Deception & Judaism

Deceiving someone about our intentions is a misuse of the power of language.

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Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Values, published by Bell Tower.

Some years ago, a woman I know attended a dinner hosted by a wealthy cousin at an exclusive restaurant. When the waiter brought the bill, her cousin blanched; the meal clearly had turned out to be far more expensive than he had. anticipated. Noticing his unhappy reaction, the woman offered to split the meal’s cost. The man smiled, and happily accepted the offer.

Yet, in reality; the woman, who had much more limited means than her cousin, was furious. Never having expected him to accept her offer, she felt betrayed when he did. Her son and daughter-in-law, the people who told me of the incident, agreed. As they explained, “She only made the offer to be polite. Somehow, she thought that it would make him feel better. It was wrong of him to accept it.”

finding truth in deception

Their reasoning did not persuade me. According to the Talmud, the woman had only herself to blame for her predicament.

Jewish ethics opposes making offers that you have every reason to expect will be rejected. It condemns such behavior as g'neivat daat (stealing the mind), attempting to deceive another person into thinking that you wish to do more for him or her than in fact you intend to. The Talmud offers several examples of this type of deception; for example: “Rabbi Meir used to say, ‘A man should not urge his friend to eat with him if he knows very well that he won’t. Nor should he offer him any gifts if he knows that he won't accept them’ ” (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 94a).

If the point of your invitation is to mislead the invitee into believing that he is more beloved by you than he is, or that you are more generous than you really are, you are guilty of trying to “steal another’s mind.” The Talmud offers another example: One should not open a barrel (in modern terms, an expensive bottle) of wine, and tell the guest thatyou are doing so in his honor, if that is not the case.

On the other hand, Jewish ethics engages in a delicate balancing act between its desire not to deceive people and its wish to discourage tactlessness. Thus, if a guest thanks you for opening the wine in her honor, you are not supposed to tell her [truthfully] that serving this good wine has nothing to do with her, that you were planning on opening it in any case. Jewish law regards the guest's misperception as an example of a person misleading herself. Correcting such a self-deception would hurt the person’s feelings.

Thus the Talmud tells of two rabbis, Safra. and Rava, who were on the outskirts of a town when they came upon Mar Zutra, a distinguished colleague, approaching from the opposite direction. “Believing that the two had come to meet him, Mar Zutra asked, ‘Why did you take the trouble to come such a distance [to meet me]?’ Rabbi Safra replied, ‘We did not know that you were coming; had we known it, we would have come an even greater distance.’ Later, Rava asked Rabbi Safra, ‘Why did you tell him what really happened? Now you have embarrassed him.’ Rabbi Safra said, ‘But if I hadn’t told him, we would have been deceiving him! [Rava. answered]: ‘No, he would have deceived himself.’” (Hullin 94b).

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.