In the past few months, 20 students have been charged with accepting payment or paying others to take the SAT and ACT exams. Although the students all attended schools in Nassau County, NY, it is believed that such cheating occurs throughout the country. While we hope that nothing of the sort takes place in yeshivos (Jewish schools), it is nevertheless important to ingrain in our minds and those of our children that Jewish law prohibits deceiving others.
From a halachic perspective, there are many reasons why cheating on exams is wrong. First, it may entail actual theft. For example, if a student receives a scholarship due to high exam grades achieved through cheating, he is essentially stealing the scholarship money.(1) Furthermore, cheating on a test constitutes geneivas da’as–deception,(2) because it conveys the false impression that the examinee is knowledgeable in the material tested.(3) Geneivas da’as is considered worse than actual stealing, because one who deceives can become so entangled in lies that he would even try to fool God if he could.(4) Also, God particularly despises falsehood.(5)
But even more than the “legal” problems with cheating on exams, such deception is contrary to the fundamental traits of a Jew. As we see in this week’s parsha, Toldos, Esav engaged in deception in order to ensure that he would receive his father Yitzchak’s blessing.(6) Esav gave the impression that he was meticulous in the service of God, while in truth, he did not observe His commandments.(7) Like those who cheat on exams, Esav believed that he could achieve success through trickery. In the end, however, Yitzchak recognized Esav’s deception and bestowed the blessings upon Yaakov, the epitome of honesty.(8) We, the descendants of Yaakov must ensure that honesty remains one of our core values, and that our children understand that success cannot come through deception.
(2) The literal meaning of the term geneivas da’as is “stealing the mind.”
(3) See Hershey H. Friedman, Geneivat Da’at: The Prohibition Against Deception in Today’s World, at JLaw.com (applying the rules of geneivas da’as to modern society); R. Moshe Feinstein, supra note 1.
(5) See Rabbeinu Yonah, Sha’arei Teshuvah §§ 179, 184-85.
(6) Ohr HaChaim, Genesis 25:28.
(7) Rashi, Genesis 25:28.
(8) See Commentary of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch to Genesis ch. 27 (explaining that the whole purpose of Yaakov’s apparent “deception” of his father to receive the blessings was intended to help Yitzchak recognize that it was Esav who was the actual deceiver).