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You shall not bear false witness

By Rabbi Joel Levy

The ninth utterance prohibits false witness testimony. This is not a general prohibition on lying, but is connected to the necessity for a correctly functioning legal system within which honest witness testimony is a crucial component.

The language of the ninth utterance is strange. Often translated ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’, the Hebrew actually reads closer to ‘Do not answer through your neighbour a lying witness’, which seems to make no sense.

Rambam, sensitive to the text of the Torah, claims that ‘through your neighbour’ refers to someone who includes in his own testimony information that he has heard from a friend.

Ibn Ezra admits he spent years searching for a reason why it says ‘a witness’ rather than ‘testimony’. He concludes that the text is actually addressed to someone prone to false testimony.

A complete paraphrase might read as follows: ‘You, yes you, who are prone to false testimony, do not repeat your neighbour’s true testimony!’

If we are, by our nature, liable to be economical with the truth, we must be careful not to pass on what is actually true as our own first-hand experience, thereby creating falsehood. The ninth utterance is a prohibition on retweeting!

[This is part of the publication “The Ten (Masorti) Commandments.” The full booklet can be found here.]

Posted on 5 June 2019