Is an overstatement a lie?‎

Devorim

‎ 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. ‎

Amplification

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’‎

Embellishment

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. ‎

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