The Ethics of Cheating – The Jewish View

by: Rabbi Gershon H. Fluk

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at 1, 1, 1987, pp. 9-11. Reprinted here with permission.
Lengthy conversations with some groups of students, graduates, parents and teachers, as well as our own observations, have convinced us that cheating is extensive among some students in our school. Students cheat by obtaining the answers prior to or during examinations, by giving answers to fellow students either actively or passively during tests, or by bringing to the examination material that will help them answer the question. This cheating and dishonesty takes place not only in tests but also in short- and long-term projects and daily homework.
Students give various reasons for cheating. To begin with, they consider the main purpose of high school to be preparation for the best universities and ultimately for highly rewarding careers. As such, what really counts, according to their thinking, is high grades, an excellent transcript that will admit them to the university of their choice. The students feel that they are in a very competitive environment in our school and that they must also compete with students outside the school. In the effort to keep up and remain competitive, the temptation to cheat is great. Cheating, some students admit, is simply a much easier way of obtaining a decent grade than studying for a test or working hard at assignments and homework. Equally startling is the feeling on the part of the students that everyone else is cheating both in school and in the wider society and therefore, why should they be different? “Cheating is the right thing to do if you want to succeed,” one student said. “What is wrong is getting caught.” Although there are no statistics, this seems to be the sentiment of many. Our students simply have too many models, both in and out of school, of dishonesty.
The Hebrew Academy is first and foremost a Torah institution. In addition to striving for academic excellence, our primary purpose is to instill in our students the values and ethics of the Torah. Our goals in life must be different than those of society at large. We want our students to succeed materially and professionally, but without sacrificing or even compromising our religious and ethical values. Here is a brief summary of the Torah’s view of Emet and Sheker, honesty and dishonesty, and its implications with regard to cheating in school.
Emet, usually translated as Truth, has a much broader meaning than the English word “truth” implies. Emet is not simply the opposite of “falsity”; it is the opposite of deceit, of insincerity, of dishonesty. Emet encompasses all that is right, just, sincere, honest – and true.
The teachings of the Tanach and our sages are replete with the concept that G-d is Emet: The Chumash tells us that one of the attributes of G-d is Emet (Exodus 34:6). The prophet Jeremiah declares: “ה’ אלקים אמת”, “G-d the L-rd is Emet” (Jeremiah 10:10). And we find in the Talmud (Shabbat 55a) that “חותמו של הקב”ה אמת”, “The signature of the Holy One, blessed by He, is Emet.” Our sages also note that the letters of Emet (Aleph, Mem and Tav) are respectively the first, middle and last letters of the Aleph-Bet, thus encompassing everything.
If G-d’s name is Emet, it stands to reason that the Torah which He gave us is also Emet: King David declares in several places that both the Torah and its commandments are Emet (e.g. Psalms 119:142, 151) and the Talmud says in Brachot 5b: “אמת זו תורה”  “Emet is Torah.” To our sages the foundation of our world, of society’s very existence, rests on Emet: The Midrash (Breshith Rabba 1) says that the creation of the world was, from the beginning, with Emet: “מתחלת ברייתו של עולם ראש דברך אמת” “From the beginning of the creation of the world, your first words were truth.” And in Pirkei Avot 1:18, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: “על שלשה דברים העולם קיים: על האמת, ועל הדין, ועל השלום”
Our sages taught that the purpose of our creation is to imitate the attributes of G-d, to follow the dicta of the Torah and to create an everlasting, just society. They urge us (Shabbat 133b; Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 1:6) to strive to conduct our lives with the same qualities -including Emet – which G-d ascribes to Himself.
We are urged in Proverbs 23:23: 77, “Acquire truth and do not sell it.” The value of Emet is clear: “שופט אמת תיכון לעד, ועד ארגיעה לשון שקר” “That which is true will last forever, but that which is false will last a short time” (Proverbs 12:19). One form of the pursuit of Emet is the pursuit of Justice: “צדק צדק תרדוף” “Justice, justice, shall you pursue…” (Deuteronomy 48:20). The person who pursues Emet is considered wise and righteous; he is the ideal man. The society that he builds will be just and last forever.
In contrast to Emet, there is Sheker, that which is false, dishonest and misrepresentative. If the pursuit of G-d and Torah is the pursuit of Emet and the foundation of the society depends upon Emet, then Sheker is the negation of all these pursuits.
Dishonesty is considered a corrosive personality trait that will lead to animosity and hatred amongst men and ultimately will cause the destruction of society (Maharsha Shabbat 104a). The Torah commands us: “מדבר שקר תרחק”  “From a false matter you shall keep far” (Exodus 23:7). “לא תגנבו ולא תכחשו ולא תשקרו איש בעמיתו”  “You shall not steal, neither shall you deal falsely, nor lie one to another” (Lev. 19:11). A person who tells lies will not be in G-d’s presence (See Sotah 42a from Psalms 101:7). Just as G-d delights in Emet, “Sheker is abominable to Him” (Proverbs 12:22); and “The wicked man does the work of Sheker “רשע עושה פעולת שקר”.
Our sages, examining the way Emet and Sheker, “אמת שקר”, are written, saw the following contrasts:
Why are the letters of sheker close to one another in the Alef-Bet (the letters Kuf, Reish and Shin are in sequence) whereas the letters of Emet are far from one another (Aleph, Mem and Tav are the first, middle and last letters of the Aleph-Bet)? Because deceitfulness is common and widespread (easy to do, according to the Yalkut, Breshit 3), whereas truth is uncommon (difficult to perform, according to the Yalkut). And why does each letter in the word Sheker rest on one leg, while the letters of Emet rest on a base of two legs? Because truth stands forever, but falsity will not last (Shabbat 104a).
What is the practical implication of the Torah’s view of Emet and Sheker with regard to the issue of cheating in school?
Dishonesty between individuals can manifest itself as outright theft of property in such transactions as buying and selling or in the less tangible form of misrepresentation. In the latter case, one individual lies or cheats in order that another individual will think more highly of him. This form of dishonesty is גנבת דעת “stealing of one’s opinion”. Cheating in exams, school projects and homework falls in the realm of גנבת דעת  since no transaction takes place. Classically, our commentators and Poskim (see Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228:1) have defined גנבת דעת to mean causing an individual to think that you have done some good for him, that you think highly of him or that you are concerned about his welfare, when, in reality, such is not the case. You are seeking to have someone consider you a better person than you are and are, thus, stealing his good opinion. Other Poskim, including the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z”l, expand the definition of גנבת דעת  to include any falsification, even if it does not involve pretending to do a favour, faking a good opinion of someone else or showing false concern. Hence, any falsification of what you are or have accomplished is גנבת דעת. Any form of cheating is prohibited, according to Rabbi Feinstein.
The Tosefta (Baba Batra Chap. 7) states that of the seven types of thieves the worst is the one who steals the opinion of others. Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arai T’shuva Le Rabbeinu Yonah Chap. 184) restates that גנבת דעת  is much more serious than other stealing, גנבת דעת  is a deceitful act, understood by our sages to be corrupting of one’s personality, rendering one unreliable and untrustworthy (Sanhedrin 89b). One act of falsification gives birth to another and perhaps to greater acts of dishonesty (Shocher Tov Psalms 7).
The halachic prohibition against גנבת דעת  comes essentially from two specific sources. The first source is the verse  “לא תגנבו ולא תכחשו ולא תשקרו איש בעמיתו” “You shall not steal, neither shall you deal falsely, nor lie one to another” (Leviticus 19:11). The Ritvah, in the name of the Tosafot, learns (Chulin 94a) that the prohibition of גנבת דעת is derived from this verse. “You shall not steal” covers any form of stealing, including stealing opinion and stealing from anyone including the non-Jew. There, thus, exists a direct Biblical prohibition of גנבת דעת according to the Ritvah. The second source of the prohibition is the statement made by Shmuel (Chulin 94a): “אסור לגנוב דעת הבריות ואפילו דעת עכו”ם” .
The Rambam codifies the above statement in at least two places. In Hilchot De’ot (chap. 2:6) the Rambam states:
It is forbidden for a person to conduct himself with others with smooth and deceitful words. And a person should not speak in one way and feel in his heart differently, but his inside should be like the outside, so that that which is in his heart is that which is spoken. And it is forbidden to steal the opinion of others and even the opinion of the gentile….
Similarly, in Hilchot Mechirah (chap. 18:1), the Rambam states:
It is forbidden to lie to people in transactions or to steal their opinion, and a gentile and a Jew are equal in this matter. If a person knows that what he is selling is defective, he should inform the purchaser. And even to steal the opinion of others with words is forbidden.
The late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z”l, is quite emphatic about the prohibition of cheating on exams. Cheating on exams is גנבת דעת  because the student who cheats does so in order to be considered a better student. Teachers will think he is smart, which may not be the case; they will think he/she studied hard, which was not the case. Colleges and universities will admit him or places of employment will hire him, instead of taking someone else who has lower marks because he did not cheat. The student cheating does not pretend to do someone a favour or show false concern for another person, as in the classical case of גנבת דעת . His dishonesty and deceit in pretending to have accomplished something he has not is for his own personal benefit. Nevertheless, Rabbi Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, Siman 30) insists that cheating on exams is גנבת דעת and, as such, is explicitly forbidden by the Torah.
Rabbi Feinstein gives two other grounds for the prohibition of dishonesty in exams: first, it is against the law, Dina deMalchuta. Jews are required by Halacha to obey the law of the land and cheating is against the law. Second, there exists another Biblical prohibition because cheating on exams may lead to the stealing of money. If an employer hires a person because of the person’s outstanding grades, not knowing that these grades were accomplished through deceit, the employer will pay top money to a person who does not deserve it. The person is, in effect, taking money which does not belong to him.
The Hebrew Academy seeks to inculcate in its students the value of learning for its own sake. In both secular and Jewish subjects, we would have our students strive to acquire knowledge, skills, attitudes and values rather than mere grades and transcripts. We hope that this summary of the Jewish views on Emet and Sheker and on the Halachic prohibition against גנבת דעת and cheating on exams will sensitize everyone to the need to strive for honesty.