We Shall Cut the Baby in Two – Did King Solomon Lie?



The well known adage, “one is permitted to lie in order to promote peace” is taught at a very tender age to our budding Talmud scholars. It is a very well known and adored episode in the Book of Bereishis [Genesis], explained according to the Talmudic tradition by Rashi. This lesson is taught through no less an authority than G-d, who “altered the truth for the sake of peace”:

When Avraham and Sarah are blessed by passing travellers that they will have a baby boy within the year, Sarah is incredulous: “Now that I am worn out shall I have my heart’s desire? And [besides] my husband is old!” (18:12).
By contrast, when HaShem reports Sarah’s words back to Avraham an amendment is noted: (18:13), “for the sake of peace between husband and wife, the Torah [i.e. Gd] now changes the uncomplimentary reference from her husband to herself (Rashi) [“Can I really have a child when I am so old?”]
Our question is; how expansive is this permit?

A classic and well known example of this appears to be King Solomon’s strategy to force the truth to be exposed by [falsely] threatening to chop the baby in half. Thus the woman who was falsely claiming to be the mother of the infant disclosed her deception by showing herself to be harsher than the mother and accepting King Solomon’s proposal to “cut the baby in half”. And of course, all ended well, the real mother was reunited with her child and the liar was exposed.

There is however a problem with this.
The Gemara Shevuos 30, defines MidVar SheKer TirChok [Shemos, Exodos 23:7] – KEEP WELL AWAY FROM FALSEHOOD, by describing the following scenario. Someone is refusing to repay an outstanding debt. Usually we would produce two witnesses and the matter would be settled quickly. However we are able to locate only one witness. This means that the defendant can take an oath and deny the loan.

Well, let us use the Wisdom of Solomon to resolve this very easily. We can create an impression in the mind of the defendant that there are two witnesses. We shall bring someone along who will not utter or publish a single false or misleading word. Just by presenting himself in Beis Din he will be perceived by the defendant as a second witness which will induce him to admit and settle the entire issue.

This a far superior option to honestly presenting the single witness which will likely prompt the defendant make a false oath.

One would have thought this a fantastic outcome, no lies, no false oaths and true restitution. But we are wrong, this is bad, evil and sinful.

Now, how was the ploy utilised by Shlomo HaMelech any different? He threatened to cut the baby thereby discovering the true mother.

 “I wasn’t lying…I was just being economical with the truth”[Sir Robert Armstrong, British Cabinet Secretary, in the 1987 ‘Spycatcher Affair’]

While the Torah itself does not (explicitly) criticize the deviations our ancestors made from the straight and narrow path, Chazal were more forthright in their remarks. The great 13th century commentator, Ramban, for example, refers to Avraham’s action as “a great sin,” for rather than play with the truth in order to preserve his life, he should have “trusted in Hashem to save him (12:10 Genesis).”

Nechama Leibowitz [Studies in Bereshit, Fourth Revised Edition, pp. 266-267] portrays how “The vicissitudes of Ya’akov’s life teach us, at every step, how he was repaid – measure for measure – for taking advantage of his father’s blindness. His sons deceived him when they presented him with Yosef’s bloodstained coat of many colours.” Moreover, “Lavan’s statement – ‘it must not be done so in our country to give the younger before the firstborn [rather than the elder] (29:26)’ – contains a veiled allusion to Esav’s bitter complaint (‘he has taken my firstborn right’) [as if to say] ‘In our country it is not done for the younger to usurp the rights of the firstborn as you did.’”
And in response to Ya’akov’s plea, “How could you do this to me?” his wife Leah said, “I learned from you that it is correct to deceive for a noble objective.”

By contrast, Radak, writing in the 12th century, defends the behaviour of the Avot: “How could righteous and God-fearing Ya’akov have spoken falsely? This does not pose a problem, for Ya’akov knew that he was more fitting to receive his father’s blessing than his brother and more worthy in God’s eyes; and therefore lying in circumstances such as these is not reproachable… The same applies to Avraham and Yitzchak who called their wives “my sister”… for they acted out of fear; and similarly Ya’akov, if he did ‘change his word’ this did not amount to a falsity.” For Radak then, ‘being economical with the truth’ for a worthy purpose is not despicable behaviour.

What constitutes a ‘worthy purpose’ which may justify the utterance of an untruth? The Talmud in Yevamot (65b) sheds light on this question: “…It is permissible for a person to deviate from the true facts in the interests of peace, as the Pasuk states (50:16): [Yosef’s brothers instructed that Yosef be told] ‘Your father gave orders before his death, saying: Thus shall you say to Yosef: ‘O please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin…’ And as Rashi comments: “Ya’akov gave no such orders; but the brothers altered matters for the sake of peace [family unity].”

We stated above that Avraham and Yitzchak “altered their words” by representing their wives as their sisters. Why did Chazal not derive from these incidents, or from Ya’akov’s pretending to be his brother, Esav, in our Parsha, that it is permissible to deviate from the true facts in the interests of peace or for the sake of obtaining a blessing or other worthy cause?

It may be [as suggested by Yakov Shapira “‘White’ Lies and Other Lies” published in the Ministry of Justice’s 5761 “Parshat Hashavua” webpage] that Chazal wished to avoid elevating the acts of Avraham and Yitzchak as “ideal lies” because their situation involved placing another person in danger for the sake of their own survival. Chazal preferred to illustrate the principle regarding the permit to lie in certain circumstances specifically in the Yosef-story which involved both a worthy cause (preserving family unity) and the use of admissible means – not causing harm to another person: because it is possible that even if Ya’akov did not, in fact, make the statement, he almost certainly would have agreed with it!

Ya’akov’s pretence to be his brother, Esav, is not a worthy model, in Chazal’s eyes, being an expression of unfaithfulness to the truth in order to obtain an exclusive blessing, depriving his brother of any blessing in the process. Chazal preferred to use as their model a case involving a possible untruth which was intended to bring about family harmony, rather than a case in which the lack of commitment to the truth was intended for the sake of suppression and triumph (as is made clear by Yitzchak’s blessing to Ya’akov (27:37): “Behold I have made him your lord, and all his kin have I given to him as his servants”).

This principle of prioritising family unity over strict truth is also illustrated in the famous dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel regarding “how one should dance before a bride” (Ketubot 16b-17a). Beit Hillel held that all brides must be praised, without exception, as to their beauty. Beit Shammai objected, saying: “Each bride – as she is!” According to Beit Shamai, those who follow the ruling of Beit Hillel are liars, for if they happen to be at the wedding of a bride who is not beautiful – how can they sing to her a song which is false?

Beit Shammai seem to be standing firmly on a principle, which is in fact difficult to contradict, that a person must speak the truth. If the bride is not beautiful, how can one praise her beauty? How can Beit Hillel possibly defend a position which opposes speaking the truth? One answer could be that according to Beit Hillel the value of praising a bride exceeds in importance the value of sticking to the truth.

On the other hand, Beit Hillel’s response to Beit Shammai’s question is extremely instructive: When one sees the purchase of another in the market – even if it seems to him to have been an unwise purchase – he should praise the buyer about his purchase and not criticize it thereby causing the buyer sadness. According to Beit Hillel, the proper reaction in this case is to empathize with his partner (in marriage or in dialogue) – because from the groom’s viewpoint the bride is for him, in one way or other, a beautiful and gracious kallah! Were it not so, he would not marry her! In other words, Beit Hillel might argue that in the case of someone or something one’s partner finds dear, truth is not necessarily objective – it may, in fact, be subjective!

One final illuminating source is Shmuel’s statement in Bava Metzia 23b, which states that in three cases, Talmidei Chachamim may alter their words: when questioned about their learning (in order not to become complacent about how much they know), about marital matters (which deserve to be kept private) or when asked about families who have hosted them (so that others will not burden these same hosts!)

Below are additional observations garnered from an email exchange
Did Shlomo HaMelech lie when he proposed that the baby be cut?
The Gemara Shevuos 30, defines MidVar SheKer TirChok – KEEP WELL AWAY FROM FALSEHOOD, as misrepresenting that two witnesses exist thereby inducing an admission, rather than presenting a single witness which only requires that an oath be taken, and we are fairly sure he will swear falsely. There is no suggestion that any testimony is presented, the fake witness just comes along to BETH DIN and just by impression, convinces the admission of the defendant.

One would have thought this a fantastic outcome, no lies, no false oaths and true restitution. But we are wrong, this is bad, evil and sinful.

Now, how was the ploy utilised by Shlomo HaMelech any different? He threatened to cut the baby thereby discovering the true mother.

The Magen Avraham (O.H. 156) rules according to the Gemara Pesachim (112a) that it is permitted to promote an untruth, i.e. rule a law in the name of a well known rabbi, in order that people accept the correct Halacha

The Nesivos [choshen mishpat 28:7] explains why the misrepresentation in Beis Din is forbidden: we fear the litigant will be coerced into making a Peshara, a compromise, which is not in accordance with the Halacha.

This fear is not really understood; after all if the defendant is lying then we are pleased to have forced an admission of the truth. On the other hand, if he is not lying, would he not first wish to hear the testimony? At that point it will all come undone.

What’s wrong with simply saying this is the Torah’s prohibition, the Issur DeOraySa. It is a lie. A sin. On an esoteric level: the spiritual damage done when one engages in massaging the truth, even though altruistically motivated, is far greater than the gain of the $ restitution provided. In essence Gd’s will is that there should NOT be restitution in this case. And the interloper is suggesting that Gd needs a little help in running His world.

Can we argue that there is a greater danger to the integrity of the court system by allowing deception than if a Rav makes up a source to support his own conclusions?

It may also be proposed that Beis Din may make false presentations but the litigants may not. This also explains the Gem Pesachim and the Magen Avraham.

MichTav MeEliyahu (1:94) writes: What is emes (truth) and what is sheker (lie)? At the beginning of our education our understanding is that emes (truth) is describing events as they are while sheker (lie) is deviating from this. That is correct only on the most elementary level. There are many circumstances where this definition is incorrect. There are times when it is prohibited to describe things as they are such as describing shortcomings to another when there is no benefit or need. Sometimes in fact one actually needs to alter the description from the facts when the truth is harmful. In such a case that which appears to be true is in fact a lie because it produces bad consequences and that which appears to be a lie brings the goal of emes. We see in fact that emes is that which brings to the good and fulfills that which Gd wants. … Yaakov’s deception of Esav therefore was revealed to be G‑d’s desire and thus we see from the Torah sheker (a lie) done for the sake of emes (truth) is in fact emes (truth).

Maharal (Bereishis 47:29): An action which is appropriate to do is called emes (true).

Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky (Emes L’Yaakov Bereishis 27:12): It is a fundamental principle in the nature of emes (truth)…that it needs to be expressed according to careful calculation. For example, Reuven is hiding in Shimon’s house from someone trying to kill him, if Shimon tells the pursuer where Reuven is hiding because he doesn’t want to lie—should we call this emes (truth)?

מכתב מאליהו (חלק א’ דף 94) *מהו אמת ומהו שקר? בתחלת חנוכנו הבננו שאמת הוא כשמספרים עובדות כמו שאירעו: ושקר כשמשנים מזה. אך זהו רק באופנים פשוטים. אבל למעשה יש ברבה אופנים שבהם אין הדבר כן. לפעמים אסור לומר דברים כומ שהם, כמו לספר מה שיש בו פגם לחבירו, בלי תועלת והכרח, ולפעמים צרים דווקא לשנות, כשהאמת לא יועיל אלא יזיק, כי אז מה שנראה באמת הוא שקר, שמוליד תוצאות של רע, ומה שנראה כשקר מביא לתכלית של אמת. נמצא שאמת הוא מה שמביא לטוב ולרצון הבורא ושקר הוא מה שנותן הצלחה לעסקיו של שר השקר, הסיטרא אחרא….אבל גילה כאן משפט שמים, מהו אמת ומהו שקר: יעקב עשה ערמה אבל עשה בעל כרחו בוכה ואנוס על פי הדיבור, לא כיוון לרצונות עמצו כלל רק להוציא לפועל התכלית נרצה מה’ ושקר לשם אמת בזה הוא הוא אמת.

ספר גור אריה (בראשית מז:כט)* כי בודאי שייך לומר “חסד ואמת” בכל דבר, כי הוא ‘חסד’ מצד וגם הוא ‘אמת’ שכך ראוי לעשות, ודבר שראוי לעשות הוא נקרא “אמת…ולפיכך בכל מקום פירוש “אמת” על המעשה שהוא ראוי ואמת [ואמר] לעשות. ..

אמת ליעקב (בראשית כז:יב)*…יסוד גדול במהות ה”אמת”…שגם האמת צריכה שתאמר לפי חשבון, שהרי למשל אם ראובן הנרדף מתחבא אצל שמעון, וכשהרודף מחשפו אומר שמעון לרודף שראובן מתחבא אצלו ומשום שאינו רוצה לשקר, הכי זה “אמת” יקרא?

The point I wish to illustrate is that those who decide what it is that HKB”H ought to be doing are a danger to themselves, others and society. And that seems to be the message of the Gemara in Shavuos.

I just remembered that there is another PT in Hilchos Pesach about two Yidden and only one Kezayis of Matza. I think he seeks support from the Tiferes Shemuel of Rus that just as Avimelech engaged in a form of deception to grab the Zechus of Yibbum or Pidyon so too in regards to the Matza. Does anyone suggest such a strategy for YaAkov getting the Berachos from Esav?

This issue is discussed in detail in the Shaarei Tshuva 482:2 “The Beis Yehuda has the case of two people who are in jail or in the desert and they only have 1 kezayis of matzoh – who takes precedent? He concludes that they should fight it out….The case is apparently one where the matzoh is hefker since your needs take precedent over that of others….We see also how Boaz manipulated the situation so he could marry Ruth since he wanted the Mitzvah…. And even though it is prohibited to deceive people, but that is in monetary matters but regarding mitzvos even though one can not take with force from someone who has it, but as long as the other hasn’t gotten the mitzvah yet, it is like the desert which it is hefker to all those who have the commandment and want to perfect their soul. This is also what happened with Yaakov and the right of the first born… However if the person is persuaded to give that which he owns to another – there is no problem with this.”

I asked Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach why it was necessary to fight when it was hefker but it was permitted to give away the mitzva if you own the matzoh. He replied that it was obvious. If it is hefker and you let the other have it – you are Mevazeh, humiliating, the mitzva. It shows you don’t care. But if it is yours and you want to help another do the mitzva by your generosity there is no Bizuy Mitzva.

The comment: “You even have the statement that emes does not have to be factually correct but that if it represents G-d’s will it is emes. Facts that are used against G-d’s will are lies.” needs to be supported and documented. Rather than saying: that which appears to be true is in fact a lie because it produces bad consequences and that which appears to be a lie brings the goal of emes.” would it not be more accurate to say that if it brings bad consequences it is a sin, but not necessarily the sin of lying.

Just asked this question to Rav Nosson Kaminetsky. He replied that his father Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky said that it was not a lie. Shlomo HaMelech in fact was prepared to cut the baby in half. But at the same time Shlomo HaMelech was fully convinced that the threat to do so would cause the resolution of the question and thus he would not have to follow through on his threat.

This is most disturbing. Is it possible that one may [plan to] murder an innocent, in order to promote justice?