By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
“Of course, I did my homework, Mom..”
“No, honey, that donut wrapper belonged to a co-worker to whom I gave a ride.”
“Yes, I will go on the treadmill this afternoon as soon as I come home while you are shopping.”
“No, dear, that dress does not make you look fat.”
We have all heard the expression before – mutar leshanos mipnei HaShalom – one is permitted to, well, “change” or obscure the truth in order to maintain the peace. And lately, it seems that we hear it more and more.
A number of questions arise about this concept. Is it still something that we should avoid doing – or is it possibly a Mitzvah? Is it an across the board heter? Do people have complete carte blanche in these areas? Or are there, perhaps, some caveats?
Firstly, let’s look at the source. The Talmud (Yevamos 65b) cites Rabbi Eelaah in the name of Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon. Rabbi Elazar derives this principle – that one may “change” to maintain the peace from the fact that the brothers told Yoseph that Yaakov their father had instructed them to tell Yoseph to forgive their sin against him. In fact, Yaakov did not leave any such instruction. Rav Nosson even goes further – it is not just that permission is granted – it is even a Mitzvah! How do we know this? Because Hashem instructed Shmuel the prophet to lie to Shaul the king by telling him that he was bringing something to slaughter to Hashem. In fact, Shmuel was going to anoint Dovid as king in his stead.
It seems that Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Nosson are not in agreement with each other but are actually arguing. Rabbi Elazar says that one may do so. Rabbi Nosson says that it is a Mitzvah to do so. The Eliyahu Rabbah OC 156 understands this Gemorah in this way too – that they are taking opposite positions.
Do we pasken, rule, like Rabbi Nosson? The Chofetz Chaim (Hilchos Rechilus 1:14) rules that we do. He is not alone. The Rif in Yevamos and even more so in Bava Metziah 13a quotes our Gemorah and clearly rules in accordance with Rabbi Nosson. The Rosh in Yevamos 6:21 also rules like Rabbi Nosson and the Ohr Zaruah BM 3:63 does as well.
If we are ruling like Rabbi Nosson, then this does bring up the question as to why the language used in the Poskim is that it is permissible to “change” or obscure the truth to maintain peace rather than stating that it is a Mitzvah to do so. Indeed, on account of this question, the first position taken by the Eliyahu Rabbah was that perhaps we rule against Rabbi Nosson – that there is no Mitzvah in doing so – it is merely permitted.
The first answer to this question is that there are situations where it is in fact not a Mitzvah – such as if the “changing” or obscuring of the truth pertains to something in the future. In other words, the permission to change or obscure the truth is only in regard to something that has already occurred – but never to something that did not happen yet. This is the opinion of the Sefer Chasidim #426 and is cited authoritatively by the Mogen Avrohom in OC 156. The wording of the verse cited by Rabbi Nosson bears this out as well – “Say to Shaul ‘I have come to offer a sacrifice’ ” – It did not say, I am going to offer a sacrifice.” The Chsam Sofer OC 6:59 rules like this too. In that case, example number three given above would be a no-no – the one about going on the treadmill.
Some authorities argue on this restriction and permit “changing” even for future events. This is the position of the Rambam (Laws of Gezailah 13:14). Ideally, the Poskim have ruled that one should be stringent like the aforementioned Mogain Avrohom. [See Rav Pealim CM 3:1, for example.]
Others have stated that the permission to “change” is only granted when the wording is such that it can be interpreted in two ways [Rav Pealim]. An example of this can be seen from the words of Yaakov to his father Yitzchok when he received the blessings. The words are explained by Rashi as follows: “Anochi. I am [here]. Aisav is your firstborn.”
This approach explains why the language of Mitzvah is not used – because the term “Mitzvah” would indicate full permission -even when it is unable to be parsed in another manner.
The Chofetz Chaim (Hilchos Rechilus 1:8) adds what would seem to be an obvious caveat too. He writes that one may only make use of this leniency if he cannot think of a way to maintain the peace without lying. And of course, one must really try hard in this regard. This Chofetz Chaim can also be used to explain why the term “Mitzvah” is not used. The term would undermine the notion that all other options must first be exhausted.
In order to avoid a violation of the Torah principle of MiDvar Sheker Tirchak – stay far away from a false matter – if one ever does make use of this leniency – one should follow all three caveats just discussed.
Perhaps the real reason why the Poskim who rule like Rabbi Nosson and yet do not use the language of “Mitzvah” is so that one not get accustomed to lying as a way of life. Let’s not forget as well that in the first three illustrations above, the lying is, in fact, very counterproductive. In illustration number one the mother wants the son to do well in school. In illustrations two and three the wife is concerned for her hsuband’s well-being. It seems pretty clear that the permission to “change”was never granted to lead a decadent lifestyle. When it says that one can change to maintain peace it never meant just to avoid arguments when the other person is, in fact, correct. Such uses of this Gemorah undermine the true meaning of Torah and are an abuse and mischaracterization of the very ideals espoused in this ruling of halacha. The conclusion is that the only recommended use of the leniency is for illustration number four. And yes, there is no doubt that this is a Mitzvah.
The author can be reached at email@example.com.