By Rabbi Daniel Travis
Yaakov said, "Please do not refuse me; if I have gained favor in your
eyes, accept this gift from me, for seeing your face, it is as though I
had seen the divine Countenance, as you have received me so graciously."
Flattering a person falsely, especially if he is an evil person, is
considered a very serious offense, yet Yaakov flattered Esav profusely.
Such purposeful flattery of evil people in this world is only permitted
when one's life is in danger or when there would be other serious
consequences. In this instance, since his meeting with Esav placed
Yaakov's life in great danger, there was clearly a good reason for Yaakov
to flatter Esav as he did.1 Therefore
his words do not fall under the prohibition of flattery.2 According to other opinions, Yaakov's "flattery" of
Esav was permissible only because his words could have been interpreted as
an insult, for the word Yaakov used to refer to the divine - Elokim -
could also be used to refer to idols.3
A popular life philosophy nowadays is to "tell it like it is," but this is
not the Jewish outlook. Especially in educational settings, one must not
speak the whole truth in every situation. A teacher is obligated to
flatter his students, even if they don't deserve it.4 Poor schoolwork and misbehavior frequently stem from
low self-esteem. If a teacher can make a child feel good about himself,
there is a good chance that in time that child's classwork will improve.
Once a teacher has succeeded in boosting a student's confidence, he may
find an opportunity to tell the student that he is falling short of his
Just as a teacher can flatter a student even if the praise is undeserved,
he can also give a student credit for something although he has not earned
it, in order to bolster his enthusiasm for learning. Rav Akiva used to say
halachoth in the name of his students in order to encourage them.6 Similarly, a teacher is permitted to give a
student a higher grade than he has actually earned if it will induce the
student to improve his learning.7 It is
well known that a number of great educators have made it a habit to take
the incorrect or incoherent words of their students and reinterpret,
rephrase and explain them to make them express something substantial and
important.8 All of these tactics are
valuable educational tools, and do not fall within the bounds of the
prohibition of falsehood.
However even in a situation of great need, a man of total truth will never
resort to flatter to get what he wants. An important rav was once asked to
get the Brisker Rav to sign a letter bearing a request that was to be sent
to a high government official. The rav responded that since the letter was
directed to an important political figure, it surely contained flattery of
the official. The Brisker Rav, being a man of total truth, would never
consent to sign such a letter, regardless of how worthy the cause.9
1. Sotah 41b.
2. Meiri on Sota 41b; Sha'arei Teshuvah 3:199; Kad HaKemach.
3. Cited in Rabbeinu Bachyeh's comments on this verse.
4. Orchoth Tzadikim, Sha'ar HaChanifa.
5. Sh'lah on Devarim.
6. Eruvin 13a.
7. Heard in the name of Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth (author of
Shemirath Shabboth K'Hilchatha).
8. Expressed by Rav Shlomo Brevda.
9. MiDevar Sheker Tirchak, p. 155.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org