Talmidav Shel Aharon
3-5769: Mitzvah N-39
November 11, 2008
Negative Mitzvah 39 – This is a negative commandment: Do not give false testimony.
Hafetz Hayim: for Scripture says, “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow.” (Ex. 20:13) If someone give as testimony what he heard from others, even definitely trustworthy people, he likewise violates this prohibition. If a person hires false withesses, or if out suppresses his testimony [and does not go to give it] he is free, not punishable by the laws of man, but punishable by the laws of Heaven.
It is in force everywhere and at all times for both men and women.
This commandment, one of the famous Ten Commandments, is one that is important for the sake of Justice. Justice is one of the basic underlying assumptions that Judaism depends upon. Even God is called to justice by Abraham. Monotheism in our faith is important because it leads to justice. If there were more than one god, then we could say that we have not sinned, rather it was a requirement of the “other” god. Judaism insists on one God and one Law. It is the only way Justice can be insured.
False testimony undermines Justice. It is not only about testifying falsely. That is lying under oath. This not only is a breach of Justice but an act of blasphemy against God in whose name an oath was sworn to tell the truth. It is even more important to tell what you know to be the truth from your own experience. If your testimony is based on something someone else told you, it is not your testimony and you need to let the parties know that there is someone who has information that is important to this case. Hearsay testimony is not permitted and if you say it as if it were your own, you have given false testimony.
But what if you don’t lie under oath but hire someone to testify falsely or if you refrain from letting anyone know what you know will help or hurt their case? This is not a case of false testimony, but of subverting Justice. There is no Torah law that prohibits this but it is morally wrong to act in this way.
This underlines a major problem with prohibitions and laws in general. They can only speak to matters that are punishable. There is an entire way to live that goes beyond the letter of the law. Our duties as Jews and as responsible citizens are to do more than what the law can require. If we only fulfill the “letter of the law” then we are a disappointment to God. If you hire witnesses to testify falsely, you have not done anything wrong, the false witnesses have violated this commandment and will be punished. They are the evil ones in this situation. If you refrain from telling what you know or that you know anything, you have not lied, so you are not in violation of the commandment, but you have not helped secure Justice. You can’t expect G-d to be happy with that kind of an attitude.
It is important that we remember that while it is a sin to testify falsely, it is not good if you don’t help, in any way you can, to bring about justice.