At first glance the Ninth Pronouncement or Commandment seems both direct and easy to translate. Like most Biblical verses, there is more here than first meets the eye.
The most common translation of the word re’achah is “your neighbor.” Re’achah, however, does not refer to the person who physically lives in close proximity to you, but rather to people with whom you are in contact, be that contact on a personal basis, a political basis or a business basis. To make the matter more complex, and because Hebrew rarely uses vowels, we can read the Hebrew word spelled with the letters: ayin-dalet as ed meaning a witness, and thus translate the term ed–shaker to mean a witness who chooses to lie; or we can read the letters ayin dalet as ad, meaning: “do not bear false witness about your fellow human being even to the point of lying.” If we read the Hebrew as ad and not ed, then we are not necessarily speaking about a court of law but rather about everyday life.
Once we meet the original Hebrew text, we see that the Ninth Commandment is highly complex and not easy to understand. Depending on how we read the original Hebrew version, we might see it from three different perspectives. We may understand this commandment as requiring us: 1) to give truthful testimony in court, or 2) not to hold back exculpatory information so as to harm the accused, or 3) simply not to lie. All three are valid interpretations of the Hebrew text. What is clear is that the Ninth Commandment prohibits us from what some call “wordsmithing” — that is what many politicians and some in the media do, the twisting words so as to create a false impression about reality.
Most Biblical scholars understand that the Ninth Pronouncement clearly requires honest court testimony. Jewish jurisprudence is realistic enough to understand that despite this, commandment witnesses do not only tell the truth. Often they play games, claim they do not remember or that they said what they did not mean to say. To understand this commandment’s necessity and its importance in a modern context, and despite what a person’s political affiliation might be, we only have to look at the FBI’s recent actions vis-à-vis the FISA court as perfect examples of how politics put into a court setting caused corruption. The Ninth Commandment stands as warning that there are those who will corrupt any court or legal system.
It is for this reason that Jewish law mixes the “ought” of the Ninth Commandment with a healthy dose of “reality” when it comes to human behavior. For example, in a world without cameras or closed circuit television, for a felony conviction Jewish law required that there had to be at least two eyewitnesses to a crime. To guard against further corruption, the law insists that these witnesses had to offer their testimony separately, that they could not know the other’s testimony, and that their testimony had to be essentially the same.
Jewish courts have taken the Ninth Commandment’s principles so seriously that they have ruled that, were it to be proven that the witnesses had come together to conspire against the accused prior to having given testimony, then not only was the accused to be exonerated but the punishment to which the accused might have been subjected was to be administered to the false witnesses. Additionally, rabbinic courts have insisted that whenever possible the accused had to have been forewarned that s/he was about to commit a crime. In other words, entrapment was not only immoral and illegal, but the entrappers were to be punished.
Jewish legal experts have also interpreted this pronouncement on a broader scale. From medieval Jewish Biblical commentators to modern academics, scholars and rabbis have understood this commandment to mean that we are forbidden to lie not only inside of the court but also outside of court — that is, in our daily lives.
Thus, the Ninth Commandment refers to interpersonal relations and the need for truthful interactions.
There are times, however, when we might argue that a lie is better than the truth. Jewish law recognizes that there are times that the truth can do so much damage that its omission is a better option. The Biblical text notes this in the story of the 12 spies (see the book of Joshua, Chapter 2). The Bible reminds its readers that when the authorities in Jericho asked the prostitute Rehab if she had seen any strange men, she answered no. The text notes that were she to have told the truth, the spies would have been discovered. Were her lies a necessary part of God’s plan? In the 19th century, before the American Civil War, people lied to send slaves north on what came to be known as the Underground Railroad. In more modern times, during WWII, there were righteous Christians who risked their lives by lying to the Nazi authorities to hide and save Jewish lives. These righteous Christians — many of whom are today honored at Jerusalem’s Yad VaShem living memorial and academic center to/for the victims of the Holocaust — understood the value of lying so as to prevent murder.
As we study the Ninth Commandment, we see that it become even more complex. For example, when we choose to lie about another’s reputation, or when we condemn entire groups through bigotry, we are lying. Historically, such anti-social movements as racism and anti-Semitism have their basis in providing false witness against another person or group of people. In a like manner, the politicization of the media has resulted in the public’s loss of trust in it. The media’s misstatements have resulted in much of the media’s loss of credibility. All too often the media have created false narratives, and when the accusations are proven false, they pretend as if the narratives had never occurred. That, too, is the breaking of the Ninth Commandment.
This simple yet complex commandment mirrors the complexity of life. It contains many more quandaries than at first meet the eye, and how we choose to understand it tells us a great deal about whom we are as individuals and collectively as a nation.
Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.