We usually think of this meaning that you’re not supposed to use God’s name in curse words, or throw it around willy-nilly. But Jewish law understands this mitzvah much more specifically to mean: “do not swear falsely in God’s name.” It’s about taking an oath: swearing to God that such-and-such is true when you know it’s not.
It’s interesting that, right after telling us that there is only one God and we shall have no other gods, the very next mitzvah is this one – not to swear falsely in God’s name – a mitzvah not about action, but about speech. Why is that?
Rabbi Eliyahu Touger says it has to do with the fact that we are created in God’s image. Just as God’s created the world through speech, we have the power to create and impact the world with our speech.
The bottom line: Our words matter.
When we lie, our words can cause serious harm to other people. And when we swear to the lie in God’s name, we make God an accomplice to our lie – and we do real damage to God’s reputation, too.
Of course, as much as we know we’re not supposed to lie, people do lie all the time. Sometimes they’re really bad lies. But sometimes, we tell what we like to call “white lies” – lies we rationalize to ourselves are OK, because they don’t really hurt anyone.
Knowing this, our sages required litigants in certain court cases to swear an oath in God’s name. They reasoned that someone who might otherwise tell a white lie thinking it won’t harm anyone, would be deterred if it meant implicating God in the lie – and they knew God was watching.
But what happens when people think God isn’t watching?
There was a recent psychological experiment about this. Participants were asked to flip a coin. If it landed on heads, their assignment would be to watch a funny video. If it landed on tails, they would have to solve a hard logic problem or puzzle. They were told that whichever task they ended up having to do, the next person would be asked to do the other task. Then, they were left alone in the room to flip the coin and do the assigned task.
What happened? Ninety percent of the participants cheated, and gave themselves the easier task without even flipping the coin. They even did this knowing that it would mean the next person would have to do the much harder task.
When confronted about their cheating, they admitted it – but they all came up with some rationale to justify it: “I had somewhere to be right afterward.” Or: “The next person is probably better at logic problems than I am.”
The authors of the study said when they asked participants if it would be immoral not to flip the coin, 100% of them said yes. Yet 90% ended up doing it anyway.
(You can read the article about this study by clicking here. The experiment I described is discussed toward the end of the article.)
I wonder: if they had been asked to swear an oath to God that they would flip the coin honestly, would that have helped?
I guess the question is: how serious are we today about not taking God’s name in vain?