Our vernacular is peppered with hyperbole. While some cultures have strong tendencies to enhance their speech with clichés, idioms etc… no tongue is absolutely free from embellishing their speech. To cite a few common examples:
“I’ll eat my hat”
“If I’ve answered this question once, I’ve answered it a thousand times”
“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”
“Thanks a million”
There are two possible types of overstatement that people use. It is necessary to differentiate between these two different classes. Although they are both distortions of the absolute truth, the underpinnings and motivations are not identical.
Rachel is inundated with prospective offers and overwhelmingly receives three invitations in a day. She tells her friend “I have had five requests in the last hour”. Rachel has exaggerated. In the figures presented she has increased the number of invites, and decreased the time span within they were offered, effectively boosting their frequency and magnifying her desirability. However this is not far-fetched and although unlikely it is still well within the realm of the possible.
This type of exaggeration is well described by Aristotle in his discussion of Alazon:
‘the boaster is regarded as one who pretends to have distinguished qualities which he possesses either not at all or to a lesser degree than he pretends…exaggerating’
Hyperbole, as defined by the dictionary, is used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is not meant to be taken literally. This brand of exaggeration is used as a rhetorical device or figure of speech to create emphasis or effect.
The rationale behind employing these metaphors is quite simplistic. While words are an indispensible tool to convey ideas they are unfortunately limited and inadequate. Among the contributing factors to this deficiency is that often vocabulary becomes overused. It is not uncommon to be in a position where language, as powerful as it is, sometimes lacks the passion and impact we desire. In order to convey our full impressions it is necessary that we exaggerate. The exaggeration is obviously untrue and the listener will get the message from the additional emphasis.
Let us take the following example of hyperbole from David Mahoney: “The bag weighed a ton.” The casual speaker is not trying to mislead the listener as to the actual weight of the bag. Hyperbole makes the point that the bag was very heavy, even though it probably does not weigh a ton. This method constitutes an extra effect to ensure the correct message is presented.
This technique is employed by the Torah to convey its message. Even our Toras Emes does not need to be brutally honest. In this week’s Parsha we find the Torah commenting about the Canaanite metropolises
“The cities are great and fortified up to heaven”
Rav Ami questions in the Talmud
“Do you think up to heaven? No; it is an exaggeration”.
The Torah wants to communicate that the cities of Canaan were enclosed with immense fortresses, which were militarily difficult to vanquish. To state the actual facts by saying ‘fortified cities’ would be grossly insufficient; the reader would fail to grasp the difficulty facing the battling Jews. Only by resorting to hyperbole the correct message would be presented to future generations. It is evidently obvious they weren’t literally ‘fortified to heaven’, but we do get the accurate impression that a formidable task faced those wishing to conquer the residents of Canaan.
In conclusion: Not all exaggerations are lies. Where it is self evident that it is to be understood figuratively, not factually it does not constitute a lie.