Commandment #9: Is lying always a bad thing?

Is lying always a bad thing? I think it’s not so simple. And to explain what I mean, I want to come clean about a weird thing that I do.

Sometimes, I’ll run into someone that I haven’t seen in a while. We’ll exchange pleasantries, “Hey…how are you? It’s been a minute!”

And then they’ll say something like, “We should totally catch up.” And then I’ll say something like, “Yeah, um, that sounds good, let’s circle back next week.”

The thing is, more often than not, that’s just…a lie. I mean, I really have no intention of “circling back” at all. I just said that cause it…was so much easier than saying, ah, eh, actually, no thanks

And…I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think we all tell little fibs, little micro-lies in the course of our daily lives.

I’m not talking about the big juicy lies. Like, making stuff up on your resume. Lying on your taxes. Scratching someone’s car and then lying to their face when they ask you what happened.

I’m talking about harmless lies. Like posting on Instagram that your Cancun trip was #greatesttripever when you actually had a terrible time.

And I’m especially talking about the little lies that could even seem noble. Like, calling up a friend and telling her that you just bought tickets for her favorite concert as her birthday present when, in fact, your boss gave you the tickets. Wouldn’t a lie like that be reasonable? After all, you’re making the other person feel good and special that you bought those tickets just for them. What’s the harm in that? 

So…what about these lies? Are they okay? Or…are they somehow having a negative impact on our lives?

Well, in this series, we’ve been exploring the Ten Commandments as foundational principles for life. Do any of the Big Ten shed light on this question?

Now, the ninth commandment seems kind of close to the mark: “Lo Taaneh ve’reacha ed shaker.” We can loosely translate as: “Do not testify as a false witness against your neighbor.” 

And the simple explanation of this commandment is that it deals specifically in a legal context. Like, when you’re in court, and you’re up there on the stand…don’t be a false witness. Don’t lie under oath.

Lying under oath, that sounds like a “big lie” sort of deal. And it is, but we need to remember that we’re studying the Ten Commandments here, and as I explained in the introduction to this series, the way to study them is to look for their underlying principles. And it’s not hard to see that underlying, “Do not be a false witness” is not to lie — at all. 

And the idea of avoiding sheker, or falsehood, is all over the Torah. “You shall not lie to one another,” it says in Leviticus. Lo teshakru ish ba’amito. Or even more strongly said: “Keep far away from falsehood,” it says in Exodus. Midvar sheker tirchak. 

The implication is that we should stay away from all lying. Not just the big ones, not just in a court of law — but the little ones, as well. And in reality, all lying boils down to a type of false testimony.

The question, of course, is why. Why do the little lies matter too? I came across this kind of strange, quirky story in the Talmud that, I think, provides a clue. Just stick with me on it:

Rav, whose nickname was Abba Arikha (fun fact) who lived in the 3rd century, had a weird thing going on with his wife. He would ask her to prepare him peas for dinner, and she would go ahead and prepare lentils. And then the next night he’d ask her for some lentils, and she would instead make peas. (Lentils and peas, not my favorite dish, but it’s not my story…)

And so it went between the two of them, until Rav’s son Hiyya grew up and started being the go-between for the couple. If Rav would tell Hiyya, “Ask your mother to please make lentils for dinner tonight,” then Hiyya would tell his mom, “Dad wants peas tonight.” And, true to form, she would make lentils, much to Rav’s satisfaction. A little reverse psychology, there, eh?

Then, one day, Rav mentioned to Hiyya how happy he was that his wife was preparing the dinners he asked for, and Hiyya, perhaps proud of his accomplishment, revealed the scheme to his father. And while Rav conceded that it was clever, he told his son to stop doing that, cause he was lying.

But come on, what was so bad about those little lies? It seems like the payoff would be worth it. Everyone was getting along!

Well, the 13th-century commentator rabbi named Jonah Gerondi, who we call Rabbeinu Yonah, provides an interesting answer. He says, “A person who accustoms his tongue to speak falsehood about a matter that has neither a loss nor gain” — like, you know, peas and lentils and the like” — will, when he comes to speak matters of principle, not be able to speak the truth; as it is his mouth that will speak and habit rules over it.”

In other words, small lies don’t stay small. They’re habit-forming, at which point the lies become bigger, and bigger.

And modern science seems to be in Rabbeinu Yonah’s camp. A study in 2016 concluded that telling small lies makes it easier for people to tell bigger lies because the amygdala, the part of the brain that would normally put the brakes on a lie by making a person feel uneasy, gradually becomes desensitized to deception. Small lies literally change the constitution of your brain. Crazy, right?

So, when I tell my friend that I’ll circle back next week, and I don’t really intend to do it, that’s harmless enough, in the moment. But when I get in the habit of telling lies like that one, over and over, my relationship to the truth gets weaker and weaker.

Perhaps, that’s why when you look carefully at the wording of this Diber, you’ll notice that it doesn’t say, “Don’t testify against your neighbor falsely,” but rather, “Don’t testify against your neighbor, as a false witness.” Hinting to this idea that lying isn’t just something you do, it’s something you become: a person less related to truth. 

And when our relationship to truth breaks down? Yeah, that’s…not good.

In an almost perverted desire to be consistent, one lie often leads to another in order not to expose the first lie.

In their paper, the authors of that study concluded, “Many dishonest acts are speculatively traced back to a sequence of smaller transgressions that gradually escalated. From financial fraud to plagiarism, online scams and scientific misconduct, deceivers retrospectively describe how minor dishonest decisions snowballed into significant ones over time.” There’s a reason for the expression a “web of lies.” 

But there’s another bad thing that happens when our relationship to the truth is weakened. And that is…our relationships to other people are weakened as well.

Lies isolate us. The energy it takes to keep them up is exhausting, and stressful, and creates a lot of anxiety. That’s why you hear about criminals and con-artists who actually feel relieved to get caught. The authorities may have caught them, but they are no longer caught in the web of their own making.

But you don’t have to be a con artist to feel caught in that way. It’s not just the big lies that do that…it’s the little ones, too. When I lie to that person in the street and say I’ll circle back, that inauthenticity is putting distance between him and me. When I post the idealized version of my life on social media and work hard to paint a false picture of a life without flaws and struggles, I cut myself off from real connection. 

I think that’s why Lo Ta’aneh, don’t be a false witness, is one of the Big Ten commandments. Not only does it save us from becoming habituated to lying and superficial relationships, but it points us to a very Jewish value, and a very wise one: to be relentless about pursuing truth. 

Pursuing truth is at the very bedrock of Judaism, a foundational principle for life. So much so that one of the all-time greats of the Mishnaic period (years 0 – 200 CE), Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, counts it as one of the 3 pillars the world stands on. Just imagine a world full of people committed to the truth, rather than their own agendas. Most of our problems would be solved right there. 

So, back to our question: Is it ever okay to lie, especially when those lies are small ones? It’s an interesting moral and philosophical question. Some thinkers like Immanuel Kant were opposed to lying in any circumstance. The Jewish tradition is more nuanced as it points to specific situations — like when someone would get really hurt and no other damage would be done — in which a fib could be allowed. 

But I think the overall imperative here, as codified in the foundational principle of this ninth commandment, is clear. That we must constantly ask ourselves: are we pushing ourselves to strive for truth as much as humanly possible? Do we understand the value of truth-telling as a way of maintaining our integrity and connecting us with others — and are we willing to sacrifice to protect that value?

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