The Torah tells us to avoid lies – “Midevar sheker tirchak” (Shemot 23:7) – but Chazal in two major discussions note several exceptions to this general rule. What considerations can be of such import as to supersede the lofty value of emet? We will explore the various outliers in an attempt to discern which values can, at times, override that of truth, which is described as being God’s seal itself (Shabbat 55a, Yoma 64a)!
One sugya regarding lying, appearing in Ketubot 17a, revolves around the question of whether one should tell an ugly bride that she is beautiful (Beit Hillel) or the truth (Beit Shammai); the former opinion is founded upon the belief that one may lie for achieving peace (meshanin mipnei hashalom). Much has been written on this subject, but we will avoid entering it in detail here.
Within our Masechta, the Gemara 23b-24a gives three exceptional cases in which talmidei chachamim may lie: Masechta, Puraya, and Ushpiza. (Technically, the Gemara means that they do (empirically) lie; however, since the implication is that lying about these matters does not impinge on one’s high level of trustworthiness as a talmid chacham, it appears that it is permitted to lie in such a manner. Multiple Rishonim make this exact assumption.) The meaning of each of these terms is disputed, and the relevant discussion among the Rishonim and Acharonim defining these rule-bending cases sheds light on Chazal’s understanding of the Torah’s value system.
Rashi explains each of these three categories as relating to a certain middah, or character trait. He understands that a scholar who has mastered great amounts of learning may lie about what tractates he has studied in order to humbly downplay his accomplishments. Lying about beds allows one exemplifying the virtue of modesty to avoid questions touching upon one’s marital relations. (This concept of modesty is carried over by Rambam (Gezeilah V’Aveidah 14:13) to the case of Masechta as well. He understands the case to mean that if one is studying Niddah and is asked what he is learning but does not feel the topic is appropriate for the audience, that person may lie and give the name of a different Masechta.) Finally, Rashi calls lying about guests a middah tovah, as one considerately describes his positive guest experiences in an understated manner so that the host’s hospitality is not “punished” by future visitors clamoring for a comfortable room and board. Rashi thus groups these three scenarios where lying is proper under the rubric of upright character traits of the liar. Rashi’s language, both in his use of the term “yomar” imploring the scholar to lie, and the fact that he describes the lying scenario as one exemplifying these traits, implies that there is no compromise in our case: lying is the proper expression of one’s middot in these cases. Thus, one’s moral comportment with regard to humility, modesty, and concern for others trumps the competing moral issue of lying; in other words, if one considers ethical issues alone, these three values override that of truth-telling.
Me’iri introduces alternate readings to the cases in a manner that exemplifies his vision of the noble lie. He understands the exception of Masechta to mean that a rabbi can lie by claiming that he hasn’t learned a certain area though he has, in fact, learned it, if he is worried his responses to questions on that topic will be less than satisfactory. This is almost the polar opposite of Rashi’s reading: In Me’iri’s understanding, the scholar’s goal is not to convince people he knows less than he knows, but to convey that he knows more than he does in actuality. Me’iri’s alternative interpretation of Ushpiza goes in a similar direction. He sees that line as permitting Torah scholars to lie to their host and say that an unsatisfactory meal was, rather, a sumptuous one, in the interests of not hurting the host. These alternate explanations to the two cases find a common denominator: they each allow for prevarication not in order to exercise a different middah but in order to soften someone’s confrontation with uncomfortable truths. (It is possible to see this principle expressed in his understanding of Puraya, as well: the embarrassment of exposing one’s failure to avoid a re’iyat keri can override the prohibition on lying.) In other words, unlike Rashi, Me’iri sees this Gemara as teaching us not that one personal middah trumps another, but that, in cases where people will be hurt, we limit the middah of truth-telling itself and favor non-middot considerations by telling a lie. We insist on telling the truth only in cases where the truth does not hurt. However, when someone (either the talmid chacham himself or his hosting counterpart) stands to be embarrassed by the truth, we no longer see it as having overriding value. To put this argument in “lomdish” terms, I would say that Rashi sees midvar sheker tirchak as hutra in the context of other middah-related concerns, while Me’iri thinks that the value of telling the truth as dechuya in the face of hurting someone’s feelings. Additionally, it is possible to see Me’iri here as carrying over the category of meshanin mipnei hashalom from Ketubot to our cases.
We find Maharsha introducing yet other readings of the cases at hand. His understanding of Puraya is radically different than that of the Rishonim preceding him: He sees the phrase as meaning not “bed,” but “Purim!” Thus, a scholar is allowed to lie and claim that he was drunk to the extreme point of ad d’lo yada though this was not the case. Regarding hosts, one is allowed to lie about where they stayed so that reports of the host’s opulence do not expose them to potential robbery. These two interpretations have a common theme, as well: Maharsha understands the value of truth-telling to be trumped when there are concerns for protecting someone’s safety – either by enabling one to avoid dangerous drinking or in not facilitating targeted home robbery. Thus, if lying affords one significant increased security, either in terms of personal health or protecting someone’s possessions, such prevarication is licensed.
Through the prism of this sugya, we are able to see three distinct approaches to what can override the prohibition against lying: either certain middot (such as humility, modesty, and care for others) are seen as more important than that of truth-telling; or truth-telling is only a positive value insofar as it does not hurt people’s sense of self-worth; or truth is important, but not more important than ensuring one’s safety.