Rabbi Yehuda Cahn

New work in progress

Nethivoth Olam, Nethiv Ha’emeth


Chapter One

[It is written] in the Book of Proverbs, “A lip [which speaks] truth will endure forever, but a false tongue [will last] for only a moment.”[1] [In this verse,] King Solomon comes to discuss the trait of truthfulness and the advantage of the truth, for when a person’s words are true and straight, even if everyone [else] comes to disagree with him and invalidate the truth and forcefully wage war with him, nevertheless the truth remains undisturbed.

Contrary to this is a false tongue, for falsehood has no durability, and this what is meant by “but a false tongue [will last] for only a moment,” i.e., the smallest possible measure one could speak of, meaning [in this context] a day or half a day.[2] [The phrase] “A false tongue [will last] for only a moment (אַרְגִּיעָה)” denotes breaking as in, “[I am Hashem, your God, who] breaks (רֹגַע) the sea and its waves.”[3] [So, the above verse means] that the false tongue shall be broken, and likewise there are many [instances in which רֹגַע means broken]. And so, the explanation of the verse “but a false tongue [will last] for only a moment” is the smallest amount of time which it is possible to speak about — “until such and such [a time] — which is very short — a false tongue shall be broken.”

We may also say that the term “for a moment” (אַרְגִּיעָה) is written to clarify the term “only” (וְעַד) written [immediately] before it, and it is as though the verse said, “and up to a moment, which is a short time, and no more, a false tongue is broken.”

[This is] contrary to the truthful lip which has lastingness forever and ever, as the rabbis also hinted with respect to the word “truth” (אֱמֶת) in the Gemara:


Shin (ש) [stands for] falsehood [because the word for “falsehood” (שֶׁקֶר) begins with Shin (ש)]. Tav (ת) [stands for] truth [because “truth” (אֱמֶת) ends with this letter]. What is the reason that the letters of “falsehood” (שֶׁקֶר) are close [to one another in the alphabet whereas] the letters of “truth” (אֱמֶת) are distant [from one another in the alphabet]? Falsehood is readily available [whereas] truth is not readily available.[4]


The explanation of this [is that] because Tav (ת) is the last letter of the alphabet, it is fit to be the last letter of truth (אֱמֶת), but it would have been [more] proper to say that Alef (א) stands for truth (אֱמֶת), not that Tav (ת) [stands for] truth. Just as it states that Shin (ש) [stands for] “falsehood” (שֶׁקֶר) and is the first letter of “falsehood,” it should state that Alef (א) stands for “truth” (אֱמֶת). However, [the Gemara] means to say that a seal is the end of a matter which finalizes everything.[5] Accordingly, it is fitting that that Tav (ת), which is the seal of the alphabet, being its last letter, should [also] conclude the word “truth” (אֱמֶת)…for truth is the seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He.[6] That is why [this letter] is called Tav (ת), denoting making a mark [as in the phrase, “place a Tav (ת) on the foreheads of the men,”[7]] which refers to a sign or seal. Accordingly, [the Gemara] stated that Tav (ת) [stands for] “truth” (אֱמֶת) and not Alef (א).

Truth and falsehood are joined together, for Shin (ש) stands for “falsehood” (שֶׁקֶר) and Tav (ת) stands for “truth” (אֱמֶת), [and these two letters are next to each other in the alphabet], because as soon as one moves away from the truth even by so much as a single letter, immediately he [arrives at] falsehood, and therefore falsehood is next to truth.

Let a person not say that although he falsifies a little, nevertheless the majority [of what he says is] true, for the matter is not so. Rather, when one turns [even] a little from the truth, it becomes falsehood. Accordingly, if you remove the Alef (א) from “truth” (אֱמֶת) — even though the Alef (א) is only one [letter and also has numerical value of just one] — it becomes “dead” (מֵת), which is the opposite of truth because truth is lasting (as will be explained soon with respect to the place whose name is “truth”) and as soon as any object is removed from truth, that object has no permanence, and it dies.

[The Gemara also] means to say that the letters of “falsehood” (שֶׁקֶר) are close to one another because there is no need to exert oneself to find falsehood, and one can speak falsehoods as much as he pleases, whereas truth is not readily available.[8] Therefore, the letters of “truth” (אֱמֶת) are far apart to the point where it is impossible that they should be any further, as was also just explained.

It would have been proper that the word “falsehood” (שֶׁקֶר) should have been Sharak (שרק) [following the precise order of its letters in the alphabet,] for these letters [in that arrangement] would be completely close to one another. However, [the letters are arranged as they are] so that the Kuf (ק) will be in the middle because Kuf (ק) has [but one] leg below upon which everything is supported so that “falsehood” (שֶׁקֶר) is supported upon [the letter] Kuf (ק) which has one leg below [and] therefore has no lastingness or stability at all, for nothing can stand on [only] one leg. If the leg [of the Kuf (ק)] were at the end, then [“falsehood” (שֶׁקֶר)] would not be supported by the leg of the Kuf (ק) because everything is supported by the object which is in the middle, and since there is [only] one leg, it has no durability.

[To understand the Maharal’s point, one must think of the letters of “falsehood” (שֶׁקֶר) as being set on a flat surface. If the letters were arranged as שרק, with the leg of the Kuf (ק) at the end, then the word would tilt to the right, with the Shin (ש) touching the bottom of the surface like this:      . The only possible way all the letters might be balanced is to use an arrangement with the Kuf (ק) in the middle — שקר. Even in that case, however, the letters would function like a teeter totter with the leg of the Kuf (ק) serving as a fulcrum, and the letters would topple to one side or the other like this:                . This arrangement of its letters therefore highlights the instability of falsehood.]

In this verse [quoted above], it said, “A lip [which speaks] truth will endure forever,” whereas concerning a false tongue, it said, “but a false tongue [will last] for only a moment.” [The verse] says “for only a moment” (אַרְגִּיעָה) using the causative [verb form] because the verse means to say that a person who has a false tongue receives something which works [i.e., a tongue,] and [actively] breaks it, whereas with respect to a lip [which speaks] truth it states that it has independent existence, for…truth stands by itself. [Since the letters of “falsehood” (שֶׁקֶר) totter, as described above, the only way to stabilize them would be to have something else hold them in place. By contrast, each of the letters of “truth” (אֱמֶת) has two legs, and they can stand independently without the need of any other support.]

[Similarly, falsehood is unstable because investigation of the facts will eventually reveal that its falsity. By contrast, the truth remains true upon investigation and is therefore stable.]

The Gemara in Shabbath and Yoma [records], “Rabbi Chanina said: The seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is truth.”[9] This matter requires elucidation. Why is the seal of Holy One, Blessed be He, truth and no other trait from the [metaphorical] descriptions which are attributed to Hashem, may He be blessed?

It is possible to explain that the seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is truth because He, may He be blessed, is one and there is no other. Accordingly, the seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is truth because there is nothing else which is [uniquely] one except for truth, which is [uniquely] one. It is impossible for truth to be two, because if, [for example,] you would inquire what a human being is, if you would say he is a domesticated animal, or a wild animal, or a bird, or any other thing you say concerning him, all would be false, and [such alternatives] are multitudinous to the point that there is no end or limit to falsehood, whereas the truth is one, for [a person] is a person and not anything else…

And so it is implied from the words of the poem which has been fixed in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: “His seal is truth to make known that He is one.” Here you have it that the reason truth is the seal of Hashem, may He be blessed, is to make known that He is [uniquely] one.

Furthermore, there are thirteen letters from Alef (א) up to [but not including] the middle letter of truth (אֱמֶת), which is Mem (מ), [according to the order of] the alphabet. Likewise, there are thirteen letters from the open Mem (מ), [which is used whenever Mem (מ) appears at the beginning or middle of a word,] up to [and including] Tav (ת) [according to the order of] the alphabet, which is the last letter of truth (אֱמֶת).[10] The numeric value of “one” (אֶחָד) is thirteen, and because truth is one, there are thirteen letters between each letter of truth (אֱמֶת)…

Only it must [also] be explained that His seal is truth because although Hashem, may He be blessed, created all created things with truth, nonetheless, they have an aspect in them which deviates from the truth because all created things by themselves [are only] possibilities and need not exist. However, Hashem, may He be blessed, is absolute existence.[11] It has already been explained that the distinction between truth and falsehood is that truth exists absolutely whereas falsehood has no existence at all, for the essence of falsehood and all other created things is that even though they exist, because they are [mere] potentialities in their own right, and in and of themselves they might not exist, they do not possess complete truth. The principle [being expounded here] is that Hashem, may He be blessed, is absolute truth, for He is absolute existence in His own right, and He is the essence of truth, and there is no other aside from Him.

The word truth (אֱמֶת) also indicates this because it contains thirteen like the numeric value of “one” (אֶחָד) between each of its letters, for He, may He be blessed, is truth, and nothing else is truth. Therefore, the poet composed [the aforementioned verse], “Truth is His seal to make known that He is one.” For this is why His seal is truth — because He, may He be blessed, is absolute truth, and He is absolute existence, and from Him is given existence to everything, for from the power of His truth, in as much as He is absolute truth and absolute existence, in Him everything exists. This [is what is meant by] saying that His seal is truth — He, may He be blessed, Himself is truth. Understand these matters well.

[It is brought in] the Gemara:


Rava said: At first, I said that truth does not exist in the world, [but then] one of the rabbis whose name was Rav Tavoth, and some say his name was Rav Tavyumi, said that [even] if they would give him everything in the world, he would not alter his words [to speak falsely, and he related the following story].

One time he visited a place whose name was Truth, and no one there died before his time. He married a woman there and had two sons. One day, his wife sat and shampooed her hair [when] a neighbor came and knocked at the door [looking for her]. He figured that it was impolite [to say that she was shampooing herself, so] he told her, “She’s not here.” [As a result,] his two sons died. The people of that place came before him and inquired, “What happened?” He explained to them, “Thus and such occurred.” They told him, “Please leave our place and do not provoke death against us.”[12]


This story is very difficult [to comprehend]. What is special about this place? It would have been more appropriate [if this happened] in Jerusalem, which is the city of righteousness. Why did another city have this status? Also, we do not find this place [anywhere today]? Furthermore, if [something about living in] that place caused people not to deviate [from the truth], why did it not cause Rav Tavoth not to deviate [from the truth]?

One must understand that the main point of this discourse is to inform [people] about the greatness of the truth. Whoever is attracted to truth is fit to exist, as the sages state, “Truth stands, [but] falsehood does not stand,”[13] because existence is fitting for the truth, but nonexistence is fitting for falsehood so that it not be present.

[The Gemara] stated, “one of the rabbis whose name was Rav Tavoth, and some say his name was Rav Tavyumi,” meaning that there was an exceptional rabbi whose [spiritual] level was lofty to the degree that he was called Rav Tavoth, indicating [one who consisted of] good removed from physical baseness because evil attaches to one who has baseness in him. Therefore, [the Gemara] states that “his name was Rav Tavoth,[14] and some say his name was Rav Tavyumi.” This last [designation] is an even greater rank than the first one, for the first rank [meant] that he was removed from baseness to the extent that he is good in his own right. According to those who say that he was called Tavyumi, and the definition of Tavyumi (טַבְיוּמִי) is that he possessed “the good of the day” (הַטוֹב שֶׁל הַיוֹם) because the day has light, which is called absolute good, as [the sages] of blessed memory stated, “A person should always go out with a good [sign] and come in with a good [sign],”[15] meaning when it is daytime. And so they mean to say here that [this rabbi] had attained an intellectual quality removed from physicality because light [also] has a quality removed from the physical.

This is something we explained in the introduction [to Nethivoth Olam] concerning [the verse], “For a commandment is a lamp, and Torah is light.”[16] Moreover, we explained this matter in many places — that light refers to a quality [of being] removed from physicality. Observe [that this is so, because] all things which do not give off light are physical, as we have explained many times.[17] Therefore, luminescence and brightness indicate that which is removed from the physical.

He who said that Tavyumi was [this rabbi’s] name [meant] that he was named after daytime which has light, as is written, “God called the light ‘day.’”[18] [By this the rabbis] meant to say that this scholar was absolutely removed from physicality to the extent that he almost reached a level of absolute separation and was called “good day,” [which is the literal translation of Tavyumi].

Understand the distinction between these two expressions. The first expression “Rav Tavoth was his name” means that he was good removed from evil, whereas the other expression, [Tavyumi, means] he was removed from physicality which contains evil. And whoever possesses wisdom and understanding knows that this explanation is clear.

[1] Proverbs 12:19 שְׂפַת אֱמֶת תִּכּוֹן לָעַד וְעַד אַרְגִּיעָה לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר Falsehood does not last because it is bound to be discovered (Metzudoth David ad. loc.).

[2] The Gemara states that a moment (רֶגַע) last only one 58,888th of an hour (B.T. B’rachoth 7A). Since it would take somewhat longer for the inaccuracy of a falsehood to be discovered, the Maharal understands the term “moment” in this context as a poetic reference to a very short time rather than as literally a fraction of a second.

[3] Isaiah 51:15 וְאָנֹכִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ רֹגַע הַיָּם וַיֶּהֱמוּ גַּלָּיו ה’ צְבָאוֹת שְׁמוֹ

[4] B.T. Shabbath 104A.

[5] In former times, a document was not considered complete until a wax seal was affixed to it and the wax was impressed with a symbol or set of letters. Even in today’s secular legal system, it remains common practice to insert the words “signed and sealed” at the end of contracts and other documents and to print the word “seal” on the signature line. In instances when a notarization is required, it remains the case that the document is not complete until the notary affixes a printed or embossed seal.

[6] Devarim Rabbah 1:10.

[7] Ezekiel 9:4 וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֵלָו [אֵלָיו קרי] עֲבֹר בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר בְּתוֹךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם וְהִתְוִיתָ תָּו עַל מִצְחוֹת הָאֲנָשִׁים הַנֶּאֱנָחִים וְהַנֶּאֱנָקִים עַל כָּל הַתּוֹעֵבוֹת הַנַּעֲשׂוֹת בְּתוֹכָהּ

[8] A simple example illustrates the Maharal’s point. Suppose that Reuven is wearing a solid blue v-neck sweater made of 100% wool. One could falsely state that the sweater is not solid blue, but red, green, or dozens of other colors, or one could say that its color is not solid, but a combination of colors in stripes, checks, and so forth. One could also claim that the sweater is not a v-neck, but a button-down or that it has a zipper, and so on. Likewise, a person could falsely state that the sweater is made of cotton, polyester, or dozens of other materials or combinations of materials. Thus, wherever there is only one truth, there can be many falsehoods.

[9] B.T. Shabbath 55A and B.T. Yoma 69B.

[10] The Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters, but if the five final forms (ךםןףץ) are included, they become twenty-seven. If one includes final Kaf (ך) when counting from Alef (א), then there are thirteen letters before Mem (מ). If one includes final Mem (ם), Nun (ן), Fay (ף), and Tzadi (ץ) when counting from Mem (מ), then Tav (ת) is the thirteenth letter.

[11] All created things have contingent existence — they exist only because Hashem wills them into existence. By contrast, nothing causes Hashem to exist, so His existence is absolute.

[12] B.T. Sanhedrin 97A.

[13] B.T. Shabbath 104A.

[14] The Maharal understands “Rav Tavoth” not as a proper name but as a descriptive term meaning “much good” (רֹב טֹבוֹת), or “exemplary.”

[15] B.T. Pesachim 2A.

[16] Proverbs 6:23 כִּי נֵר מִצְוָה וְתוֹרָה אוֹר וְדֶרֶךְ חַיִּים תּוֹכְחוֹת מוּסָר

[17] The matter which makes up earth is dense and therefore dark. The matter which forms water is less dense, so it is more spiritual and luminescent. Air consists of even less dense matter and is therefore even clearer. The fire above, i.e., outer space, is so far removed from physicality that the stars shine through it as if there is nothing there at all (Maharal, Ner Mitzvah p. 24).

[18] Geneis 1:5 וַיִּקְרָא אֱ-לֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם וְלַחשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד

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