“The girl [Rivka] ran to her mother’s quarters and related approximately what had transpired.” (Bereshith 24:28)
From the above verse it is clear that Rivka gave her mother only an approximate account of the events. It would have been unnecessary for her to be more thorough than that, since people do not expect to hear every detail of an occurrence from beginning to end – such is not the style of everyday conversation. In order for the listener to understand what the speaker has to convey, it is generally only necessary to relate the major points (1).
Is it considered deceptive practice to relate a story without all the details, so that the story does not fully correspond to the events that took place? Our Sages tell us that there is no deception in such an account. If all the minor points are woven into the narrative, the listener will lose the focus of the more important elements of the story. Moreover, describing only events of major importance is more palatable to the listener, as an account that includes every minor detail soon becomes tiresome to listen to.
In the introduction to his classic halachic work Darchei Moshe, the Rema writes that there are passages in his book that he introduced with the words “zeh leshono” (“this is the wording”) implying that he was quoting the exact words of an original text, when in fact he was stating only the principle he was citing. This is an acceptable approach to writing, and even the Gemara abridges some passages for the sake of brevity (2).
In practice, if someone asks you if you have a pen for him to borrow, you do not need to explain to him your particular circumstances when you respond. If you have a pen, but are planning to use it within the next several minutes, you may simply answer, “No,” without explaining why you are not in a position to lend your pen at the moment. It is clear that the questioner was not taking a survey of how many people are carrying pens with them – he only wanted to know if there was a pen available for him to use (3).
Once a hired worker, after three years of labor, asked for his wages on erev Yom Kippur. His boss did not have any money to give him, so the worker asked if he could receive his salary in produce. The employer responded that he did not have any to give him. In actuality he did have fruit to give him, however it had not yet been tithed, and there was not sufficient time before Yom Kippur to do so. Since the produce was not fit to be given, it was not considered sheker to tell him that he did not have any (4).
Although it is permissible to relate only pertinent information, leaving out insignificant details, one must do so with caution. Consider the situation carefully, and omit only those details that you are absolutely sure will make no difference to the person with whom you are speaking. It is possible that you may consider some detail insignificant, when in fact it is important to the listener’s understanding of the total picture. The exception to this principle is that when speaking to a child we must take extra care to tell the full story, for a child lacks the mature intelligence that would enable him to differentiate between information that is unimportant and information that is necessary for him to know. If you omit part of the story when speaking to a child, he will come to the conclusion that one is permitted to lie. For the same reason, when speaking to an adult who lacks the level of maturity to differentiate between major and minor points, one must relate the whole truth (5).
1. Malbim on Bereshith 24:28.
2. Chulin 104a, Tosfoth Chalath.
3. Heard from Rav Yitzchak Berkowitz.
4. Shabboth 127a.
5. Heard from Rav Yitzchak Berkowitz.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org