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A Leg to Stand On

Some subtle difference between two words for falsity


When someone wants to register an opinion that something is completely false, one favored Hebrew expression is the emphatic “Sheker v’chazav!” But since no two synonyms in Lashon Kodesh have exactly the same meaning, there must be some subtle difference between these two words for falsity. What are their distinct meanings?

Sheker is the easy one. It means a simple falsehood, a plain lie. We (hopefully) know sheker when we see it – because it’s right there in open view.

Cazav, on the other hand, is defined by the great Malbim, who authored an entire work on Hebrew synonyms, as something that has the veneer of truth, but is false at its core. It is a lie encased in truth.

The letters of each of these words, in fact, reflect this distinction. The Gemara (Shabbos 104a) makes an observation about the particular letters forming the words emes and sheker. Emes consists of three letters – aleph, mem and sof – which all rest firmly either on some form of a broad base. Sheker, in contrast, is formed by three letters – shin, kuf and reish – all of which teeter precariously on a single slender leg or pointy bottom. The medium, says the Gemara, is itself the message: emes ka’i, shikra lo ka’i. This means that emes stands – or better, it remains standing, endures – while sheker “doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”

It’s not only the shapes of the letters that convey this message, but also the particular letters comprising these words. The word emes begins with the alphabet’s first letter, aleph, and ends with its last one, sof; in between them is the mem, which is close to the alphabet’s center. The symbolism is unmistakable: Emes lasts from beginning to end. No wonder the Gemara (Shabbos 55a) teaches that emes is what serves as chosamo shel Hakadosh Boruch Hu, the stamp of He Who declares Ani rishon va’Ani acharon (Yeshayah 44:6). Sheker, in contrast, is composed of three letters at the end of the alphabet, “toppling” it over on one end.

Turning to the word cazav, we see that its “outer” letters, chof and veis, both sit on broad bases, which, as the Gemara has taught us, is reflective of emes. At its internal core, however, is the zayin, precariously perched on the merest point. The letters of cazav thus mirror the Malbim’s explanation of the word as an untruth enwrapped in deceptively truthful looking packaging.

Making matters even more interesting is that the word cazav itself can connote the cessation of something, as in the pasuk (Yeshayah 58:11) “uch’motza mayim asher lo yechazvu meimav — and like a water source whose waters do not cease to flow” (see Rashi to Bereishis 38:5 for a similar explanation of the word c’ziv that appears there). As the Gemara has taught us, emes endures; sheker does not. And cazav, with its veneer of veracity, might show some staying power for a time, but eventually it too ceases, because falsehood must.

Is there a contemporary relevance to this distinction between sheker and cazav? According to the Gemara (Sotah 49b), a salient feature of the era known as Ikvesa D’Meshicha (the last stage of the pre-Messianic era) is that of ha’emes t’hei ne’ederes, the truth will vanish.  We might assume that this comes about through a predominance of sheker. But even the existence of unvarnished falsehood can’t make emes disappear.

Cazav, though, is different. It is disingenuousness at its most ingenious, with a patina of probity masking the lie reposing within. It uses truth itself to shield falsehood, thereby giving it a way to endure it would never otherwise have.

With the lines between truth and falsehood blurred, cazav confuses. It provokes doubt, raises lingering questions. That external piety, is it real? And if not, perhaps it’s still useful, or at least better than nothing. And, most dangerous of all, exposure to cazav can foster a toxic, spiritually deadening attitude of cynicism.

Could it be, then, that the disappearance of emes in history’s last generation is not due to the prevalence of sheker, but more so to the ubiquity of cazav?


PERHAPS THIS IS WHAT Rav Dessler intended in writing that the generation of Ikvesa D’Meshicha will be a dor chitzoni, an externally focused generation. One aspect of this spiritual diagnosis is the focus on body over soul, the temporal over the eternal. The manifestations of this kind of chitzoniyus are all about us: in the intoxicating affluence that brings in its wake a frenzied pursuit of every fleeting, shallow pleasure, in the make-believe world of social media, in the outsized influence that media and marketing wield over us with their appeals to the sensual over the substantive.

But a dor chitzoni can also describe a generation in which even spiritual experiences become hollowed out and there’s inordinate attention paid to appearances at the expense of substance. This kind of chitzoniyus – where we walk the walk and talk the talk but it all masks an emptiness within – is the very definition of cazav.

The topic of how and why chitzoniyus, the external focus, infiltrates our spiritual lives is a large and important one, but here I’ll mention just one of its lesser contemporary manifestations — how the obsession to record everything for supposed posterity subtly turns occasions that ought to be high points of penimiyus, moments of internal elevation, into something else.

It robs that young bar mitzvah at the shtender of a certain innocence, deprives him of the ability to just be fully in the moment, instead of performing for others. It puts the imprinting of the os bris kodesh on a new neshamah into a little box labeled “event” to be shared on social media along with all the others that have zero spiritual significance. It’s reverse spiritual alchemy: Instead of turning dirt into gold, it takes priceless moments of eternity and turns them into something trivial and fleeting.

But the cameras rolling are really only a symptom. The real issue is whether we appreciate the deeper significance of what’s taking place at a simchah, and whether we’re tapping into its awesome power.

Why do we rarely see phones held high at a levayah recording the hespedim (may we continue to be spared such a phenomenon)? Don’t people want a record of those, too? Perhaps it’s because that’s intuitively beyond the pale, because a levayah is the real thing, the escorting of a neshamah from the world. As we sit there, we know that, as one might say in Yiddish, es shpilt zach mit nitzchius, we’re dealing with eternity, and at a moment of such ultimate seriousness there’s no place for what we know is fundamentally unserious.

Our simchahs, too, are occasions of ultimate seriousness, albeit overlapping the simultaneous feelings of unrestrained joy. Not only is that not a contradiction, but one flows from the other. There’s nothing quite like a Yiddishe simchah. But why? Take a Jewish wedding: Does its greatness lie in the flowers, or the finery, or the food, or the fiddles? Italian weddings have thosתe too, sometimes better. It’s that there’s a binyan adei ad — an eternal structure — being built at that very moment.

At such times of exquisite opportunity, shouldn’t we strive to keep our eye on eternity, to savor the joy for the right reasons? In a word, to keep it real?


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 918. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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