In this week’s Torah portion of Bo, Moshe warns about the plague of the firstborn which is set to strike at midnight. “Moshe said, ‘So said Hashem, at about midnight I shall go out in the midst of Egypt’” (Shemos 11:4).
The Gemara in Brachos 4a relates that Moshe knew exactly what time chatzos, midnight was so why did he say “about midnight”? “Rabbi Zeirasaid: Moshe certainly knew when it was midnight… since Moshe knew the precise moment of midnight, why did he say: About midnight, instead of: At midnight? Moshe did so because he maintained: Lest Pharaoh’s astrologers err and believe midnight to be earlier. Since no disaster would have occurred, they would say: Moshe is a liar. Moshe spoke in accordance with the principle articulated by the Master (Derech Eretz Zuta chapter 3): Accustom your tongue to say: I do not know, lest you become entangled in a web of deceit.” Rashi adds that one will be drawn by and stumble in his words. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Moshe knew exactly when midnight was, but he didn’t want to say it with confidence, and rather just said at about midnight the last plague will strike Egypt in order to not be branded a liar by the Egyptian astrologers who didn’t know how to calculate when midnight was, exactly. Therefore, it is better to say something which is in essence an “I don’t know but…” in order to not get swept up in accusations of dishonesty or insincerity.
However, Tosfos (the 4th on daf 3b) in this gemara wonders, “Why couldn’t Moshe say ‘at midnight’ as they told him from Heaven, for it was the truth what they told him?” Tosfos answers something very profound, “One can answer, that he did not want to tell them something that he could not rule on and prove himself if they would ask him to.”
We should truly analyze and contemplate Tosfos’ question, so that we can really appreciate what he is asking. It says in the beginning of Orchos Tzadikim, Gate of Truth, “The soul is created from the place of the Holy Spirit, as it is said, “And breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). And it is hewn out from a place of purity, and it is created from the supernal radiance, from the Throne of Glory. And in the realm above, in the place of the Holy of Holies, there is no falsehood. There everything is truth, as it is said, ‘”But the Hashem G-d is the true G-d” (Jer. 10:10). I have found written, ‘I am that I am’ ** Hebrew: Eheyeh asher Eheyeh. (Ex. 3:14). And it is also written, ‘And the Hashem G-d is the true ‘ (Hebrew: emes.) G-d, He is the living G-d and everlasting King” (Jer. 10:10). And now it is important to make it known to you that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is the G-d of Truth. For you will find twenty-one times the word EHEYEH which is, by computation of letters, the numerical equivalent of Emes (Truth). And you will also note that EHEYEH (the Name of the Eternal) is by computation of letters, also twenty-one (the numerical value of Emes being 441 or 21 times21). G-d made man to be upright (see Eccl. 7:29), and the seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is Truth (Shabbath 55a and see Sanh. 1:5). And it is written, “He that speak falsehood shall not be established before my eyes” (Ps. 101:7). When a man occupies himself with falsehood, then the falsehood does not cleave to the truth. And where there is Truth is as though one were able to describe it as the place of His dwelling in the Heavens and directed towards mankind, for where there is Truth among mankind, then everyone concedes that He made heaven and earth and the sea and all they contain.” If the Truth is Divine, and if Moshe received the truth from Heaven, even by angels, then it is obviously correct; so who cares if the Egyptian astrologers might make a mistake and think it was a lie? Yet the truth is truth and is so special and godly it should not be denied and expressed differently other than in its pure form! (Click here for Hebrew text.)
However, based on Tofos’ answer, it must be that the standards of speaking the truth are different in this world, on earth, than in Heaven. We see from here that because we live in a finite, physical world, obstructed from the pure truth, then if we aren’t muchrach, which means that if we can’t prove and defend what we know to be the truth, then there is something lacking by us speaking about what we know, ourselves, to be the truth. Therefore it is better to say I don’t know, or the like. For if you can’t prove it then you will ultimately come to make up something and be snared in what will turn into a lie, since you don’t know with conviction what you hold as truth and what is in fact truth.
The lesson to be learned from this is that by saying “I don’t know” or in this case “about midnight” is in fact the truth since Moshe in this case knew he could not prove what he knew to be true.