Talmidav Shel Aharon
33-5768: Mitzvah N-36
October 8, 2008
Negative Mitzvah 36 – This is a negative commandment: Do not deny [falsely] anything of value [owed]
Hafetz Hayim: for Scripture says, “neither shall you deal falsely” (Lev. 19:11). And this is an admonition against the lying denial of anything of value worth from a perutah on up. It includes all kinds of denial in monetary matters, whether about something entrusted for safekeeping or a loan; whether one person robbed another or cheated him; or he found a lost object and did not return it. If the other sued him for it and he gave a false denial, the thus violates this prohibition and becomes disqualified to be a witness and give testimony. It is in force everywhere and at all times for both men and women.
With all the troubles in the economy today, we can easily understand why a person would lie under oath over a monetary matter. Between greed and our nature to covet what other people have, it is not beyond belief that someone would lie or cheat to hang on to what was not his or hers. This is the reason we have courts, to determine who is lying and who is not and to make sure that those who lie, are punished properly.
This does not preclude the possibility that there may be a disagreement over who the object belongs to or who has the right to the money in question. That is not what is covered by this mitzvah. This refers so someone who knows that the object or the money does not belong to him but he wants to keep it. This person is a thief; there is no other name for it. We should also note that it also applies to someone who offers to safeguard an item and then, when the owner comes to claim it, says that the object is his and never belonged to the owner. It also applies to someone who would take a loan and then deny that he took the money or a person who collected a loan and then claimed later that he was never paid. One might think that he is justified in taking what is not his because the other person has so much and really would not miss this insignificant sum of money or that the other person is really a bad person who got this money or object in a questionable manner and does not deserve to own it. (You could think of O.J. Simpson here and his latest trial and conviction. This mitzvah does not apply to him only because Mr. Simpson is not Jewish.)
The Hafetz Hayim notes that the minimum amount for violating this mitzvah is a “perutah”, the smallest coin in use during the period of the Talmud. The value of the item in this dispute is irrelevant. It belongs to someone else and must be returned. If you find a lost object, and it is possible to determine who the owner is, you must do what is needed to return the object. Unless the object has no signs of ownership (lost cash for instance) it must be returned. A wallet can be identified by its owner so one can say a wallet was found and the person, who can identify it, can get it back. If one were to keep an object without trying to find the owner, that person is a thief.
Finally, if you are convicted of lying about an object, you not only loose the object, but you lose your reputation as well. You are a convicted liar and can never testify in court again.