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The Jewish Ethicist:  The Black Truth About White Lies

The Jewish Ethicist: The Black Truth About White Lies

Do seemingly justifiable white lies set a bad example for children?


Q. I'm going with my twelve-year-old son to buy him a bike, giving me the perfect "alibi" to go out and get my wife a surprise birthday present. When we get home, my wife is sure to ask, "What took so long?" Normally I'd make up a "white lie" in order to keep the surprise, but I'm afraid this might be a bad example for our boy. What should I do? MB

A. Your concern for the educational message you convey is well placed. In fact, this exact concern is the subject of a remarkable story in the Talmud.

A renowned Rabbi had a very strained relationship with his wife, and whatever request he made of her, she would do the exact opposite. When their son got a bit older, the Rabbi started relaying his requests through the boy. To his delight, he discovered that his wife had begun honoring his requests! He said to the son, "Your mother is improving!" The clever lad replied, "No, it's just that I reverse your requests". The Rabbi praised the youngster for his wisdom, but told him he shouldn't continue his habit, so as not to become accustomed to lying.

I recommend the following trick to diminish your dilemma: Be alert for any slight delay at the bicycle store, or even "engineer" one. Then when you come home you can honestly say, "Sorry, honey, it took them a long time to find our order" (two minutes instead of one). Or: "After we were already out of the store, we found something that needed fixing" (you asked the guy to take two seconds to adjust the mirror).

If your child is quite naïve, then he may take your statement at face value. After all, this was an actual occurrence that did cause a delay. If he's rather sophisticated (like most twelve-year-olds nowadays), just explain to your son that normally we try to be completely honest, but that occasionally a slight misdirection is acceptable in order to surprise and delight someone.

And mazal tov on your wife's birthday. It's a wonderful sign that after so many years of marriage you not only remember her special day, but also go out of your way to make it memorable.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 63a, Berakhot 53b.

September 29, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Theresa Callahan, July 17, 2002 12:00 AM

Like she wouldn't know

Had to laugh a little at this ethical dilemma. The average wife would surely anticipate a birthday present and most likely would make a correct assumption about what took so long. Any husband who thinks his wife is "surprised" to receive a birthday gift must be rather naive . . . or has never seen an episode of "I Love Lucy." If asked directly, the husband could wink at his son and in a very theatrical tone say something like, "Oh, we were being VERY PARTICULAR about what we shopped for." You get the idea. This isn't even an evasion (which is not a technique I would want to teach my child) --- it is making the entire charade of the secret shopping trip into the non-surprise that it surely is. After all, the REAL surprise is what the present turns out to be. Mom should take the cue and drop the subject. Then, when she opens the present, she can always say, "Did you two shop for this when you went out looking for that bicycle?? I THOUGHT you were gone an awfully long time!"

(1) Joanne Millstone, September 30, 2001 12:00 AM

The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth?

I always read this article first - I love The Ethicist! But this explanation does bother me.

You make some mighty fine distinctions, which as a child I could understand perfectly. Still, my mother would see right through my "perfectly truthful" explanations and punish me anyway - seemed she believed that a half-truth is a whole lie! Merely saying that I was delayed unexpectedly would not have been enough - I think she invented that dodge :-) Rather, why was I delayed, how long was I delayed, etc. This method does teach legalistic thinking, but with someone as direct as my mother, I don't think it would work.

On the other hand, flat out lies were not favored either and she had an uncanny way of seeing through those too!

My child solution would have been to have my dad take care of it, I'm afraid.

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