Parashat Va-Yera 5779
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
Is it permitted to tell white lies in Judaism?
We know that truth is a very important value in Judaism and that we shouldn’t lie under any circumstances. But, what about white lies? Is it permitted to tell a white lie, a lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person?
In this week’s parashah there is an interesting situation related to this theme. The Torah tells us that three men visited Abraham and Sarah announcing different upcoming news to each of them.
One of the men said, “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (Bereshit 18: 10-12)
Sarah listened to the message of the man saying that she will bear a child in a year and she laughed. Why did she laugh? It is written: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?”
Apparently, Sarah laughed because she believed that it was not possible to have a child with her husband because he, and not she (Sarah), was very old!
After this, the Torah tells us that God talked with Abraham and said: “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?” (Idem. 13)
When God reported to Abraham his wife’s words, he made a slight modification. Instead of saying that she had said that it was hard for them to bear a child because Abraham was old, God said to Abraham that Sarah had said that it was hard for them to bear a child because Sarah was old.
Why did God change Sarah’s words? Why didn’t God just repeat her words?
Rashi answers this question explaining that “Scripture (God) in relating her words to her husband alters them for the sake of peace, for she had said (v. 12) “my lord is old” (Genesis Rabbah 48:18).”
Thus, according to this explanation, God told a white lie for the sake of peace (Mipnei darkei shalom), to protect Abraham’s feelings and the love and peace between them.
It is written in the Talmud that one is not obligated to tell the whole truth if it will hurt someone’s feelings (Talmud Bavli Masechet Ketuvot 16b-17a) and that one may even speak an untruth for the sake of peace (Talmud Bavli Masechet Yevamot 65a).
In addition, it is written in Genesis Rabbah 48:18 that, although truth is a major value in Judaism, sometimes truth has to be compromised to maintain love and harmony between husband and wife.
Kassel Abelson writes about this theme in the book The Observant Life, edited by Martin S. Cohen: “The lesson should be clear: if there is a conflict between truth and peace when individuals quarrel, peace comes first—as long as the lie that brings peace does not harm either party or anybody else” (page 370).
Following these sources, we can answer the question asked at the beginning of this message, saying that one is allowed to tell white lies, but only under certain circumstances—when they protect a person’s feelings and when they are told for the sake of love and peace. For this reason, God slightly changed Sarah’s words and finally Sarah and Abraham had a son, Isaac, product of their love, happiness and peace.