Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Self Deception, God, Torah and the Jewish People Bava Metzia 23-25


The Harm of Self-Deception

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses why a Talmid Chacham has special credibility; he never lies except for purposes of modesty and privacy. However, even a meticulously honest Torah sage is permitted to alter the truth under circumstances that would violate privacy or modesty, such as if he wants to modestly hide his wisdom, he may publicly deny his achievements. Additionally, he may use deception to prevent others from becoming aware of his and his wife’s intimacy. In general, the principle is that one may resort to untruth if it is to peace and well being (see Tosafos ibid, 24a, “Be-Ushpiza”.) Of course, such lies must not be self-serving and there must be no other reasonable way to promote peace and also must not cause future suffering or loss (see Shalah, Ner Mitzvah, Maseches Succah, 55 and Meiri Yevamos 63a.) In addition, it should not be in a situation where it will tend to become a habit (Yam Shel Shlomo, Yevamos 63.)

For example, if you come home late, it is not proper to lie and tell your wife you were on time, just to save your skin. But if a hostess burned the meatloaf one time, it is permitted to still compliment her.

There is also a ruling of the Magen Avrohom (OC 156, based on Sefer Chassidim 426 ) that one may only lie about past events, but not future ones. This is also in order to prevent forming a pattern of habitual lying. A lie about the past is almost always an ad hoc defensive action. But to lie about some future event or intention is a premeditated plan to deceive. This last point is debated by poskim, see Mishna Berura (ibid 4) who does not outright rule against the Magen Avraham and Sefer Casidim, but expresses that the ruling is difficult to understand.  I have heard orally from some contemporary poskim that Sefer Chasidim’s standard is not the actual practice – check with your local Orthodox Rabbi for more guidance on the matter.

Ben Yehoyada notes that the Gemara uses the phrase “le-shanos -to alter”, as opposed to lying outright. This indicates that even when one is permitted to resort to deception, it should not be an outright lie, but rather a phrase that can be taken in different ways. (Also see Aroch Laner Yevamos 65b and Shemiras Halashon, Rechilus Kelal 1:8) Thus, going back to our meatloaf situation, do not say, “The meatloaf was delicious.” Instead say, “The meatloaf was exceptional.” She takes it to mean “exceptionally delicious”, but you mean “exceptionally awful”! Be’er Mayyim Chayyim (Bereishis 18:15) gives several biblical and Talmudic examples where a person needed to lie but was careful to use an expression that could, technically, be true. The most famous example is the Midrashic reconfiguration of Yaakov’s affirmation, “It is I, Esav, your firstborn” (Bereishis 27:19). But Rashi (ibid) also reads it as, “It is I, (Yaakov), who brought you this food. Esav, (however) is your firstborn.”

But what is the purpose of these word games? In the end, the words were chosen to mislead. If lying is permitted, so be it. Why does it matter what words you use?”  If you eat treif with a shinuy (indirect manner), it’s still treif.

The simple answer is, as we saw from many examples above, extra care must be taken in regard to lying in order that it not become a habit. Therefore, we might say the idea of having the requirement to use awkward language, is to serve as a reminder that this cannot be a routine response.

Another idea that occurs to me is that, in Jewish thought, words are intrinsically sacred (see Bamidbar 30:3). Even though there is no debating that a series of words crafted with intention to mislead is just as forbidden as an outright lie, in terms of the prohibition to lie, it might be a separate distortion or contamination to corrupt the words. We see that words have power to create a reality, even to the extent that one should not idly make negative or pessimistic statements (Berachos 19a). Therefore, even when it is permitted to lie, there might be a separate prohibition against distorting the actual words.  In his introduction to Emunos V’deos, Rav Saadiah Gaon speaks of the satisfaction and mental health that comes from being connected to truth, and psychologically speaking, habitually lying can lead to and reinforce harmful self-delusion.    

The only thing I wonder about, is if using a phrase that is technically true, but actually fasle, can also lead to more rationalizations in the future, instead of calling a spade a spade.  I would think it is more honest to oneself, to specifically not use any deceptive words in the circumstances which permit lying, so that there is no slippery slope effect.  Perhaps the fact that the rabbis are not concerned with this, and instead focus on the actual damage of uttering a false word even in its literal sense, stems from the same sentiment that prompted the Gemara (Bava Basra 89b) to not be concerned that cheaters will learn certain legalisms from their Talmudic discussions:

Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said with regard to all these halachos about weights and measures: Woe to me if I say them, and woe unto me if I do not say them. If I say them, perhaps swindlers will learn new methods of cheating of which they were previously unaware. And if I do not say them, perhaps swindlers will say: Torah scholars are not well versed in our handiwork. A dilemma was raised before the Sages: Did Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai decide to say these halakhos in public or did he not say them? Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzḥak says: He said them, and he said them on the basis of this verse: “For the ways of the Lord are right, and the just walk in them; but transgressors stumble over them” (Hosea 14:10).


Doomed or Not, It is Up to God

Our Gemara on amud aleph speaks of situations where an object faces inevitable doom, such as a lion is about to consume a sheep.  Even if this is in front of the owners and they protest that they are not giving up, since the consensus reality is that the objects are doomed, it is a de facto giving up (see Shulchan Aruch CM 259:7).  The rescuer may take full possession of the object.

Yismach Moshe (Shemos 30) uses this legality as a way to explain how the Jews were freed from slavery earlier than the original prophecy.  

(Bereishis 15:13):

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר ׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃

And [God] said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years;

But the Haggadah tells us that Hashem shortened the period of slavery.  God does not go back on His promises. What gave God the right to repossess the Jews from their servitude to Pharaoh, which had been granted by God? Yismach Moshe quotes a number of Midrashim that speak of how the Jews also were very close to being destroyed for their idolatrous practices, be it during the plague of the first born, or at the Red Sea.  In both situations, there were heavenly accusations that once the destructive forces were unleashed, the Jews should be punished as well.  Since God saved them from inevitable doom, by saving them, in essence He acquired the Jews from Pharaoh, like the sheep in our Gemara.  

My question on this is, God caused the plagues and God also willed the Jews to be free. Why is the latter legal, but the former considered dishonest?  I believe the answer has to do with the philosophy of punishment which is considered more of a natural law of the universe, as opposed to the one-time miracles of the splitting of the Red Sea and other unusual miracles.  Otherwise, anytime someone’s slave were to die due to their sins, the owner should have a complaint against God, “You stole my servant! True, he disobeyed you and deserved punishment, but he is MY slave.”  Obviously, this cannot be so. The answer is that punishment is built into the fabric of the universe, and so no master can have a gripe against God if his slaves are immoral and are punished. The Jews were also immoral and were doomed, if not for God specifically saving them. This extra miracle with more direct divine intent would then indeed be unfairly taking the Jews from Pharaoh. However, since the Jews would have been doomed no matter what, and Pharaoh had already lost them, it was like finding a lost object and God was able to take full possession.

While justice in the world is through the hands of God, there is still an idea that there are different levels of providence. It actually alluded to in an explicit verse (Shemos 33:5), where Hashem tells Moshe:

אַתֶּ֣ם עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹ֔רֶף רֶ֧גַע אֶחָ֛ד אֶֽעֱלֶ֥ה בְקִרְבְּךָ֖ וְכִלִּיתִ֑יךָ וְעַתָּ֗ה הוֹרֵ֤ד עֶדְיְךָ֙ מֵֽעָלֶ֔יךָ וְאֵדְעָ֖ה מָ֥ה אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לָּֽךְ׃

You are a stiffnecked people. If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now, then, leave off your finery, and I will consider what to do to you.’”

That is to say, if God was directly in the Jewish people’s midst, there would be zero tolerance for sin.  (In the end God relents and teaches Moshe a special tradition on how to obtain forgiveness nonetheless.)  However, what is the intended scenario?  People would sin and NOT be punished? Obviously not. So this must mean that here would be more tolerance of sin. Presumably, the regular channels of fate and punishment occur, when they do as they do. See Bereishis Rabbah (85:2) where a similar idea is expressed. When a person is already deserving punishment, a bad turn of events will bring upon him many other punishments from past misdeeds:

When the Shevatim were implicated regarding the goblet that Binyamin was accused of stealing, they said: “God has found [matza] the iniquity of your servants” (Genesis 44:16). Rabbi Yitzḥak said: The creditor has found the opportunity to collect on his promissory note.

The Rambam, in his commentary on Avos (2:6) states:

And it is something that is apparent to the eye, at every moment and every time and every place. Anyone who does evil and creates types of violence and vice, is himself injured by those same evils that he created – since he taught the craft that would cause damage to him and to others. And so [too regarding] anyone who teaches a virtue [in] that he creates a good action from the good, a benefit of that action will reach him – since he taught a thing that will do good to him and to others. And the words about this in the verse are very good – he stated (Job 34:11), “For He pays a man his action.”

Therefore, we see that there are levels to how quickly or directly God manifests His punishment.  Regardless, we also see that God can forgive and save the Jewish people at any time, despite what they may deserve, as He did in regard to their sin and slavery.


The Torah Speaks Through Us, and in Fact, is Us

Our Gemara on amud aleph discusses a teaching of Rabbi Yitschok Migdla’ah:

שְׁלֹשָׁה מַטְבְּעוֹת זֶה עַל גַּב זֶה. אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מַגְדְּלָאָה: וְהוּא שֶׁעֲשׂוּיִין כְּמִגְדָּלִין. תַּנְיָא נָמֵי הָכִי: מָצָא מָעוֹת מְפוּזָּרוֹת – הֲרֵי אֵלּוּ שֶׁלּוֹ, עֲשׂוּיִין כְּמִגְדָּלִים – חַיָּיב לְהַכְרִיז. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן עֲשׂוּיִין כְּמִגְדָּלִים? שְׁלֹשָׁה מַטְבְּעִין זֶה עַל גַּב זֶה.

The mishna teaches: And for these found items, one is obligated to proclaim his find: Three coins stacked one atop another. Rabbi Yitzḥak from Migdal says: And one is obligated to proclaim the find in a case where the coins are arranged in well-ordered towers. This is also taught in a baraisa: If one found scattered coins, these belong to him. If the coins are arranged in well-ordered towers, he is obligated to proclaim his find. The baraisa elaborates: And these coins are arranged in towers: Three coins stacked one atop another.

This is a remarkable coincidence. The rabbi’s name (Migdla’ah) also corresponds with the subject matter of the teaching (a pile of coins, in Hebrew, Migdal.)

Maharitz Chayes here notes that this is a practice of the Gemara to name various Amoraim after their teachings. Perhaps this is like the way we call great authors by the name of their works, such as the Chofetz Chaim.  There truly is a fascinating list of these correspondences between names of the rabbis and teachings.  (Also see Rav Margulies’ Sefer, “Le-Cheker Shemos Batalmud”.) I will list just a few of the most striking cases:

  • Chulin (30b) a Rabbi Yonah is discussing a legal case of a Yonah bird slaughtered by a hunters arrow.
  • Berachos 53b, where a Rav Zehumai discusses the halachic implications when one’s hands are dirty (The Aramaic word for filth is Zuhama.)
  • Bava Metzia 55a Rav Ketina says: The court attends to monetary claims of even less than the value of one peruta. Katina means small, and the Rav Katina is allowing even for small monetary claims

There are many more examples.  The question is, why?  Mahariyz Chayes seems to hold that it was to honor the person by naming them after their teaching. I would add, it may be that their name was similar, and so a mnemonic to aid memory and as an honor, they played the person’s name after the teaching.  This also must be the case with some otherwise horrendous Biblical names.  Which Jewish mother names their child, “Machlon and Kilyon”, which means, “illness and destruction”? Obviously, Megillas Rus is making a pun that their names correspond to their fates.  But they must have had names similar to this, such as Menachem and Kala, or whatever. (A similar comment is made by Rav Yosef Bechor Shor (Bereishis 38:7) in regard to Yehuda’s son, Er, which spelled backwards is Ra (evil), as he committed evil in the eyes of God (ibid 38:10.)

I also think there might be an added dimension. In Jewish thinking, a name is an essence. This is why Yaakov wants to know the name of the angel he wrestles with (32:30) so he can grasp the angel’s essence and somehow master it.  Likewise, the whole idea of the Avrohom, Sarah and Yaakov having their names change to signify a change of fate also speaks to this. 

In Pirke Avos, sometimes a teaching of a sage is introduced as, “Hu Haya Omer” “He would say.”  It has the implication that he often said this (see Magen Avos 1:2), feeling it was a key teaching.  As a child, I heard from my father Z”L in the name of someone I do not remember (perhaps Rav Hutner ZT’L), that it is deeper than that. “Hu” “HE” would say, that is, his essence said it.  This might be similar to what we discussed in Psychology of the Daf Bava Kama 114, that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi would introduce some of his teachings with the phrase, ‘Omer ani”, which translates roughly as “I say”, but in Hebrew it might have a deeper connotation. Rav Yosef Engel (Beis Haotzar, Ma’areches aleph-vav, klal 33) notes that the meaning is something like “my essence dictates”, that is Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi felt a deep truth coming from within, an indication of the will of God channeled from his soul.  

Thus, these rabbis did not coincidentally have names that corresponded with their teachings, but rather, their names and their teachings and their essence were one in the same! (Possibly when their names were homophonic with the teaching, such as maybe Rav Midgla’ah’s real name was Gedaliah, the rabbis felt it was not a coincidence. His essence from his name came out in his pursuit and understanding of Torah.

Megaleh Amukos (Va’eschanan 186:1) writes that the soul of every Jew stems from one of the 600,000 letters in the Torah. The Torah Speaks Through Us, and in Fact, is Us.  Yisrael, V’eoraysa, V’Kudsha Brich Hu – Chad Hu (Peri Tzaddik, Terumah 4).

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.