Parashat Mishpatim: Halakhah
Illustration Credit: Rivka Tsinman

Halakhah הֲלָכָה

Are you ever allowed to lie?

Our parashah seems to make a very clear statement, מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק, which means stay far away from things that aren’t true (Shemot 23:7). That means you should never lie, right?
Well, maybe. It seems like Beit Shammai thought that. (See Bavli Ketubot 17a.)
But if you check out the pesukim around this statement, they’re talking about things connected to court cases, like not taking bribes, and not favoring one side over the other. (Look it up! Shemot 23:6-8.) So it’s possible that the Torah is mainly concerned about lies not coming into the courtroom!
That seems to be what Beit Hillel thought because they said that, in regular life, it is sometimes permitted to tell a small lie if it would help people. In the words of one later rabbi:
אֲבָל שֶׁקֶר שֶׁאֵינוֹ בָּא לִידֵי רָעָה לֹא הִזְהִירָה תּוֹרָה עָלָיו.
The Torah doesn’t forbid telling a lie that leads to nothing bad.
You should generally tell the truth! But what are some examples where it might be ok to be less than fully honest?
  • To make someone feel better. Let’s say someone makes a really bad decision—they trade candy or toys with another kid and then feel like they got a terrible deal. You are allowed to say, “That’s ok, I think it actually worked out great for you!” if it will help them feel better. (See Ketubot 17a.)
  • To avoid bragging. If someone says, “Hey, didn’t you get 100 on all your tests this year?” Even if you did, you are allowed to say, “no”, if you feel like the person will think you are showing off. (But you are certainly allowed to be proud that you did so well!) (Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 262:21)
  • To make peace. Let’s say your friend says, “I heard that Ploni said something terrible about me. Is that true?” Even if Ploni really did, you’re allowed to say, “no,” if you think it will prevent them from getting into a bigger fight. (Hafetz Hayyim Rekhilut 1:8).
Our ultimate goal is a world of אֱמֶת וְשָׁלוֹם (emet v’shalom)—one in which truth and peace go together.