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What's the difference between these 'falses' (שקר and שוא?), how does one distinguish them from one another?

Exodus 20:16 עד שקר Exodus 23:1 שמע שוא Exodus 23:7 שקר Deuteronomium 5:20 עד שוא

Or are these kind of testimonies and utterings the same?

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Short answer

שֶׁקֶר and שָׁוְא are partially synonymous. שֶׁקֶר is a lie. שָׁוְא carries multiple related meanings - lie, false, null, nothing, for nothing, vain etc.

  • עֵד שָׁקֶר - Loosely "Liar witness", synonymous to עֵד שָׁוְא.
  • שֵׁמַע שָׁוְא - Seems to mean either "Liar witness" or "False witness".

Long answer

שָׁוְא

Pronounced "Shav". Can be translated to:

I found the word 204 times in the Bible, and the meaning varies according to the context.

שֶׁקֶר

Pronounced "Sheker".

שֶׁקֶר is a lie, שקרן is a liar, שבועת שקר is perjury (literally - "lie oath").

There word appears 391 times in the bible. It seems that most of the times it carries the meaning of a plain lie.

  • thank you, P.s. I thought there might be a little nuance between the form of the lie or falsehood presented by each word. First I was thinking of something like Falsity vs Lie. But it seems to be more subtle. One שקר seems to be about twisting the truth, leaving out parts of truth, or just telling parts of truth etc. which simply sum up means lying. But the other seem to be more a kind of lie made out of thin air, without a base or proper arguments; they are vain, null, made up and false. What do you think? – Levi Dec 31 '16 at 21:15
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    Welcome to the site Adam. Thanks for the answer. Note that questions about the Hebrew language are of-topic here. This question is only on topic inasmuch as it asks about the definition of Biblical phrases and laws. To answer such a question, authoritative sources should be cited; not just modern Hebrew equivalents. Consider learning more about the site from this short Beginners' Guide: meta.judaism.stackexchange.com/a/3887/8775. – mevaqesh Jan 1 '17 at 0:44
  • @mevaqesh - Thanks for the clarification, will certainly do. – Adam Matan Jan 1 '17 at 6:22
  • @Levi I think you got it right. – Adam Matan Jan 1 '17 at 6:23
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The Gemara in Shavuos 21a says

מיתיבי אי זו היא שבועת שוא נשבע לשנות את הידוע לאדם שבועת שקר נשבע להחליף אימא נשבע ומחליף

What is a שבועת שוא? That is to change what is known to man. [What is a] שבועת שקר? Someone who makes an oath to change. Rather say, he makes an oath and changed.

Rashi says:

נשבע להחליף - לשנות את האמת בשבועתו היינו לשעבר כגון אכלתי ולא אכל לא אכלתי ואכל:

אימא נשבע ומחליף - נשבע לעשות ואחר כך החליף את דברו ולא עשה או שלא לעשות ועשה:

Makes and oath to change - to change the truth with his oath about the past. For example, [he says] 'I ate', but he didn't eat. 'I didn't eat' [but] he did.

Rather say makes an oath and changes - He makes an oath to do something and then changes his words and doesn't do. Or [he makes an oath] not to do [something] and he does.

The Malbim explains שוא

שגדר השוא בדיוק הוא דבר שאין בו ממש שנדע לכל שאין ממש בדבריו

The parameter of שוא exactly is something that has no substance, that it is known to all there is no substance to his words.

And he explains שקר

ששקר הוא היפך המציאות

That שקר is the opposite of the reality.

שקר would be something that has some benefit or substance to it in some facet, whether the speaker gains something by the lie, or the lie could possibly be true or is true in some facet. שוא lacks any sort of benefit or substance to it.

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According to the Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew based on the commentaries of Samson Raphael Hirsch by Mattityahu Clark, the root שוא means to lack value and content (e.g. vanity; taking G-d's Name in vain), whilst the root שקר means to lie deliberately or to express falsehood.

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