One of the basic premises of the prohibition against loshon hora is that loshon hora causes damage. Jobs are lost, prospective shidduchim (marriage matches) are rejected, shalom bayis (harmony within the home) is shattered and friendships are dissolved. But causing damage is far from the only reason that loshon hora is forbidden.
The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that loshon hora which does not cause the slightest bit of damage is still considered 100 percent loshon hora. To focus on the shortcomings of another person is lowly, even when no harm results from it.
In reality, it is almost impossible for us to know for certain that the words we speak never cause damage. Words have a life of their own; once they are released into the world they can travel far and wide, and no one can be sure where they will end up. Many stories are told of information that became known years after the words were originally spoken, and which caused great damage.
Let us consider a piece of fairly harmless information which was discussed at a Shabbos table. David, a friend of one of the children at the table, missed a month of school for unknown reasons. In their curiosity, all six people gathered around the table suggested possible reasons for his absence. In years to come, these six people will find themselves at various other tables, in meetings and involved in random conversations. In some of these situations, David’s family name or David himself might come up in conversation. At one of these conversations, one of these six people might mention the information concerning David’s absence in the most innocuous way. He might add the possible reasons for his absence that he recalls hearing at the Shabbos table years earlier.
As the information is passed from person to person, more theories about why he was absent are spoken about as if they were fact. When David is ready to consider marriage, he finds himself hindered by various “reports” concerning his month-long absence in fifth grade. In fact, the “reports” hold no substance, but they are enough to convince many fathers that their daughters would be better off marrying someone with a “clean” medical history. Yes, words are very, very powerful.
The crucial point about humor is that its enjoyment is dependent upon which side of the joke you are on.
Think back to the last time a group of people laughed at you for some reason, telling you in all sincerity, “It was just a joke!” They may have laughed because you did something foolish, or because your boss jokingly said, “If you don’t get that report in by tomorrow, I guess you are going to be taking a long vacation.” Initially, you may have laughed along so as not to seem like a bad sport. Somehow, though, when you are on the receiving end, the remark is not at all amusing. And sometimes, you may get the feeling that the joke contains at least a kernel of truth.
It is this point that the Chofetz Chaim addresses. To the person who, after speaking loshon hora, says, “I’m joking; come on, I didn’t mean it!” the Chofetz Chaim says, “It is not a joke!” The person’s feelings are hurt. His esteem has been lowered. Words have power even when they are presented as a “joke.” Therefore, if a joke is derogatory in any way, it is forbidden.
In this segment the Chofetz Chaim focuses, once again, on the effect of our words. If one recounts a story and does not mention names, but through other details the listener may come to identify the subject of the story, it is considered loshon hora. Even if the story contains no negative information, but will eventually cause the subject to appear in a bad light, it is still forbidden. Delayed-reaction destruction is also destruction.
As we study the laws of shmiras haloshon in all their detail, we see again and again that Hashem has great displeasure when His children are portrayed in a negative light. Through these laws Hashem is telling us: “All of you are My children; please treat each other with respect and sensitivity.”
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim discusses several well-known misconceptions concerning loshon hora. To the person who says, “It is not loshon hora because it will never get back to the subject,” the Chofetz Chaim responds: It is forbidden anyway. Even if in reality the report will never get back to the person about whom you are speaking, it is nonetheless loshon hora in the full sense.
The second misconception is one of the primary excuses for speaking loshon hora: “This isn’t loshon hora; if he were here, I would say the exact same thing right to his face.” Unfortunately for the speaker, according to halachah, this excuse is entirely unacceptable. By making such statements in the subject’s presence, the speaker would transgress the additional sin of causing hurt through words (ona’as devarim) and possibly the grievous sin of embarrassment as well.
The Chofetz Chaim writes, however, that there are a few cases of statements where the subject’s reaction is taken into account.
“Miriam’s going to be late for our meeting,” a woman tells her co-worker. The statement seems to do nothing more than convey a simple fact. No judgments have been spoken as to whether or not it is bad that she is late.
The Chofetz Chaim says that whether or not such a statement is permissible would depend on how the subject would react if it was said in her presence. Here, we take into account the manner in which the statement was given over; i.e., the tone of voice, body motions, etc.
If the statement is said derisively, it is obviously forbidden. An example of this would be if the woman speaks in an anger-tinged tone that is filled with frustration: “Miriam’s going to be late for our meeting!” and then rolls her eyes upward, to complete the message of displeasure.
The ultimate loshon hora barometer is one simple criterion: If the statement comes across as derogatory, then the Torah demands restraint.
If one were to conduct an exit poll at the conclusion of a lecture, he might possibly hear dozens of varying opinions on how well the lecturer spoke. While many of the opinions might be positive, there is a likely chance that at least some would be negative. Criticisms might range from “He doesn’t delve into the subject matter enough,” to “It was so deep, I got lost.”
The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that when leaving a lecture, especially a Torah lecture, there is something we need to realize. Each person judges from his own vantage point. To people who are very knowledgeable, the lecture may not have been deep enough, while to those who lack that depth of knowledge, the lecture might have been too complex. Opinions in such matters are usually subjective. For every complainant about a lecture, there are many people who want exactly that type of delivery. The fact that someone did not enjoy it does not mean that it was not good: it means that the lecture did not suit his particular taste.
The Chofetz Chaim goes to great lengths to emphasize this because many people have the habit of criticizing lectures, unwittingly causing much damage to the lecturer’s reputation.
The halachah identifies a particular nature of the human psyche. We can express it as follows: If I have listened to a lecture and my friend denigrates it, then even if I enjoyed it, I will subsequently think less of the lecture and by extension, the speaker as well. Although at first dissatisfaction with the lecture was only my friend’s feeling, after he shares it with me, it will influence my opinion as well.
That people are entitled to their opinion is a principle held with near-religious fervor in any democracy. The Chofetz Chaim is not telling us that we should not have our own opinions or that we must enjoy every lecture we hear. What he is saying is that we are not allowed to verbalize our negative opinions without a constructive purpose.
Any salesman can tell you from experience that people are very uncomfortable saying “no.” They will come up with all types of ingenious excuses in order to avoid a flat refusal because they associate some sort of guilt with an outright negative response. If this is true when rejecting a product, it is surely the case when rejecting someone’s candidacy for a position.
The Chofetz Chaim cautions us that when this tendency is manifest after committee meetings, where the fate of an employee, teacher, or new vendor has been decided, the results can be destructive.
When the committee meeting results in a rejection of a potential employee and certainly of an existing employee, the natural human reaction of each member is to shift the blame and avoid taking any responsibility for the rejection. One short sentence accomplishes this:
“I really wanted you, but what could I do— I was outvoted!”
Such a statement is a most dangerous form of loshon hora. Because such meetings may very well decide a person’s future, blaming someone for the decision may, quite possibly, plant the seeds of strife.
Another case in point is when a committee has to judge a dispute, as in a salary disagreement or a din Torah. The desire to avoid being blamed for a negative decision might prompt one to say: “Actually, I wanted to go easy on you, but Mr. Cohen controlled the meeting and he pushed it through.” Or without mentioning names one might say, “Well, I voted for you.” Such statements are forbidden.
It makes no difference, says the Chofetz Chaim, whether the meeting was “closed” or “open”; it is forbidden to disclose information concerning the voting. Even if the person who was rejected were to insult you, and even if you actually voted for him, it is forbidden to reveal anything. Even if the person pressures you intensely, merely to find out who voted in his favor, it is forbidden to reveal anything, because he will learn who voted against him by deduction.
The laws of loshon hora are Hashem’s blueprint for human interaction. By following them faithfully, one will remove the potential for strife, hatred and anger in his or her life. A committee meeting to decide the future of a person’s employment is an atmosphere charged with tension and ripe for strife. Sometimes hurtful decisions need to be made, but if the committee takes a unified stand so that no one is blamed for the decision, then the fallout of these meetings will be kept to a minimum.
If you have ever been present while a group of people discuss someone in depth, you have probably observed the great human impulse toward amateur psychoanalysis. Such discussions usually include not only the subject’s faults and problems, but also an extended analysis of his parents and friends and how they impacted on his personality. When the group is intent on guaranteeing that their “armchair analysis” is complete, they make sure to carefully analyze every member of the subject’s immediate family.
To spare every Jew the “benefit” of such unsolicited analysis, the Torah forbids us to discuss past faults or transgressions of a person or his family.
Generally, there are two variations of this kind of loshon hora. One is clearly derogatory:
“Did you know her mother? I knew her mother. If you knew her mother then you would understand everything about her!”
The other example is what’s commonly called “a backhanded compliment:”
“Look how far she’s come in straightening out her life!”
Even if the person’s less-than-admirable past is widely known, it is forbidden to allude to it if it is degrading to the person. Emphasizing that the person has come “a long way” in his mitzvah observance does not make this permissible, nor does the fact that your intention is to compliment him.
In forthcoming segments, we will discuss what to do when shidduch (suggested marriage match) information is needed. Generally speaking, however, negative information about parents or family should not be reported unless it could have a direct bearing on the party’s marriage (such as health or emotional stability).
The Torah judges statements concerning one’s past according to the impact they will have upon the listener. In the above cases, past information will cause people to lower their opinion of the subject. Often, this is all that is needed to tip the balance against a prospective shidduch or job application. In the Torah’s view, this would be unfortunate and unnecessary. Just as Hashem judges each of us according to our present level, and He does not hold us accountable for our ancestors’ or our own past misdeeds (assuming we have repented), so too, are we expected to evaluate our fellow Jew according to his present level.
Someone speaks loshon hora before a crowd of ten people, one of them being yourself. Later, you overhear two of the listeners relating the information. Following the rule of “api tlasa” (which we discussed earlier), it would seem that you should certainly be allowed to mention this information in everyday conversation.
Not necessarily, says the Chofetz Chaim.
If the speaker specifically told his listeners that he does not want the information to go any further, then no one is permitted to repeat it. This applies even if two or more of the listeners have already ignored the instruction.
While the Chofetz Chaim is discussing a case involving loshon hora, it is important to note that any information revealed in confidence should not be repeated.
The reason for this is obvious. Revealing a secret can have the same negative effects as common loshon hora. If a person tells you, “I have a great business idea,” and you pass this information on to others, someone may come along and make use of the idea. So harmful are such leaks that large corporations spend heavily on security to protect their private information.
Another potential fallout of divulging secrets is the risk of creating bad feelings. For example:
Your sister informs you confidentially that she is planning to buy a house. A few days later, you casually mention this to your brother. What you did not anticipate is that your brother feels insulted because your sister did not tell him this piece of news. Just as with rechilus (gossip), information which is related in confidence can cause animosity when passed on to another party.
Generally speaking, when someone is told personal information, he should not repeat it even if the speaker did not mention that it is confidential. This is the only sure way to avoid potential damage. What is seemingly a harmless piece of information may be explosive when repeated to someone else. For example:
If your sister were to tell you that she purchased an expensive painting, this would seem to be a harmless piece of information. However, when such information is repeated to your sister’s close friend, it might have a very negative effect, because your sister has recently refused her friend a loan on the grounds that she has no money to spare.
However, personal information may be repeated when it was said in front of three people (and the speaker did not request that it be held in confidence). By speaking in the presence of three, the speaker has shown that he does not mind if the information goes further.
From these laws we learn that seemingly innocuous statements have the power to cause tremendous harm. Through shmiras haloshon our words will not bring about unintended hurt or animosity among our family and friends.
The Chofetz Chaim continues to outline the limitations to the Rambam’s heter (license) called “Api Tlasa” (in the presence of three).
If the three listeners were sincerely devout Jews who totally refrain from any form of loshon hora, it is almost certain that the information will not spread further. Therefore, api tlasa would not apply. Furthermore, the Chofetz Chaim rules that even if only one of the three is known to avoid any form of loshon hora, there is no longer a group of three poised to circulate the information. We then view the situation as if the information were disclosed to only two people, in which case the license of api tlasa does not apply.
The same applies if one of the three is a relative or close friend of the subject of the loshon hora. Given his loyalty to that person, it is unlikely that he will spread derogatory information about him. In this case, too, there is no basis to allow the others to repeat the information.
The leniency of api tlasa is also limited geographically. Information about someone in a community is likely to spread within his community; it is not likely to be of interest elsewhere. Therefore, only within that community can we assume that the information will become publicized and only there does the license of api tlasa apply. In a case of unusually shocking information, which is of interest even outside the immediate community, the license would extend as far as the information could be expected to circulate.
Given all of these limitations, it is clear that the license of api tlasa is rarely applicable. In addition, it is subject to dispute: many poskim (authorities of Jewish law) disagree with the Rambam’s interpretation. Therefore, the Chofetz Chaim concludes that we should avoid making use of this license altogether.
In the previous segment, we were introduced to the license of “api tlasa,” which is widely misunderstood. The Chofetz Chaim sees this as a major pitfall in the observance of shmiras haloshon. The Chofetz Chaim demonstrates that the conditions for the license of api tlasa are virtually impossible to meet. He therefore warns us against relying on this license.
As we all know, it is virtually impossible to keep something secret once it has been told to a group. This is the basis for the Rambam’s approach to the Talmud’s discussion of api tlasa, which permits a person to repeat information that has been said in the presence of three or more people. A group of three is considered a public forum, and whatever is said in such a setting is certain to become publicized. Therefore, someone who repeats the information is not really causing any harm, because whoever hears it from him would have heard it anyway. Accordingly, writes the Rambam, information heard by three or more people is not subject to the prohibition of loshon hora.
However, as we have mentioned, this license is subject to many limitations, which the Chofetz Chaim delineates.
Repeating the information is permitted only if the topic happens to come up in conversation and if the information is related in a matter-of-fact manner. However, even the Rambam agrees that it is absolutely prohibited to repeat the derogatory information for the purpose of spreading it or disgracing the person involved.
Furthermore, this license applies only to those who were among the three or more present when the information was originally disclosed. Someone who hears the information from one of these people is forbidden to spread it further. Thus, if Reuven relates Shimon’s misdeed to Levi, Yehuda and Binyamin, only they can repeat it by relying on the license of api tlasa. For anyone else to do so would be forbidden.
The next segment will discuss another condition which the Chofetz Chaim sets forth regarding the laws of api tlasa.
The Chofetz Chaim gives us many deep spiritual reasons which explain the destructiveness of loshon hora. But to study what loshon hora really does we must enter the mind of the mekabel, the listener of loshon hora. If the listener had a positive or neutral opinion of the subject before the fateful conversation, it is virtually certain that after hearing the derogatory statement (even without verifying its truth) he now has a lowered opinion of the person.
Simply stated, when one speaks loshon hora, one damages the reputation of a fellow Jew.
The Chofetz Chaim analyzes the ramifications of speaking loshon hora before a group. If a person speaks loshon hora before ten people, for example, he has done much more than harm his subject one time. He has damaged his reputation ten times!
The larger the audience, the more sins accrued. This is why loshon hora stands virtually alone in its potential for accumulating sins.
The Chofetz Chaim also cites the famous Talmudic case of “api tlasa”, in the presence of three, where derogatory information was spoken in the presence of three or more people. Because this halachah is widely misunderstood, the Chofetz Chaim deals with it early in this work.
The license of api tlasa exists only in very specific cases. A statement which would otherwise be forbidden because it might be loshon hora may be permitted if stated before three people. This is because a statement heard by three people will, in all likelihood, find its way to the ears of the subject. This factor allows us to assume that the statement, which has both a positive and a negative interpretation, was actually meant in a positive way, and therefore is not loshon hora.
Many people have fallen victim to loshon hora by erroneously thinking, “If I say something derogatory about someone in public it is not prohibited, due to the principle of api tlasa.” This could not be further from the truth. To the contrary, the larger the crowd when a statement is made, the more the subject’s reputation is damaged and the greater the transgression of speaking loshon hora.
Therefore, the Chofetz Chaim goes to great lengths to clarify this issue. He offers the following case:
A stranger arrives in town and asks a group of people where he can get food. Someone tells him, “Levi always has food cooking on his stove.” These words can be understood in opposite ways. Either the person is generous and always has guests, or he is always eating. Because this statement can be understood negatively, if it had not been spoken in front of three people, it would be classified as avak loshon hora (the dust of loshon hora) and would be forbidden. The law of api tlasa says that a person would not make a derogatory remark about someone if he knew that it would get back to the subject. When there are at least three people listening, we can assume that one of them will report the statement to its subject. Therefore, in the Chofetz Chaim’s example, we should assume that the speaker meant to say, “Levi is generous and always has guests.” However, in a case where the statement is definitely derogatory, the license of api tlasa does not apply.
You are sitting at a wedding and some people at your table begin denigrating someone. One person turns to you and says, “Didn’t you go to school with him? Was he always this way?”
Now you are faced with a test. Will you attempt to change the topic, or do you succumb and add your piece of loshon hora to the conversation?
A difficult test? Perhaps. But it will surely be made easier if you give thought to the following advice from the Chofetz Chaim.
Take stock of what you are about to do. If you remain strong and refuse to speak loshon hora, there may be people who will consider you self righteous — something that anyone would want to avoid. On the other hand, if you falter and speak loshon hora, you will have much more to deal with, for you will face embarrassment in the World of Truth, before the King of all Kings, Hashem.
The Chofetz Chaim quotes the teaching of our Sages: “Better to be considered a fool your entire life than to have Hashem think of you as a rasha (wicked person) for even a moment.”
The Chofetz Chaim adds that it is precisely regarding such situations, where one feels pressured to speak loshon hora and does not succumb, that our Sages say, ”For every moment that a person closes his mouth [and refrains from speaking loshon hora] he merits a hidden light that no angel or earthly creature can fathom.”
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim teaches us about non-verbal loshon hora, the type we refer to as “body language.” As we all know, a wink of the eye or a twitch of the nose can sometimes communicate major statements about someone’s personality or behavior. Such communication carries the full halachic weight of the prohibitions regarding loshon hora. Written loshon hora is also included in these prohibitions.
In concluding this opening chapter, which discusses common misconceptions about loshon hora, the Chofetz Chaim notes, “Even if you include yourself when denigrating someone, you have still spoken loshon hora.”
It is important to note that this type of loshon hora is forbidden even if the reputation of the speaker is also damaged. Including oneself in a derogatory remark does not make it permissible.
Imagine a situation involving a Torah-observant person who works at a large corporation. His boss calls him in one day and says, “There’s an industry meeting this Saturday in Pittsburgh and we need you to be there to represent us.” Certainly, the person would refuse to desecrate Shabbos even if this meant losing his job. Losing one’s source of livelihood is a very difficult matter, yet many would be happy to make this sacrifice for the sake of Shabbos. The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that, similarly, one should be prepared to lose his job rather than transgress the laws of loshon hora, which are prohibited by the Torah.
A person may find himself working for an employer who is perfectly comfortable with character defamation and slander, to the extent that he may view as a fool an employee who does not join in his verbal abuse, and he may be inclined to fire such a person.
This, in fact, is common with salesmen whose company’s standard sales strategy is to “knock” the competition. Honest salesmanship does not preclude saying, “My product has certain qualities that my competition lacks.” What is prohibited is criticizing the competition unnecessarily or by exaggeration.
Furthermore, when speaking loshon hora, one usually transgresses several Torah prohibitions. Each additional prohibition is another reason to undertake sacrifices rather than speak loshon hora.
If we could listen to the inner voice of a person who is willing to lose his job for the sake of Shabbos, we would hear him telling himself, “I understand that I am facing tremendous difficulties by giving up my job, but it is well worth it! How can I even think of desecrating Hashem’s precious day of Shabbos?” When faced with the test of loshon hora, our intuitive response should be the same: ”True, I am facing tremendous difficulties by refusing to participate in such conversations, but it is well worth it! How can I even think of transgressing these all-important commandments of Hashem? How can I entertain the possibility of taking part in that which is the primary cause of our current exile? No sacrifice is too great for the sake of shmiras haloshon!”
There is a particular statement in the opening chapter of Sefer Chofetz Chaim which seems puzzling. The Chofetz Chaim informs us: “Whatever I have said until now pertains to the occasional speaker of loshon hora, but if, God forbid, the person is a habitual speaker of loshon hora, that person is called a baal loshon hora and the punishment is far worse.”
What is puzzling is that the Chofetz Chaim seems to have changed the subject. We have been talking about the laws of loshon hora and suddenly the Chofetz Chaim is telling us about the punishment that a baal loshon hora receives!
If we delve deeper into the words of the Chofetz Chaim, we see that he is making a crucial point which we need to know from the outset.
There is a tendency among people to view loshon hora as less than a severe sin. If we were to inform someone that the food which he is eating might be non-kosher, he would spit it out immediately. For many people, loshon hora does not evoke the same revulsion. Yet the Chofetz Chaim equates speaking loshon hora with eating non-kosher food.
The Chofetz Chaim is communicating to us here that even an occasional bit of loshon hora is an incredibly destructive sin, both to the speaker and to the Jewish people as a whole. However, if a person goes further and incorporates loshon hora as a regular feature in his everyday speech, if he regularly seeks the bad in others, and complains about their shortcomings — then he is considered a “baal loshon hora” and has entered a new halachic realm.
The baal loshon hora is not just speaking loshon hora — he is denigrating a mitzvah in the Torah and flouting the word of Hashem. It is as if an Orthodox Jew who is careful in his mitzvah observance has just “one little bad habit” — he happens to eat breakfast every morning at McDonald’s.
It is obvious that the “Orthodox Jew” who eats at McDonald’s is not a truly observant Jew. The Chofetz Chaim informs us that someone who regularly speaks loshon hora, like any person who consistently ignores a Torah prohibition, is guilty of much more than committing an isolated sin. He is denying a part of Hashem’s Torah, and therefore casts doubt upon the validity of his entire mitzvah observance.
In the first chapter of Sefer Chofetz Chaim, some common myths concerning loshon hora are shattered.
The Chofetz Chaim begins by correcting the single biggest misconception, a point so crucial that it is expressed in the chapter’s very first words: It is forbidden to relate derogatory information about a person even if the information is true. The Chofetz Chaim continues: Our Sages, of blessed memory, define this activity as loshon hora. The recounting of true derogatory information about another is the classic case of loshon hora.
Each of us can recall a conversation in which someone told us loshon hora. If we could probe the mind of the speaker and study his rationale in relating something derogatory about a fellow Jew, we would likely find that he felt justified in repeating it since the information was true. If we were to suggest to the speaker that this is loshon hora, nine times out of ten he would respond, “But it’s true.”
Now, if this derogatory information were about the speaker’s brother, father, son or daughter, he would surely be much more reluctant to share it with us. The justification that “it’s true” would be overshadowed by the natural protective feeling we have for people whom we love.
The Chofetz Chaim begins his sefer by telling us, “It does not matter if it is true.” Hashem wants us to be as protective of every Jew’s reputation as if he or she were our own brother or sister. Just as one would be loathe to spread negative information about one’s sister or brother, regardless of the fact that the information is true, so too, should we be loathe to spread negative information about any Jew.
Once again, the Chofetz Chaim cites the negative commandment “You shall not go as a peddler of gossip among your people” (Vayikra 19:16), for this is the primary verse which prohibits speaking loshon hora.
The Chofetz Chaim paints the picture of a peddler with a sack slung over his shoulder. But instead of fruit or clothing, this sack contains negative information. The speaker of loshon hora is a peddler, who travels from person to person distributing his sinful wares. Though we don’t see ourselves as “peddlers,” almost any conversation containing loshon hora is one in which one person “delivers” to another,
negative information that he is carrying within his mind.
One of the main reasons why loshon hora is so despicable in the eyes of Hashem is because filling one’s mind with negative information and peddling it to others is a lowly act, and Hashem does not want Jews to act in a lowly way.
This segment concludes the Chofetz Chaim’s introduction to his sefer. Its overriding message is that this seemingly innocuous sin called loshon hora is so destructive to our service of Hashem that it is impossible to ignore its repercussions. The Chofetz Chaim concludes with his closing argument — a section on curses. Not only does a person stunt his spiritual growth and amass countless sins for himself by speaking loshon hora; he actually makes himself the object of two curses written in the Torah.
The first is “Cursed is one who strikes his fellow in secret” (Devarim 27:24). As Rashi explains, the speaker of loshon hora, who whispers derogatory information about others in private, is the subject of this verse.
If a commandment has become irrelevant to a person so that he totally ignores it, then he is included in the curse “Cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah to do them” (Devarim 27:26), and he is classified as a “rebel with regard to one sin.” When a person speaks loshon hora freely and without restraint, it is as if he is saying, “Hashem, You gave me many important things to do — Shabbos, kashrus, Torah study — but shmiras haloshon just does not fit into my particular lifestyle.” Regarding such an attitude, the Chofetz Chaim states,”his sin is too great to be borne” (c.f. Bereishis 4:13) — an expression used by Scripture and our Sages for very severe sins.
The Chofetz Chaim concludes: “And I ask you, my dear reader, to read and reread this Introduction, because more than anything else, it will help you succeed with shmiras haloshon.”
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Introduction: Positive Commandments 13-14
When relating the bad points of another person — especially when one becomes swept up in telling a story — it is natural to exaggerate for dramatic effect.
The Chofetz Chaim tells us that even one word of exaggeration constitutes a lie, and when it is spoken in a loshon hora conversation the speaker adds the violation of the commandment of “Distance yourself from falsehoo”(Shemos 23:7) to his list of transgressions.
The Rambam tells us (Hilchos Dei’os) that a person who exaggerates someone’s bad points is guilty of motzi shem ra, slander, a more severe form of loshon hora.
By requiring every one of us to observe these laws, Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, shows us the power of one word. In truth, we see this ourselves in everyday situations. For instance, if someone is asked for information regarding a shidduch (marriage match), there is a world of a difference between saying, “He is a quiet boy,” and saying, “He is a very quiet boy.” With that one word, a significantly different image of the boy is conveyed.
By saying that he is a quiet boy, the speaker characterizes the boy as thoughtful and reflective. But the description “very quiet” gives rise to the possibility that he is perhaps reclusive or dull. That one word, which very possibly is inaccurate, might be cause for this suggested shidduch to be rejected. This is what one word can do.
The Chofetz Chaim lists one final positive commandment that is transgressed when speaking loshon hora “And you shall walk in His [Hashem’s] ways” (Devarim 28:9). Hashem’s kindness is boundless; He is deeply pained when we speak badly of Jews, even those who are clearly wrong. Hashem’s way is to wait for people to repent. When we observe the actions of our fellow man, decide that he is guilty, and even go so far as to share our opinion with others, then we have drifted far from the ways of Hashem.
That is why people who speak loshon hora are included among those who are not “permitted to greet the Shechinah” (Sotah 42a). By indicting others through words of loshon hora we have traveled a distance from Hashem that is too far to bridge.
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Introduction: Positive Commandments 11-12
One of the great recent innovations in the computer industry is multi-tasking, meaning that computers now have the ability to run several software programs simultaneously. The Chofetz Chaim tells us that a person also has to run two “programs” through his mind at the same time. One thought process is used to accomplish whatever task we are presently engaged in. The second process is a constant scanning of the first process, to ensure that it is in line with the commandment of “to be aware of and fear Hashem at all times.” When we are confronted with a choice of acting or not acting, of speaking or not speaking, we should always ask ourselves,”What does Hashem want me to do?”
A person who speaks loshon hora has clearly lost his focus, at least for a few moments, on what Hashem wants of him. He is acting as if Hashem is not present, God forbid. Therefore, he violates the commandment to imbue oneself with fear of Hashem.
The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that when a person speaks loshon hora, he is wasting one of the most precious commodities this world has to offer — time.
There is no limit to the reward for learning Torah. It is by far the most precious mitzvah a person can do. The only excuse a person has for not studying Torah the entire day is that he has other important matters, such as earning a living, to which he must attend. Speaking loshon hora is certainly not something which one should be doing, and so the time spent speaking loshon hora is unjustifiably being lost — a sin of bitul Torah (wasting time that should be dedicated to learning). Furthermore, our Sages, of blessed memory, state, “Just as the mitzvah of Torah study is equal to all the mitzvos of the Torah combined, so too, the sin of loshon hora equals all the sins of the Torah combined” (Yerushalmi, Peah 1:1).
The consequences of this fact are enormous, says the Chofetz Chaim. As an example let us consider the 20–minute wait in some shuls (synagogues) between Minchah and Maariv. Each word of Torah learning is a mitzvah for itself. A person can comfortably speak 150 words a minute. Multiply this by the 20 minutes between Minchah and Maariv, and we have 3,000 spoken words. This means that 3,000 mitzvos can be accomplished in 20 minutes of learning. Unfortunately, the opposite is true with loshon hora. Not only can a person acquire 3000 sins for speaking 20 minutes of loshon hora, he also would acquire 3,000 sins of bitul Torah. Most tragic of all, he loses the priceless reward of 3,000 precious mitzvos of Torah study which could have been his.
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Introduction: Positive Commandments 9-10
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim adds another dimension to the issue of loshon hora, focusing on additional sins that can be transgressed when loshon hora is spoken about certain types of people.
For instance, if someone were to speak loshon hora about an elderly person, he would be violating the mitzvah of “In the presence of the elderly you shall rise [and you shall beautify … see Kiddushin 31b] “ (Vayikra 19:32), which teaches us to treat our elders with respect and honor. Certainly, says the Chofetz Chaim, loshon hora demonstrates a lack of respect. If the subject of loshon hora is a Torah scholar one violates the commandment to honor a talmid chacham, and may, in certain circumstances, be guilty of actual heresy. If the victim of loshon hora is a Kohen then the positive commandment of “V’Kidashto“ (Vayikra 21:8), which teaches us to treat Kohanim with added respect, has also been transgressed.
We know that, often, people act toward those outside their family circle with more respect than they show toward the members of their own family. Many Torah sources stress that the true barometer of a person’s behavior is not how he treats people when the world is watching, but how he treats his family in the privacy of his home. Unfortunately, in some homes, ridicule plays a big part in family interaction. Sometimes, God forbid, a parent is the victim of these barbs, especially when the children are married and their parents are not present to hear their comments. The yetzer hara (evil inclination) has a very effective method for opening the door to this type of loshon hora. He says, “Maybe you can refrain from speaking loshon hora outside the home, but the boundaries of shmiras haloshon (guarding one’s speech) stop at your front door. Within the family, people are close and contact is constant, and shmiras haloshon is all but impossible.”
The Chofetz Chaim teaches that speaking negatively of an older sibling, a step-parent or, God forbid, a father or mother, is not only loshon hora, it is a violation of the commandment “Honor your father and mother (Shemos 20:12)”. There is also a curse applied to children who show parents disrespect: “Cursed is he who degrades his father or mother” (Devarim 27:16).
One of the primary reasons Hashem created the family unit was so that it could be a workshop, a place for the neshamah (soul) to develop. The home is where we learn to be less self-centered, where we develop a love of chesed (kindness) towards others. When the laws of shmiras halashon guide the family’s interactions, each neshamah which this “workshop” produces can develop to its full, rich potential.
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Introduction: Positive Commandments 7-8
After the Destruction of the Beis Hamikdash (Temple), Hashem gave us a vital gift which would enable us to survive this long and bitter exile. He allowed the Shechinah (Divine Presence) to manifest itself to some degree in the beis haknesses (shul or synagogue) and beis hamidrash (study hall). To this day, the beis haknesses and the beis hamidrash remain places where a Jew can connect with his Creator in a very profound way.
Against this backdrop, says the Chofetz Chaim, one can recognize the full gravity of speaking loshon hora in shul. From the words “and My Holy Place you should fear ”(Vayikra 19:30) we learn that a Jew must treat his shul with dignity and only tread in it for holy pursuits. This commandment prohibits all forms of mundane conversation in shul. How much more so does this prohibition apply to loshon hora or rechilus, which indicate a complete lack of fear of Hashem, Whose presence is especially manifest in such holy places.
The Chofetz Chaim states that the hidden message which a person communicates when he speaks loshon hora in shul, God forbid, is that he does not really believe that Hashem resides there. Only with such an attitude could a person feel free to disobey Hashem’s rules in His own house. The Zohar says that the sin of ignoring Hashem in His house has grave spiritual repercussions in the upper worlds.
The Chofetz Chaim writes, “Since we are discussing the sin of speaking loshon hora in shul, I must tell you of the great misfortune that this causes.”
A person wants to tell his neighbor in shul a story about something that happened to him, and he finds a most convenient time for this: immediately before the reading of the Torah. But when the congregation is ready to begin reading the Torah portion, the storyteller is still not finished. Now the yetzer hora (evil inclination) whispers in this person’s ear, “This is a great story. You’ve got to finish it.” So the storyteller and his eager listener continue their conversation throughout the reading of the Torah. In doing so, they not only transgress a long list of prohibitions, but they also commit the overriding sin of creating a public chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s Name) as they flagrantly ignore Hashem’s Presence in His house and at the same time cause disgrace to the Torah.
The Chofetz Chaim tallies what this “important story” is going to bring these two people on the Heavenly scales of judgment.
They have spoken and listened to loshon hora, which almost always includes many prohibitions.
They have violated, “And you shall not defame My Holy Name” (Vayikra 22:32), a sin which is compounded by the fact that it was committed in the presence of ten or more Jews.
They have disregarded the Torah reading, and it is written, “And those who forsake Hashem will perish” (Yeshayah 1:28).
They have engaged in devarim beteilim (meaningless conversation) in shul.
“Woe to the speaker and the listener!” writes the Chofetz Chaim. He quotes the Vilna Gaon who states that it is impossible to comprehend the Heavenly punishment which such conversation can bring upon the participants.
The Chofetz Chaim adds another thought regarding those who speak during the reading of the Torah. The Torah reading concludes with Kaddish and it is highly unlikely that they will stop their conversation to answer to this all-important prayer. This is an incalculable loss. Our Sages, of blessed memory, have taught us the awesome power of answering Amein Yehei Shemei Rabba (“Amen, May His Great Name be blessed”). By answering with proper concentration and intent, one can cause severe Heavenly decrees to be broken. Several times each day, when Kaddish is recited, Hashem gives us the priceless opportunity to earn tremendous merit with just a few seconds of effort.
Imagine if someone offered you a check for one million dollars, with the only requirement being that you exert the miniscule effort of lifting the check off the table and putting it in your pocket. The reward for answering “Amein, Yehei Shemi Rabba” is much more than that, yet the storytellers are oblivious to this, essentially leaving millions of dollars sitting on the table, untouched.
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Introduction: Positive Commandments 5-6
Imagine meeting a friend of yours as he exits a restaurant that was once kosher but was recently taken over by non-Jews and is no longer kosher. Your friend was not aware of this information and is holding a sizzling hot frank in his hand, which he is about to bite into. You feel a bit uncomfortable depriving him of this earthly pleasure, so you decide to hold off and let him take one bite. Once he has savored that first bite, you ask yourself: ”How can I limit him to one measly bite?” And once he has had a few bites, you tell yourself: ”Why not let him have the few more bites it will take to finish the frank?” Finally, when the last bite is finished, you tell your friend that he has just eaten a non-kosher frank.
Of course, this is an outrageous story. It seems like something that could never happen. The Chofetz Chaim informs us that, surprisingly, something quite similar is liable to happen every day. If we allow someone to continue a conversation of loshon hora, it is as if we are allowing him to eat non-kosher food. And informing him after the conversation that he has spoken loshon hora does not absolve us of guilt. Just as each bite of non-kosher food is a separate violation of a negative commandment, so too is each and every word of loshon hora a transgression for itself. The Chofetz Chaim says that to refrain from rebuking someone who speaks loshon hora is a violation of the commandment to rebuke one’s fellow Jew (Vayikra 19:17). On the other hand, offering rebuke, especially when it is an uncomfortable task, is considered a great mitzvah.
The Chofetz Chaim details for us another positive commandment. Observant Jews are especially aware of the influence of one’s environment. A person who spends time with people who are immersed in Torah learning and serving the community adopts their standards, which become the benchmark of his aspirations. Their goals become his goals and their dreams, to a certain extent, become his dreams. It is so important to have positive influences in our lives that Hashem made it a positive commandment to associate with Torah scholars. The Torah states, “To Him shall you cleave” (Devarim 10:20), which our Sages interpret to mean that one should associate with those who are immersed in Torah and devoted to its fulfillment.
The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that if we gravitate to groups in shul (synagogue) who engage in loshon hora, we set up a major obstacle towards fulfilling this commandment. The Chofetz Chaim specifically focuses on loshon hora spoken in shul after Shalosh Seudos (the third Sabbath meal) because it is then that Torah scholars are engrossed in their learning and leitzim (scoffers) are engrossed in their loshon hora. We should be extremely careful with whom we associate because this will have a major impact on our lives.