It is permitted for a person to deviate from the truth in a matter that threatens the peace, as it says1: ‘Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said: “Perhaps Joseph will hate us and then he will surely repay us all the evil that we did to him.” So they instructed that Joseph be told: “Your father gave orders before he died, saying: ‘Thus shall you say to Joseph: “O please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers”.’ … How great is the preservation of peace, for even the Holy One Blessed Is He altered the truth for the sake of peace! For initially it is written2 that Sarah laughed to herself at the absurdity of having a child, saying: “My husband is old!” Yet later, when God related her statement to Avraham, it is written3: “Why did Sarah laugh, saying: ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, though I am old?’” (Gemara Yevamot 65b)
According to our traditional sources there are six types of situation where lying is acceptable. In other cases, we are warned to “keep far away from falsehood4”. The first instance in which we are permitted to lie is in order to make peace, as detailed above.
It is likewise permitted5 to praise a bride before the groom as being beautiful and charming, even if she is not. Apparently the value of praising a bride is more important than the value of sticking to the truth! Alternatively, the proper reaction might be to empathise with the groom from whose subjective perspective the bride is beautiful and charming in one way or another. 6
In relation to hospitality7, if one has been graciously hosted, he should not announce it in public lest many disreputable people come forward to make themselves his guests.
Regarding a tractate of Talmudic study8, if one is asked whether he is fluent in the subject matter, it is in the interests of humility to say that he is not. Alternatively, he may wish to avoid embarrassment in case he is asked questions to which he does not know the answers9.
Concerning marital intimacy10, if one arrived late somewhere because of this and he is questioned as to his lateness, he should give some other reason.
The sixth scenario relates to where life is in danger11. In such a case one should tell a lie if it will result in saving life. In this context, Radak cites the examples of Avraham and Yitzchak who called their wives “my sister12” out of fear for their lives.
In conclusion, one should bear in mind that in all these cases where the Sages permitted deviation from the truth, if one can manage without lying it is certainly better not to lie10. Furthermore, one should think very carefully before applying the classic cases to apparently similar circumstances.13
1. Bereishit 50:15-17
2. Bereishit 18:12
3. Bereishit 18:13
4. Shemot 23:7
5. Gemara Ketubot 17a
6. Heard from my brother Simon Jackson
7. Gemara Arachin 16a
8. Gemara Bava Metzia 23b
9. Lechem Mishneh to Rambam, Hilchot Gezeilah V’Aveidah 14:13
10. Orchot TZadikim, The Gate of Falsehood
11. Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:1
12. Bereishit 12:13, 20:2 & 26:7
13. Gemara Sanhedrin 97a records the consequences when Rav Tavus overstepped the mark in attempting such an application. (Hagahot Rav Yaakov Emden)