded
that this woman’s statement was extremely suspect, and decided to test her
honesty. He posed a question to her: “Just as a bride circles
counterclockwise around her groom under the wedding canopy, during a
divorce the woman circles her husband clockwise. Some make three clockwise
circles and some seven. How many times did you circle your husband during
your divorce proceeding?” Caught off guard, the woman stammered a bit,
then answered that she had circled him seven times. Rav Auerbach responded
that she would not have circled him at all, since there is no such custom.
He thus determined that she was lying.5
How could Rav Auerbach lie in the name of halachah? Can we say that the
ends justify the means? According to a number of opinions, it is permitted
to deviate from factual integrity in this way when one’s only intention in
doing so is to arrive at the truth.6
Rav Auerbach understood, as did his ancestor Yaakov, that he had to act as
he did to prevent a perversion of the halachah. His actions were thus
permitted, and were in fact a praiseworthy means of arriving at the truth –
the emeth le’amitho – regarding the case at hand.
1 Rashi on Bereshith 34:13.
2 Shabboth 10a.
3 Vilna Gaon in Kol Eliyahu, Parashath Shoftim.
4 Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 15:3.
5 Heard from Rav Yitzchak Berkowitz.
6 Be’er Sheva on Chulin 111b.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org