Parshat Mishpatim: The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But…

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Shemot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But…

Context

The Torah issues two general directives concerning the avoidance of falsehood.

Here, in Parshat Mishpatim, the text states, “Distance yourself from a false matter [or: a false word].”

In Parshat Kedoshim in the book of Vayikra, on the other hand, the Torah simply proclaims, “And you shall not deal falsely with one another.”

Questions

Why, in Parshat Mishpatim, does the Torah use the unusually expansive phrase “distance yourself from” to express its concern over falsehood? This language is not used with regard to any other transgression in the Torah.

What is the distinction between the two differently worded prohibitions concerning the avoidance of falsehood? Why are both of these prohibitions necessary?

Approaches

According to rabbinic interpretation, the Torah’s issuance of two separate commandments concerning the avoidance of falsehood is a response to the subtleties of life. Different settings and circumstances demand different approaches to our relationship with the “truth.”

A
Based upon textual context, the Talmud indicates that the commandment in Parshat Mishpatim, “Distance yourself from a false matter,” focuses primarily on matters of jurisprudence. The two sentences that surround  this pronouncement in the text and, more importantly, the other half of the sentence itself, are all clearly directed towards those involved in courtroom proceedings.

From a halachic perspective, settlement and compromise are possible, even desirable, before the wheels of justice have turned. In the determination of the law, however, truth – and only truth – becomes our goal. So great, in fact, is the need for truth in judgment, say the rabbis, that any possibility of seeming or potential impropriety must be avoided at all costs. The Torah thus states, “Distance yourself from a false matter.” Avoid any act in the process of jurisprudence which might lead to or give the appearance of falsehood.

Reflecting their concern for truth in judgment, the Talmudic sages derive a long list of practical directives from this Torah passage, including the following examples:

1. A judge who has begun to doubt his conclusions should not continue to defend them simply because he is embarrassed to admit his error.
2. A judge and a witness who are convinced of an individual’s guilt should not conspire to convict that individual without due process.
3. A judge who suspects that witnesses in a specific case are lying but cannot prove his suspicions should recuse himself from the case.
4. A student who observes his teacher erring in judgment is obligated to speak up.
5. A court must ensure that the litigants appearing in a case before them are clothed in garments of equal value (so that the verdict will not be influenced by external appearances).
6. A court should not hear the testimony of a litigant outside the presence of his adversary.
7. A student who is instructed by his teacher to attend a courtroom proceeding – so that the judges will erroneously interpret the student’s mere presence as testimony on the teacher’s behalf – must refuse. The student  should decline even if he is convinced of the veracity of the teacher’s claim and even if he would not be required to say a word in support of that claim.

These and other rabbinic injunctions underscore halacha’s deep commitment to the integrity of the judicial process. The legal system is too precious to be endangered through artificial maneuvering, no matter what the reason or rationale. Under any and all circumstances, in and surrounding the courtroom, we must “distance [ourselves] from a false matter.”

B
In contrast to the expansive approach adopted by the halacha concerning the avoidance of falsehood in the sphere of jurisprudence, the Torah’s attitude to the same concern in other areas of life is apparently a bit more complex.

As Nehama Leibowitz notes, the operant text outside the courtroom is not “Distance yourself from a false matter” but the more limited prohibition, “You shall not deal falsely with one another.”

Certainly, truth-telling must be the order of the day in all spheres of human experience. The halachic system is, in fact, replete with specific laws mandating honesty in the marketplace and in other social settings. Often, even the appearance of impropriety is prohibited.

There are times, however, when other concerns override the need to “tell the whole truth.” In particular, when the forces of “truth” and “peace” collide, Jewish thought is willing, albeit reluctantly, to set truth aside. The rabbis note a few such cases:

1. When three angels appear before Avraham and Sara with the news of Yitzchak’s impending birth, Sara laughs and privately exclaims: “After I have waxed old, shall I have deep satisfaction? And my husband is old! ” God, however, repeats Sara’s words to Avraham in the following abbreviated fashion: “Why did Sara laugh, saying, ‘Shall I then in truth bear when I have become so old? ’”

God omits Sara’s derogatory reference to Avraham in order to preserve the peace between husband and wife.

2. After Yaakov’s death, Yosef ’s brothers fear that Yosef will now feel free to exact vengeance upon them for their past misdeeds. They therefore approach their brother and state: “Your father gave orders before his death, saying : ‘so shall you say to Yosef: Please forgive the iniquity of your brothers and their sin for they have done you evil.’ ”

There is, however, no independent textual corroboration that these orders were actually given by Yaakov. The rabbis therefore entertain the possibility that Yosef ’s brothers lied by putting words in their father’s mouth, in order to preserve peace within the family.

This episode teaches us, the rabbis continue, that one is allowed to misrepresent the facts in order to establish peace.

3. As noted earlier (see Shmot 5, Approaches D), a striking contrast is reflected in the personalities of the two brothers, Aharon and Moshe. While Moshe’s worldview is reflected in the maxim “Let the law cut through the mountain,” Aharon is described as a man who “loved peace, pursued peace and created peace between man and his friend.”

The rabbis explain that Aharon’s efforts to establish interpersonal harmony took concrete form. Whenever a dispute developed between two Israelites, Aharon sat with the protagonists individually and convinced each that he himself had witnessed the overwhelming regret of the other party involved in the quarrel. So convincing were Aharon’s fabrications that each of the adversaries invariably set his grievances aside and, as a result, the parties ultimately met in peaceful embrace.

Through his efforts Aharon became more beloved to the Israelites than even his brother, Moshe. Remarkably, this love is reflected in the deeper mourning exhibited by the nation upon the passing of Aharon than upon the passing of Moshe.

Clearly, the world outside the halls of justice is not painted in black and white, but in shades of gray. Conflicting needs and concerns must be factored into every human interaction, with an eye towards the true purpose and ultimate effect of each word and deed. While a step off the path of truth should never be taken lightly, there are times when that step must, nevertheless, be taken.

C
So powerful are the issues dividing the courtroom from the outside world that the point of intersection between these two realms becomes the focus of deep halachic controversy.

The Talmud records two diametrically opposed opinions concerning the issue of judicial compromise. Recognizing that compromise often results in a conclusion which is not factually “true,” the rabbis ask, is a court allowed to attempt settlement of a case or must justice take its course?

Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi Hagalili states: “It is forbidden to compromise! One who compromises is a sinner! One who blesses a compromiser mocks [the Lord]!”

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha states: “It is a mitzva to compromise! [This is proven by the proclamation of the Prophet Zechariah:] ‘Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates.’

“[How can this be accomplished?] Is it not true that where there is judgment there is no peace [for one of the litigants is bound to be disappointed] and where there is peace there is no judgment? What, then, is judgment which contains peace? Compromise! ”

Powerful warring forces lie at the core of this debate. From Rabbi  Eliezer’s point of view, once the litigants approach the court there can be neither compromise nor settlement. The court’s only task is to arrive at the “truth.”

Rabbi Yehoshua, on the other hand, maintains that potential harmony between the litigants still remains our preferred objective. Judges, themselves, are certainly bound by the search for truth  in deciding a case. Before reaching their conclusion, however, they may still encourage a peaceful, albeit “untrue” resolution.

In his codification of the law, the Rambam records that it is a mitzva to encourage compromise upon the litigants’ initial approach to the court. Such compromise, he continues, is desirable up until the point that a verdict  has been announced. Once that verdict is proclaimed, however, settlement is no longer possible. The truth of “judgment” must then rule the day.

The halachic tension between “truth” and “peace” in everyday life is mirrored in a fascinating dispute between the House of Shammai, whose scholars were known for their strictness in the application of the law, and the House of Hillel, whose members had a reputation for kindness and sensitivity.

The Talmud asks:

Keitzad merakdin lifnei hakalla? (How should one dance before the bride? [meaning, “What praises should we sing as we dance before a bride?”])

The scholars of Beit Shammai say that [one should praise the bride honestly,] as she is.

The scholars of Beit Hillel, on the other hand, maintain [that one should universally exclaim:] Kalla na’a v’chasuda! (How beautiful and charming is the bride!)

As the Talmudic discussion continues, the sages of Beit Shammai express their discomfort over the possibility of lying in a case where it is clear to all that the bride is undeserving of such praise. “After all,” they argue, “does not the Torah state, ‘Distance yourself from a false matter’?”

Beit Hillel respond that we are under no obligation to underscore the negative, even through omission, if only harm will result. Unless we praise all brides uniformly, they maintain, deep embarrassment at a most sensitive moment is bound to occur.

Underlying this seemingly quaint argument courses the serious issue of truth-telling and its boundaries. Beit Shammai, true to their demanding nature, depart from the Talmudic sources cited above and apply the expansive phrase, “Distance yourself from a false matter,” beyond the courtroom. Even in the festive setting of a wedding feast, they believe, falsehood cannot be countenanced. Only the truth can be told.

Beit Hillel, on the other hand, ever sensitive, refuse to embarrass the  bride and groom, even if an outright fabrication must be proffered.

The halachic verdict concerning this dispute is reflected in a beautiful practice recorded in the Shulchan Aruch. No traditional wedding is complete without a dance set to the words Keitzad merakdin lifnei ha’kalla? “How should one dance before the bride?”

And, as the dance unfolds at each and every celebration, the response of Beit Hillel unfailingly rings through the air: Kalla na’a v’chasuda! “How beautiful and charming is the bride!” Several authorities, still uncomfortable with an outright lie, struggle to base this practice on a foundation of factual truth. Every bride, after all, they say, has something beautiful and charming about her.

Many other scholars, however, accept Beit Hillel’s, and consequently our, apparent willingness to “stretch the truth” at face value. Sometimes the truth need not be told. For the sake of harmony we choose to live in a world in which every bride is beautiful (even if she is not)!