What’s your John Hancock? The Ninth Commandment

The Ten Commandments: A series

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer, November 2010

Candace R. Kwiatek

In the Talmud we learn that “The signature of God is truth. (BT Shabbat 55a).” Since the Torah teaches we are created in God’s image, shouldn’t we aspire to be known by the parallel phrase, the signature of (fill in your name) is truth?

In their simplicity, the Commandments encapsulate fundamental truths, but the ninth appears to be oddly specific.

Rather than “Conduct yourself honestly and truthfully” or “You shall not tell a lie” or even “You shall not bear false witness,” the literal Hebrew commands, “You are not to testify against your fellow as a false witness.”

This directive seems to be limited to telling the truth in court: “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” But it’s not.

In biblical days, the key component of court procedures was not law or physical evidence, but the oral testimony by actual witnesses to the facts in the case.

The purpose was to establish the truth upon which decisions could be made. False testimony would not only hinder justice, it would also undermine the public’s confidence in the judicial system.

So why is the emphasis on the “false witness” rather than on false testimony?

It seems obvious that a false witness is someone who doesn’t tell the truth, who gives false evidence.

But that isn’t the whole picture. Numerous Jewish commentaries clarify what it means to be a false witness.

Maimonides rules that one cannot testify based on hearsay even if the source is irrefutable.

Rachel Mikva, editor of the anthology Broken Tablets, elaborates: “Even if the testimony is factually true, it is false if the witness did not see it.”

One cannot even stand in silent support of a friend or relative, giving the appearance of being a witness, if he or she is not privy to the matter.

Furthermore, the Talmud (Baba Batra 43a) notes that the witness may not have any personal interest in the lawsuit: no financial benefit, no relationship to the parties involved which might influence the testimony or even give the appearance of tainting it.

And from Leviticus we learn that the person who has seen or learned of a matter but does not testify is guilty of being a false witness (Lev 5:1); silence is deception in a court of law.

Now it’s much clearer why the Commandment focuses on the false witness rather than on the evidence itself.

To ensure honest testimony, biblical law set up a boomerang effect: false witnesses were punished according to the principle of talion, punishment in kind.

“If a man appears against another to testify maliciously and gives false testimony against him,” Moses teaches, “…the magistrates shall make a thorough investigation. If the man who testified is a false witness, if he has testified falsely against his fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow (Deut 19:16-19).”  The penalty could be a fine, a flogging, or even execution in a capital case.

A system of just laws and courts is so important to the stability of society that it stands as one of the seven Noahide laws, moral imperatives Judaism identifies as the components of righteousness for all humans.

But the Ninth Commandment teaches us something more, that society’s justice isn’t found primarily inside the walls of the courthouse. It’s dependent upon the “true witness,” the person who lives and speaks truthfully.

Jewish Studies Professor Peter Ochs elaborates: “In Hebrew Scripture, in rabbinic literature, and for most Jewish thinkers, truth is a characteristic of personal relationships. Truth is fidelity to one’s word, keeping promises, saying with the lips what one says in one’s heart… Truth is the bond of confidence between persons and between God and humanity.”

So where does this lead? It means that our words and deeds should be consistent with the truth, “true witnesses” to who we are, whether in the courtroom or on the street.

Thus, you cannot disseminate gossip. It’s hearsay. You cannot agree to serve on a committee and then not participate. You cannot dress like a temptress if it’s false advertising. You cannot quote the words of someone else without a citation. These are circumstances in which others make decisions — about ideas, about people — based on the truth you present to them.

On the other hand, it’s not necessary — and it’s often inappropriate — to share every truth.

When the messengers announce the future birth of Isaac, the Torah reads: “And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment — with my husband so old?’”

When God relates Sarah’s words to Abraham, he softens the statement. “Why did Sarah laugh saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’”

There are limited circumstances where it is more appropriate to skirt the truth or to remain silent.

This would apply when there’s no decision to be made or where the truth may gratuitously hurt the feelings of others.

Tell the truth or not? The plain bride? According to the Talmud, the bride on her wedding day is always beautiful, no matter what.

The woman with a run in her stocking? She can still change at home but not when she’s already arrived at an event.

When it’s a decision point, tell the truth.

Like the signature of John Hancock, our words and our deeds are our signatures, writ large. Let them testify to the truth.

Family Discussion: God’s first command to Abraham is “Lech lecha, go to yourself.” Don’t let family or society define what is true, but discover truth for yourself. Then make it your signature. How do you live as a “true witness” to who you are?  In what ways do you need to improve?

Candace R. Kwiatek is a writer, educator and consultant in Jewish and secular education. She is also a recipient of an American Jewish Press Association first-place award for Excellence in Commentary, and an Ohio Society of Professional Journalists first-place award for Best Religion/Values Coverage.


Literature to share

Chicken Man by Michelle Edwards: This National Jewish Book Award winner offers a timeless tale about making the best of things while sharing a bit about traditional kibbutz life. Delightfully funky colorful scenes illustrate each spread for the elementary reader. Highly enjoyable.

Jews in America: A Cartoon History by David Gantz: No time line of facts and dates, this pictorial approach to Jewish American history reads like a series of short stories. Fast-paced, informative, and easy to understand, each topic introduces key Jewish figures, historical milestones in Jewish organizational development, and major events of Jewish import. This is a great single-volume introduction to the topic for teens or adults.

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