Sheker: Don’t Stand For It

Parshat Mishpatim 5772

A group of philanthropists visited the Chafetz Chaim. One of them, who had donated to the yeshiva before, said, “Surely the rabbi remembers me.”

The Chafetz Chaim replied, “I’m sorry. My memory is not what it used to be.”

A family member tried to give the visitor the impression that indeed the Chafetz Chaim did remember.

After the philanthropists left, this person told the Chafetz Chaim, “I’m sorry for giving a false impression, but it was only for the good of the yeshiva.”

The Chafetz Chaim was not impressed and stated, “The good of the yeshiva does not justify bending the truth.”

(My synopsis of a story recounted in Talalei Oros, page 266.)

Getting Started

I’ve spent the past couple of days pondering the verses and questions that I posted on Monday. I want to discuss their peshat (simple meaning) and then derash (expanded meaning).

To understand the peshat, it is necessary to look at few more verses than those I quoted before.

Here is the translation from Judaica Press of Exodus Chapter 23:1-8:

Exodus Chapter 23

1 You shall not accept a false report; do not place your hand with a wicked person to be a false witness.
2 You shall not follow the majority for evil, and you shall not respond concerning a lawsuit to follow many to pervert [justice].
3 Neither shall you glorify a poor man in his lawsuit.
4 If you come upon your enemy’s bull or his stray donkey, you shall surely return it to him.
5 If you see your enemy’s donkey lying under its burden would you refrain from helping him? You shall surely help along with him.
6 You shall not pervert the judgment of your poor man in his lawsuit.
7 Distance yourself from a false matter; and do not kill a truly innocent person or one who has been declared innocent, for I will not vindicate a guilty person.
8 You shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the clear sighted and corrupt words that are right.

Remember, this translation is just meant to be a help. My questions and discussion are based on the Hebrew :-).

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Peshat First

The first three verses are addressed to the court. The judges must act with complete impartiality.

Even though a judge may want to show some favoritism towards a poor man (verse 3), that is not permitted. In court, each litigant must be treated the same.

Verse 6 again addresses how the poor man is to be treated in court. He is the equal of the other litigant and must not be shown any favor.

Verses 4 and 5 don’t seem to belong here. Also, why does verse 6 call the litigant “your poor man”?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that verses 4 and 5 teach us that we must act differently in court and out of court.

Inside the court, everyone is equal. Each person’s claims is weighed to determine the truth. The judge might want to favor the poor over the wealthy, but court is not the place for favoritism.

Outside the courtroom is different. In the street, even your enemy should be treated with respect and his property protected.

The Torah makes provision for the poor outside of the courtroom. That is why he is called “your poor man.” He is the one that you give the gifts that are designated for the poor. Even when there is doubt if he should receive, then tilt the scales in his favor.

Distance From Sheker

We can also apply this idea to verse 7. In the courtroom there is no room for sheker (falsehood).

One of the commentators (Rashbam) applies the verse to the following scenario.

There might be a case where the judge knows that the witnesses are lying. But the judge can’t prove it. When that happens, he must withdraw from the case to prevent a wrong verdict from being issued.

Seforno relates this verse to what is taught in Pirkei Avot:

Pirkei Avot 1:9

Shimon ben Shatach says, “Do much to examine the witnesses, and be careful with your words, perhaps from them (your words) they will learn to lie.”

Judges must be extremely careful how they ask questions. The witnesses and litigants might detect from the phrasing and intonation how they can twist their answers in a way that will favor their case.

Now Some Derash

We have discussed some of the peshat understanding of Exodus 23:7 “distance yourself from a false matter.”

This verse also has a derash interpretation: Be very careful with every word (Hebrew: davar) that you say. Keep yourself far away from saying anything false.

Surely this is a lofty ideal that we should all strive for.

However, there is just one small problem. God does not seem to follow this ideal.

God told Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son. Here’s how the Torah records what happened next:

Genesis Chapter 18

12 And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my master is old.”
13 And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?’”

Sarah plainly said that Abraham was old. Abraham did not hear that comment. God then told Abraham that Sarah called herself old.

That sure sounds like God is playing fast and loose with Sarah’s words.

Nehama Leibowitz explains that truth can be bent for the sake of peace, but not in judicial proceedings.

To maintain a good, loving relationship between Abraham and Sarah, God tweaked things a bit.

In the courtroom, the judge is not allowed to do that. In judicial proceedings we have a zero tolerance policy – NO sheker allowed.


Let’s look again at the examples from the previous post.

1. The wedding invitation says that the ceremony will be at 7 pm sharp. However, even when they ordered the invitation they didn’t plan to start before 7:30 pm.

I heard this discussed in a shiur from a rav much more experienced in halacha than me. He said that if that is the norm in the community, then it is permitted.

I ask, “How did such a practice ever become the norm?”

I think that the community rabbis should demand that weddings take place at the time time stated on the invitation.

2. A man is eager to get married. He’s good looking, takes care of himself, and has a successful career. He looks like he’s only 25.

But, in fact, he is 32. Can he tell the matchmaker that he’s 25? If the matchmaker knows his real age, can she tell people that he is only 25?

This goes against the standard propounded by Nehama Leibowitz. If anything, this would lead to more strife when the woman finds out the truth.

3. A company knowingly gives false information to the tax authorities. This action will cause some of the employees to eventually have lower pensions than they would have otherwise. Must the company disclose this fact to each affected employee?

Let’s ignore the obvious fact that the company should not cheat on their taxes in the first place. But, if they are going to, they must make that clear to all employees. Perhaps some employees won’t mind, but the others should be told up front how their employer views such matters and be given the chance to opt out.

Even if these actions are permitted, they should not be done. Doing them causes us to think too casually about the importance of truth and the instability of falsehood.

The Chafetz Chaim would not tolerate sheker (even for a good cause) and neither should we.

Your Turn

Please share your suggested answers in the comments.

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A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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2 thoughts on “Sheker: Don’t Stand For It”

  1. My question:
    From the quotes “You shall not accept a false report… Distance yourself from a false matter…” — Does this mean that if I get an invitation to a social event that is expected to run on “Jewish Time”, I should call up the host and ask to clarify the real start time so that at least in my case, the host would not be doing a potential issur de-oraita?

    • I don’t think we’re dealing with an issur deoraita. Like I wrote in the post, the Rav I heard a shiur from said that community norms set the standard.
      I only questioned why knowingly starting late should become the community norm.
      I’ve read stories about rabbeim who insisted that they would attend an event only if it started on time. Guess what? When the rabbeim put their foot down, events start on time.

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