The Talmud states that G-d’s seal is truth. Interestingly, in an exchange in this week’s Torah portion it appears as if G-d isn’t being completely truthful. An angel informs Abraham’s wife, Sarah, that she will give birth next year.

Sarah, who is 89, laughs at this news and says, “(Why) I have stopped menstruating and my husband is an old man.”

When G-d repeats the incident to Abraham, He says, “Why did Sarah laugh and say how can I give birth now that I am old?”

In his report to Abraham, G-d leaves out the fact that Sarah also said that her husband is old. The Talmud learns from here that for Shalom, to maintain peace, you are allowed to omit information and even tell a white lie.

How do we understand when these exceptions are applicable? There are two aspects to truth. There is the “big picture” ultimate truth and there is literal, technical truth. If a person signs a contract and in the fine print there is a clause that is unfair and is written in a way to take advantage of the person, this contract might be technically truthful, but it doesn’t adhere to big picture truth. Similarly, it can sometimes be more proper to avoid hurting someone’s feelings than to be fully honest. For example, if someone has bought a couch that cannot be returned and asks you for your opinion. It is more correct to offer a positive comment of some sort than to share your decidedly negative thoughts about the couch.

The Talmud shares a story about a man whose wife was a shrew. She would never do what her husband requested. If he asked for eggs for breakfast, she would serve him cereal. One day, she served him what he requested. He became concerned and wanted to know if she was OK. His son shared with his father that he had gotten involved. Since he knew that his father wanted cereal, he told his mother that dad wanted eggs that day. The father thanked his son but asked that he never do that again. For when it comes to our children, who may lack the sophistication to understand the nuances of a white lie and maintaining peace, we can not use these options. Even more concerning, when we ask our children to state an untruth for us, what is it that we are teaching them?

The Talmud further limits this leniency of omission or telling a white lie for peace sake only to someone committed to speaking truthfully.

To summarize, though we must be very careful, sometimes it is correct to substitute “big picture” truth for its smaller, literal brother.

Rabbi Chaim Feld is Co-Director of Aish Cleveland. He recently launched Clean Speech Cleveland, a community-wide education and awareness campaign to foster unity through the practice of Jewish mindful speech. The Cleveland Jewish News is part of the initiative.

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