In any case, she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. (Bereshith 20:12)
When Avraham first encountered Avimelech (in Bereshith 20:2), danger to his life prevented Avraham from revealing that Sarah was his wife. Now, when confronted by Avimelech, Avraham explains that he had deviated from the truth as little as possible, for technically, Sarah was his sister (1). Nevertheless, his words beg elucidation. When he had said that Sarah was his sister he certainly created the impression that she was not his wife. The fact that she was technically his sister might seem irrelevant if not for the halachah that one should try to make sure that one’s words are as close to the technical truth as possible. If it is possible to make peace without deviating from the facts, one must do so even when it requires tremendous effort (2). This is understandable: if one is able to avoid falsehood completely, certainly one should follow that path. However, if one is in a situation in which deviating from the facts is the only option, it is best to make a statement which is misleading but technically true. In certain situations it is better to forego technical truth and opt for a higher truth, such as protecting your life or peace between husband and wife.
When the Torah prohibits lying, it employs the phraseology, “Distance yourself from sheker (3).” Distancing oneself implies that even when one is permitted to deviate from the facts one must stay as far away from sheker as possible. In this vein, Targum Onkelos translates this verse as, “From a word of sheker be distant.” This implies that even if one cannot make a statement which is one hundred percent true, one must at least make sure that all of the words are technically true. In other words, there should be some way in which it is possible to demonstrate that your words are consistent with what really happened. Distance from falsehood must be a high priority.
Many authorities opine that it is never permitted to say something which is a total deviation, and that there must be some true connotation associated with what you say (4). Yaakov exemplifies this course of action. Although prophetic instruction forced him to say that he was Esav, he made sure there was a truthful connotation to his words (5). Another way to distance oneself from falsehood is by not deviating from factual integrity on a regular basis, for this will accustom a person to lying. We must remember that even when one is permitted to deviate from factual integrity, one must still distance themselves from falsehood and stay as close to the truth as possible.
2. Chofetz Chaim Rechiluth 1:8; Rav Chaim Kanievsky, Masechet Kutim Ch. 30. Shemoth 23:7.
3. Chatham Sofer, Responsa 6:59; Aruch le’Ner, Yevamoth 65b; Sefer Chasidim 1061.
4. Bereshith 27:19-24.
5. Yam Shel Shlomo, Yevamoth 6:46, Responsa Chofetz Chaim 19 (Rav Chaim Palagi) and Meam Loez Shemoth 23:7. A halachic authority should be consulted.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org