Speech and Lashon HaRah
When non-observant people talk about how difficult it is to observe Jewish law, they usually mention the difficulty
of observing Shabbat or keeping kosher or other similarly detailed rituals. Yet
the laws that are most difficult to keep, that are most commonly violated
even by observant Jews, are the laws regarding improper speech. This is a
very important area of Jewish law; entire books have been written on the
Judaism is intensely aware of the power of speech and of the harm that can
be done through speech. The rabbis note that the
universe itself was created through speech. Of the 43 sins enumerated in
the Al Chet confession recited on Yom Kippur, 11 are sins committed through speech.
The Talmud tells that the tongue is an instrument
so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective
walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.
The harm done by speech is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by
cheating someone financially, because amends can be made for monetary harms,
but the harm done by speech can never be repaired. For this reason, some
sources indicate that there is no forgiveness for lashon ha-ra (disparaging
speech). A Chasidic tale illustrates this
point: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done,
and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness,
saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man,
"Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds."
The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task,
and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done
it, the rabbi said, "Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no
more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect
Speech has been compared to an arrow: once the words are released, like an
arrow, they cannot be recalled, the harm they do cannot be stopped, and the
harm they do cannot always be predicted, for words like arrows often go astray.
There are two mitzvot in the Torah that specifically address improper speech:
Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Lev. 19:16),
and ye shall not wrong one another (Lev. 25:17, which according to tradition
refers to wronging a person with speech).
Tale-bearing is, essentially, any gossip. The Hebrew
word for tale-bearer is "rakheel"
(Resh-Kaf-Yod-Lamed), which is related to a word
meaning trader or merchant. The idea is that a tale-bearer is like a merchant,
but he deals in information instead of goods. In our modern "Information
Age," the idea of information as a product has become more clear than ever
before, yet it is present even here in the Torah.
It is a violation of this mitzvah to say
anything about another person, even it is true, even if it is not negative,
even if it is not secret, even if it hurts no one, even if the person himself
would tell the same thing if asked! It is said that the telling of gossip
leads to bloodshed, which is why the next words in the Torah are "you shall not stand aside while your fellow's
blood is shed." The story of Do'eig the Edomite (I Samuel Chs. 21-22) is
often used to illustrate the harm that can be done by tale-bearing. Do'eig
saw Achimelekh the Kohein give David bread
and a sword, a completely innocent act intended to aid a leading member of
Saul's court. Do'eig reported this to Saul. Do'eig's story was completely
true, not negative, not secret, and Achimelekh would have told Saul exactly
the same thing if asked (in fact, he did so later). Yet Saul misinterpreted
this tale as proof that Achimelekh was supporting David in a rebellion, and
proceeded to slaughter all but one of the kohanim at Nob.
The person who listens to gossip is even worse than the person who tells
it, because no harm could be done by gossip if no one listened to it. It
has been said that lashon ha-ra (disparaging speech) kills three: the person
who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told.
In Jewish law, all things are considered to be
secret unless a person specifically says otherwise. For this reason, you
will note that in the Torah, G-d constantly says to Moses, "Speak to the
Children of Israel, saying:" or "Speak to the Children of Israel and tell
them:" If G-d did not specifically say this to Moses, Moses would be forbidden
to repeat his words! Nor is there any time-limit on secrets. The Talmud tells the story of a student who revealed
a secret after 22 years, and was immediately banished from the house of study!
The gravest of these sins of tale-bearing is lashon ha-ra (literally, "the
evil tongue"), which involves discrediting a person or saying negative things
about a person, even if those negative things are true. Some sources indicate
that lashon ha-ra is equal in seriousness to murder, idol worship, and incest
and adultery (the only three sins that you may not violate even to save a life).
It is forbidden to even imply or suggest negative things about a person.
It is forbidden to say negative things about a person, even in jest. It is
likewise considered a "shade of lashon ha-ra" to say positive things about a person in the presence of his enemies,
because this will encourage his enemies to say negative things to contradict
One who tells disparaging things that are false is referred to as a motzi
sheim ra, that is, one who spreads a bad report. This is considered the lowest
of the low.
It is generally not a sin to repeat things that have been told "in the presence
of three persons." The idea is that if it is told in the presence of three
persons, it is already public knowledge, and no harm can come of retelling
it. However, even in this case, you should not repeat it if you know you
will be spreading the gossip further.
There are a few exceptional circumstances when tale-bearing is allowed, or
even required. Most notably, tale-bearing is required in a Jewish court of
law, because it is a mitzvah to give testimony
and that mitzvah overrides the general prohibition against tale-bearing.
Thus, a person is required to reveal information, even if it is something
that was explicitly told in confidence, even if it will harm a person, in
a Jewish court of law.
A person is also required to reveal information to protect a person from
immediate, serious harm. For example, if a person hears that others are plotting
to kill someone, he is required to reveal this information. That is another
reason why the commandment not to go about as a tale-bearer is juxtaposed
with "you shall not stand aside while your fellow's blood is shed."
In limited circumstances, one is also permitted to reveal information if
someone is entering into a relationship that he would not enter if he knew
certain information. For example, it may be permissible to tell a person
that his prospective business partner is untrustworthy, or that a prospective spouse has a disease. This exception
is subject to significant and complex limitations; however, if those limitations
are satisfied, the person with the information is required to reveal it.
In all of these exceptions, a person is not permitted to reveal information
if the same objective could be fulfilled without revealing information. For
example, if you could talk a person out of marrying for reasons other than the disease, you
may not reveal the disease.
Leviticus 25:17 says, "You shall not wrong one another." This has traditionally
been interpreted as wronging a person with speech. It includes any statement
that will embarrass, insult or deceive a person, or cause a person emotional
pain or distress.
Here are some commonly-used examples of behavior that is forbidden by this mitzvah:
- You may not call a person by a derogatory nickname, or by any other embarrassing
name, even if he is used to it.
- You may not ask an uneducated person for an opinion on a scholarly matter
(that would draw attention to his lack of knowledge or education).
- You may not ask a merchant how much he would sell something for if you have
no intention of buying.
- You may not refer someone to another person for assistance when you know
the other person cannot help (in other words, it's a violation of Jewish law to give someone the run-around!).
- You may not deceive a person, even if no harm is done by the deception; for
example, you may not sell non-kosher meat to a
non-Jew telling him that it is kosher, even though no harm is done to the
non-Jew by this deception.
- You may not sell a person damaged goods without identifying the damage, even
if the price you give is fair for the goods in their damaged condition.
- You may not offer a person a gift or invite a person to dinner if you know
that the person will not accept.
- You may not compliment a person if you do not mean it.