“Just as the Torah prohibits us from accepting loshon hora as fact, so too, it is forbidden to accept rechilus,” the Chofetz Chaim states. To accept rechilus is to transgress the negative commandment “Lo Sisa Shema Shav” Do not accept a false report (Shemos 23:1).
The Chofetz Chaim distinguishes between accepting rechilus as fact and listening to rechilus. It is always forbidden to accept rechilus as fact. However, we are permitted to listen to rechilus, without believing it as fact, in order to protect ourselves from possible harm or financial loss. To better understand this, let us consider an example:
Levi and Reuven work together in a law office. One day, Reuven takes Levi aside and tells him that Shimon, another attorney at the firm, has been quietly petitioning the firm’s partners to reassign to him an important case which Levi is now handling.
It would seem self-destructive for Levi not to believe Reuven. If he does not act on the information, he stands to lose a great deal of prestige and income. Aside from the loss of the case itself, Levi’s standing in the firm may be affected if his employers become convinced that he is not qualified to handle such a case. The Chofetz Chaim says that certainly Levi is allowed to listen to Reuven’s report and take measures to protect himself from loss. But he is not allowed to believe in his heart that this report is true (until his own investigations confirm the report).
However, in a case where listening to the report would not result in any constructive purpose, one would be prohibited from listening at all.
In our example, Reuven’s first sentence is enough to tell Levi that a constructive purpose would be served by his listening to what Reuven has to say. Therefore, the Torah permits him to listen and to take defensive action.
The Chofetz Chaim hints at the primary tool for rejecting necessary information as fact, while acting upon it on the suspicion that it may be true. He says that one should not believe such information “in his heart.” To avoid believing a negative report about someone else, we have to focus on the person’s merits and assume that there was no malice involved, or that the report was erroneous. To do this, one must fill his heart with ahavas Yisrael, love of one’s fellow Jew. If we abide by the mitzvah to love our fellow Jew, then our hearts become a source of compassion and understanding. Ahavas Yisrael inspires us to look for motivations which cast a different light on the situation.
In our example, perhaps the partner actually asked Shimon to take the case. Or perhaps the client requested him. Perhaps Shimon possesses certain skills which are more suited to this particular case. Or perhaps Reuven, for reasons of his own, is trying to set Levi against Shimon.
To disbelieve information which is relevant to our personal lives while acting upon the information seems like a tall order. But with a heart infused with ahavas Yisrael, one is well equipped to accomplish this task.
In the previous segment, we learned that we are permitted to listen to rechilus—without accepting it as fact—in order to protect ourselves from possible harm. In the laws of loshon hora (Day 63), we learned about Devarim Hanicarim (recognizable signs), evidence which seems to point to an individual’s guilt. Here, the Chofetz Chaim informs us that if such evidence gives us reason to believe that someone is attempting to harm us, then we are permitted to investigate the matter even though this may force others to speak derogatorily about the person.
In Be’er Mayim Chaim, the Chofetz Chaim adds that this license is not limited to people who exhibit outright suspicious behavior. Even if someone is simply behaving in an unusual way, which could possibly mean that he is planning to cause us harm, we are allowed to inquire about him, though we may hear rechilus in the process. This applies even if no ill will was known to exist between the individual and ourselves.
Once again, the Chofetz Chaim stresses that in such cases, we are permitted to take action on the possibility that our suspicions are correct. We are not permitted to assume that our suspicions are correct. The Chofetz Chaim says more: We should not even view the matter as “50-50,” with an equal possibility of the person being innocent or guilty. The average Jew has a chezkas kashrus; that is, he is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. When we act upon our suspicions, it is only on a slight chance that there is cause for concern.
The Chofetz Chaim concludes: “Therefore, it is forbidden to do anything against the person, to cause him any sort of harm or shame, neither large nor small. Even to hate him in one’s heart is forbidden by the Torah. Certainly one has no right to free himself, because of rechilus which he hears, from any obligations which he has towards that individual. He is required to benefit that person with every good thing which the Torah commands us to provide to any Jew—for this man’s worth should not be lowered in our eyes, not in the slightest way.”
The following case represents an all-too-common practice: Reuven works for a company which determines salary raises for its employees through an annual salary review. Today is the day when company managers meet to discuss Reuven’s performance and decide on his coming year’s salary. Among the managers at the meeting will be Reuven’s friend, Shimon. While Shimon is not among those who make the salary decisions, he will be privy to the discussion. Therefore, Reuven considers him the perfect source for inside information on what management is saying about him. As soon as the meeting is over, Reuven finds a chance to speak privately to Shimon. “What did they say about me?” he desperately wants to know.
The desire to know what others think about us is often deeply rooted. It can begin in childhood, develop in the self-conscious adolescent, and remain an issue for many people for the rest of their lives. Whatever the context, the Chofetz Chaim informs us that a person who inquires into what others are thinking or saying about him is guilty of asking someone to speak rechilus. He writes:
“How foolish are those whose nature it is to always seek to know what others are saying about them — even when such knowledge will have absolutely no effect on their future. When people do not want to reveal this information, they are pressured intensely until they finally reveal it. The person who wanted the information accepts it — in all its derogatory detail — as truth, and he and the subject now become bitter enemies.
“If we would list all the pitfalls and transgressions with which this person has involved himself, the page could not contain them all… One who stands over his friend and pressures him to speak rechilus — so that he himself can hear it and accept it — is a chotei u’Machati, a sinner who causes others to sin.
“Therefore, one should remain far, far away from such behavior and not seek such information, unless he is certain that he needs to know it for future purposes, in order to protect himself from that person’s plans.”
As we know, when a person does something which affects us negatively, our reaction will often depend on who that person is. For example:
You arranged to get a ride home with someone after a wedding. At the end of the wedding, you search for the person but cannot find him. Someone tells you, “He left already. Did he leave you stranded?” Your reaction will depend very much on who stranded you. If it was your father or brother, then your mind will immediately view the act as innocent and you will assume that there is probably a good reason for his behavior. If, on the other hand, the person who was supposed to drive you was someone that you know only casually, you might say to yourself, “He probably realized that he had no room for me. But how could he be so inconsiderate as to not even tell me?”
Of course, there could be any number of reasons why the person left without telling you. He may have been mistakenly told that you had already left, or that you wanted to stay late. Perhaps an emergency forced him to leave in a hurry. Or, he may have simply forgotten.
The Chofetz Chaim discusses a case where you have been told that someone said something negative about you or has done something against you (i.e. you have heard rechilus) and you have confirmed that the report is true. Nevertheless, says the Chofetz Chaim, you are obligated to judge him favorably if there is any possible way to interpret his statement or action in a positive light. If you do not judge him favorably, then you are guilty of accepting rechilus.
The Chofetz Chaim concludes by discussing the teshuvah (repentance) which is required of someone who has accepted rechilus as truth:
“He must work on himself to expel the matter from his heart so that he no longer believes it. If it is difficult for him to believe that the speaker fabricated the story, then he should tell himself that perhaps the speaker added some details, or omitted a detail or some words which had been said about him; or that the person uttered his words using nuances which would give his statement a positive interpretation.”
“The listener should take upon himself not to accept loshon hora or rechilus in the future from any Jew, and he should confess his sin (before Hashem). Through this, he will have corrected his sin, provided that he did not relate the information to others.”
We have been discussing the issue of accepting rechilus, a report that somebody said something negative about you or did something harmful to you. In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim deals with cases where circumstances seem to indicate that the report is true.
Sitting among a crowd at a bar mitzvah, David says, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, that Reuven did something which was damaging to Shimon. One might assume that since this announcement was made in public, it is probably true. Can Shimon believe David? No. Shimon has to discern if there is anything constructive to be gained from absorbing this information. If it will help him to prevent further harm, he is allowed to suspect that the information is true and he can investigate further. If the information has no relevance for the future, he should assume that it is not true.
The Chofetz Chaim then offers another case which has already been mentioned and bears repetition. You are talking to Reuven in the presence of Shimon and Reuven tells you that Shimon spoke negatively of you. Now, you know that Shimon is the type of person who is very confrontational; if someone accuses him of something of which he is innocent, he vocally defends himself. Today, on the other hand, as he hears Reuven tell you that he said something derogatory about you, he remains uncharacteristically quiet. What better proof can there be that Reuven’s report is true? The Chofetz Chaim tells us that even in this extreme case, you must dismiss Reuven’s report as false (assuming that there is no constructive purpose in according it your attention).
In previous segments, the Chofetz Chaim has offered us several possible reasons for rejecting such a report. Here, he reminds us of the most compelling one.
“Even if the report is true, Reuven is still a rasha (wicked person) for reporting it. As we have already learned, the average Jew has a chezkas kashrus; that is, he is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.”
The Chofetz Chaim then challenges us:
“Are you going to rely upon a rasha’s report to remove a fellow Jew from his chezkas kashrus and assume that he transgressed the sin of loshon hora and other related sins? Surely the speaker [Reuven], who is suspect regarding the sins of rechilus and loshon hora, is also suspect regarding lying — adding to the real story or turning the entire story around.”
The Chofetz Chaim continues his discussion of the prohibition against accepting rechilus as fact. In this segment, he describes a very common scenario in the business world: a case of a buyer who is seeking the lowest possible price for an item.
The story begins with a gentile who negotiates a price with a Jewish wine merchant for several barrels of wine. They conclude on a price and the gentile brings his own empty barrels to be filled by the Jew the next day. That evening, the gentile goes to another Jewish merchant and, without telling him that he had already concluded the deal with the first merchant, prices this particular product. The second merchant is a bit more anxious than the first for some business, so he offers the wine at a slightly lower price. The gentile returns to the first merchant and cancels his order.
The merchant is astounded. “But we had a deal and you even have your barrels sitting here in my house! How can you break the agreement?” The gentile, not wanting to look bad, says, ”I’ll tell you the truth. I met your competitor on the street and he asked me, ‘Why don’t you buy from me? My wine is much better than that fellow’s merchandise and besides, my prices are cheaper!’”
This is all the first merchant needs to hear. “How could he have done such a thing?” he wonders about the other merchant. “He literally took the bread out of my mouth!” Having accepted the gentile’s word as fact, the first merchant harbors great hatred towards his competitor and feels fully justified in launching an all-out-war against him. He tells himself — and his friends — that his competitor is a wicked soul and that it is a mitzvah to speak against him and run him out of business.
Meanwhile, the second merchant responds in kind and a full-scale war erupts. And how did it all begin? By accepting one report of rechilus.
The Chofetz Chaim reflects: Had the first merchant told himself the truth, that the second merchant had no idea that he had already concluded a deal with the gentile, the story could have ended so beautifully. The first merchant would fulfill the positive commandment to grant a fellow Jew the benefit of the doubt. He would avoid transgressing several negative commandments, including accepting rechilus, harboring hatred towards a fellow Jew and seeking revenge. When the second merchant would be told of what the gentile did and of his competitor’s reaction, he would tell himself that in the future he would be careful to check that the buyer has not already concluded a deal with someone else. The result of all this would be: No loshon hora, no price wars, no hatred.
The Chofetz Chaim declares that this path would bring the two merchants blessing and joy both in this world and the World to Come. He cites the verse: “Who is the man who wants life, who loves days, to see good? Guard your tongue from evil…” (Tehillim 34:13-14). The Chofetz Chaim comments: “Who is the man who wants life”— in the World to Come; “who loves days”— in this world.
By contrast, the sin of one who accepts rechilus is even greater than that of the one who speaks it.
Married couples often mistakenly think that passing information from one to the other is not rechilus. They assume that because their lives are so intertwined, each should know what the other knows. This, the Chofetz Chaim cautions us, is wrong: “One should not reveal this (i.e. rechilus) to others, even to members of his own household.”
A classic illustration of the dangers of rechilus between husband and wife is the tragic episode of Korach’s rebellion.
Korach was born to the tribe of Levi, and before leading his rebellion, he was considered a great man. Yet he led a shameful challenge against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu (our Teacher) and in the end he, his family and his associates died a terrible death.
Our Sages (Sanhedrin 110a) inform us that it was Korach’s wife who incited him to rebel. She convinced him that Moshe had personal motives in mind (G-d forbid) in appointing his brother Aharon to the Kehunah Gedolah (High Priesthood) and in other decisions as well.
On the other hand, the wife of Ohn ben Peles convinced her husband to leave Korach’s camp, thus saving his life. To these two women our Sages apply the verse, “She who is wise among women builds her house, but the foolish one destroys it with her own hands” (Mishlei 14:1).
The story has been told of a man who discovered that his business partner of many years cheated him out of a sum of money. The man was prepared to “wage war” and break up the partnership. A friend in whom he confided convinced him: “You’ll go home and tell your wife about what he did. She’ll blast his wife while you blast him. Most probably, your partner and his wife will go on the defensive and have some of their good friends join their ranks. Soon, the feud will be the talk of the town.
“Take my advice. Sit down with your partner and, without raising your voice, try to work things out. Offer to call in an impartial mediator, if necessary.”
The man accepted the advice and was able to resolve the matter to his satisfaction. By accepting his friend’s wise advice, much rechilus, sinas chinam (baseless hatred) and strife was avoided.
(The subject of Mheiman K’Bei Trei is discussed in Day 106.)
In the laws of loshon hora (Day 61), we discussed a situation where the person relating the loshon
hora is Mheiman K’Brei Trei, that is, where the listener considers the speaker’s integrity beyond reproach, to the point where he considers the speaker’s words equivalent to that of two valid witnesses testifying in court. Here, the Chofetz Chaim discusses a situation of rechilus. Can we accept such a report when the person relating it is Mheiman K’Brei Trei?
Obviously, if there is no constructive purpose in relating the information, it cannot be accepted in any case. If there is a constructive purpose, and the speaker is the type of trustworthy individual whom we have described, then it would seem that the listener could accept the information as fact (as opposed to merely protecting himself in case the information is accurate). However, the Chofetz Chaim makes the following points:
For a person to have this status of Mheiman K’Brei Trei, he has to be someone whom we trust implicitly in all situations. However, says the Chofetz Chaim, “If in other matters one does not believe him that much, and the real reason for believing him here is because the listener enjoys an interesting piece of loshon hora or rechilus, then surely it is forbidden to believe him — and to the contrary, the more the listener believes him and accepts the information as fact, the more he transgresses the sin of accepting rechilus.”
The Chofetz Chaim concludes that, practically speaking, we should not rely on the license of Mheiman K’Brei Trei to accept rechilus, for a number of Rishonim (Early Commentators) maintain that it is difficult to know for sure the level of integrity that is needed for a person to have this status. The Chofetz Chaim adds, “Many people err regarding this halachah. They are careful not to speak loshon hora, and not to accept it when they hear it from the average person, but they do accept it as fact when hearing it from their father, mother or spouse…This is a total error.”
In conclusion, even when told rechilus for a constructive purpose, by someone whom you trust implicitly, act upon the information but do not accept it as fact.
Both in the laws of loshon hora and the laws of rechilus, the Chofetz Chaim has stressed that someone who intentionally relates negative talk without a constructive purpose is deemed a rasha (wicked individual), for he intentionally transgresses Torah prohibitions, and obviously his words cannot be believed. But what if such remarks were not made maliciously, in the way of a gossipmonger? What if the person conveyed the information Meisiach L’fi Tumo, as a casual remark with no harm intended?
The Chofetz Chaim refers us to the laws of loshon hora (Day 62). There we learned that with regard to those laws, the principle of Meisiach L’fi Tumo carries no weight. Here, too, if someone casually — and seemingly innocently — speaks rechilus in the course of conversation, we are not permitted to believe it. If the speaker’s report could be understood in a favorable way, we are required to give the subject the benefit of the doubt.
Another concept, which we have already discussed, is Devarim Hanicarim (recognizable signs), circumstantial proof which indicates that a report is true. Here, the Chofetz Chaim enumerates the five conditions which must be met before one can accept rechilus as fact based on circumstantial proof:
1. There is no way that the information can be interpreted in a favorable way.
2. The evidence must be directly related to the report and it must be solid, not superficial.
3. The listener has firsthand knowledge of the evidence. If he heard about the evidence from someone else but did not confirm it personally, it cannot be relied upon.
4. As we have stated many times, one may listen to rechilus only for a constructive purpose. If there is no such purpose, it is forbidden to listen to the report, regardless of how convincing the evidence seems. If one heard the report accidentally, he must disregard it.
5. After meeting the above four conditions, one is permitted to accept the information as fact and act upon it constructively. However, he is not permitted to share the information with others (except for a constructive purpose) — including his wife, parents or close friends. And he certainly cannot use the information as an excuse to harm the individual in any way.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim introduces us to a particularly deadly strain of gossip, a brand of loshon hora which is instinctively abhorrent to the average Jew. We are referring to the words of a malshin, a Jew who informs on another Jew to government authorities. While such a scenario is very rare, nevertheless, it too is covered by halachah and the Chofetz Chaim saw fit to include it in his sefer. To better understand the issue at hand, we offer a modern-day example.
A certain businessman decides to get rid of his competition the old-fashioned way — he informs on him to the IRS, the Board of Health or some other governmental body. His competitor is now in serious trouble and faces heavy fines which will consume his capital and possibly cause his business to collapse.
The victim has many problems to face. Uppermost in his mind, however, is one question: “Which one of my competitors did this to me?” He investigates a bit and discovers what, to his mind, is strong evidence pointing to one man’s guilt. He decides to give the man a “taste of his own medicine” and informs on him to the authorities.
The Chofetz Chaim explains the seriousness of his error:
“In truth, this is a complete mistake for a number of reasons:
“To inform on the other person would only be permissible if it could accomplish something constructive for the future, so that the perpetrator would not inform on him again — and would be allowed only if there was no other way to accomplish this. However, if his intention in informing on him is revenge, it is absolutely forbidden (as explained in Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 388:9).
“Furthermore, to inform on the person (for a constructive purpose) would be allowed if he knows firsthand that this man is the guilty one — for example, he was actually present when the man spoke to the authorities about him. However, circumstantial evidence — even strong evidence — would not permit this. Certainly he could not inform on the alleged informer based on reports which he received from others, for he cannot even believe the reports in his heart, unless they were offered as testimony in beis din (rabbinical court)… One cannot rely on such reports to cause the person even the slightest loss …”
Even in the most difficult situations, the laws of the Torah must be upheld. Those who withstand the test and refrain from accepting rechilus in difficult circumstances will merit reward to which no earthly pleasure can compare.
The laws of rechilus apply to all Jews. There is no difference whether the speaker is a relative or stranger. And there is no difference whether the person being spoken about is an adult or a child.
Furthermore, a son or daughter who hears someone speak badly of his or her parent cannot relate this to the parent. For example, if a son hears a nasty comment about his father, he cannot tell his father about it. Though he is motivated by a desire to honor his father, he will honor him more by obeying the Torah’s command not to speak rechilus.
As we stated, it is forbidden to speak rechilus about a child. The Chofetz Chaim offers an example which shatters a common misconception:
Shimon’s son is fighting with Levi’s son in the park, and Shimon’s son has the upper hand. Reuven happens to be strolling through the park at that time. He is a good friend of Levi and he knows exactly what to do — at least, he thinks he does.
The next time Reuven meets Levi, he tells him how Shimon’s boy “was giving it” to his son. Levi is not pleased. The next time Levi sees Shimon’s son, he pulls him aside and tells him in no uncertain terms that if he ever goes near his son again he will regret it. To make it clear that “he means business,” Levi slaps the boy on both cheeks.
Shimon’s son now tells his father, who in turn is incensed at Levi. A full-scale feud erupts, and how did it all begin? With the rechilus reported by Reuven.
The Chofetz Chaim is not suggesting that we never inform a parent when his child is the victim of aggression. What he is telling us is that rechilus about children is also rechilus and therefore we need to fulfill all the conditions of toeles (constructive speech) before informing a father of such matters. In our example, Reuven must first ask himself: “Am I certain that my understanding of the incident is correct? Perhaps Levi’s son instigated the fight and teased the other boy until he felt the need to retaliate?
“What will I accomplish by telling Levi about the incident? And if there is something to accomplish, perhaps it could be done by speaking to Shimon about his son, so as to avoid speaking rechilus?” Other questions relating to the conditions of rechilus l’toeles (for a constructive purpose) need to be addressed as well.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim gives us two examples of rechilus which are at opposite extremes. The first deals with an am ha’aretz, a Jew who is woefully poor in his knowledge of Torah. The Chofetz Chaim reminds us that the primary prohibition against loshon hora and rechilus is Lo Seileich Rachil B’Amecha, You shall not go as a peddler of gossip among your people (Vayikra 19:16). An am ha’aretz, though ignorant of Torah, is certainly included in Amecha, your people. Thus, it is absolutely forbidden to speak rechilus about him.
The Chofetz Chaim then cautions us very strongly against speaking rechilus about a talmid chacham (Torah scholar). The Chofetz Chaim’s points are explained through the following illustration:
Let us imagine that Chaim tells Yosef: “Rabbi Adams told me that your honesty leaves something to be desired.” Now, as we have already learned, rechilus cannot be related even when it is true. If it is false, the sin is greater. In the case of a talmid chacham, chances are that either the speaker is not reporting the statement correctly — in other words, he’s guilty of falsehood — or that the scholar had good reason for saying what he said.
Furthermore, says the Chofetz Chaim, the Torah commands us to respect and assist Torah scholars. We should eat with them, do business with them, seek to marry our daughters to them, and cling to them in any way possible. A Jew does the opposite when he speaks rechilus concerning a talmid chacham.
Finally, people are especially hurt when they hear that a person of stature spoke badly of them. When Yosef hears that Rabbi Adams said he is dishonest, this will very possibly cause him to feel deep resentment towards the rabbi. If he had looked to the rabbi as his mentor, his religious observance might even be affected.
If Yosef is hot-tempered, the report could lead to a feud. If Rabbi Adams is the rav (rabbi) of the synagogue in which Yosef is a member, such rechilus might ultimately cause the rav to lose his position. Thus, rechilus spoken about a talmid chacham is an extremely serious matter.
If Shimon tells Reuven’s wife that Levi spoke negatively of Reuven, Shimon has committed an act of rechilus. Though he has not repeated the story to Reuven himself, there is no doubt that Reuven’s wife will bear animosity towards Levi for having denigrated her husband. The Chofetz Chaim expands this concept to include all relatives, based on the assumption that relatives are protective of one another, and feel personally hurt when one of their members is attacked.
In the above case, had Shimon related the information to someone outside of Reuven’s family, he would have been guilty of loshon hora, not rechilus. In Be’er Mayim Chaim, the Chofetz Chaim presents a case where one would be permitted to relate the information to non-family members. Reuven and Levi are involved in a monetary disagreement. Levi mentioned to Shimon that he was convinced that he was right and that he would win the forthcoming din Torah (court case). If Shimon were to mention this to someone outside of Reuven’s family, it would not be loshon hora (assuming that nothing derogatory was said about Reuven). However, if repeated to a member of Reuven’s family it would be rechilus, since family members are inclined to be offended by the suggestion that Reuven is wrong.
The Chofetz Chaim then presents a case of a Jew who sets a non-Jew against a Jew. For example: A non-Jew purchased an item from Aharon. David tells the non-Jew, “He overcharged you.” The non-Jew feels cheated and may come to hate Aharon. The Chofetz Chaim sees this type of rechilus as particularly dangerous because it may cause the non-Jew to seek ways to harm Aharon for having taken advantage of him.
The Chofetz Chaim states: “Some people stumble frequently in this matter. They denigrate merchandise which a non-Jew purchased from a Jew, or they find fault with the work which a Jew did for a non-Jew. This can cause the Jew harm, and often can mean the ruination of his livelihood.”
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim finds it necessary to once again discuss the matter of conversation between husband and wife. If someone tells a woman something derogatory about her husband, she may not repeat this to her husband. Obviously, the same would apply if someone tells a husband something negative about his wife. The consequences of not observing this halachah can be devastating. Many family battles have been started by a husband telling his wife what his mother or sister said about her, or by a wife mentioning a criticism which her parents voiced about her husband.
The Chofetz Chaim offers us an important observation: If someone willingly listens to and accepts rechilus from his wife, then he is actually sending his wife a subtle message that he is pleased when she shares such information with him. This will encourage her to report to him every time she hears something derogatory about him. Aside from the many transgressions involved with speaking and accepting rechilus, such situations ultimately lead to much distress, resentment and strife.
Therefore, says the Chofetz Chaim, a wise husband or wife, upon being told rechilus by his or her spouse, will make it perfectly clear that such talk is forbidden by the Torah and is neither a desired, nor constructive, feature in a Jewish home.”
In this segment, we begin learning the laws of avak rechilus (the “dust” of rechilus); statements which are not actual rechilus but which are nonetheless forbidden because they may cause ill will.
The first case is where Reuven tells Shimon, “You know, the other day someone asked Levi about you and he replied, ‘Oh, I think we’re best off not discussing him.’” Such a report indicates that Levi was hinting to something negative about Shimon.
The Chofetz Chaim’s second case is where mentioning someone’s generosity might cause the listener to be upset with him. For example, Levi tells Reuven, who is Shimon’s partner in a contracting firm, “Shimon is one of the nicest people I know. While you were away on vacation, he sent one of your best workers to help me with the porch I’m building — free of charge!” Reuven may not be very happy to hear that his partner is sharing their workers with others for free. To inform Reuven of this is to speak avak rechilus.
The third case is where Reuven’s business has scored some great successes and word of this spreads. A generous fellow, Reuven extends huge loans to help some friends get started in business. But when another friend comes who has a reputation of not paying his debts, Reuven is reluctant to help him. Some time later, this friend is discussing his plight with someone who exclaims, “Reuven didn’t help you with a loan? I’m shocked! He lent me so much money when I started my business!” While the man meant no harm, he very possibly has caused his listener to be angry with Reuven. He is, therefore, guilty of speaking avak rechilus.
It is forbidden to tell a person a remark which was made about him, if that remark will cause him to be even slightly upset — though it contains nothing which is actually derogatory. Relating such remarks falls under the category of avak rechilus.
As proof of this law, the Chofetz Chaim (in Be’er Mayim Chaim) cites the famous incident involving Avraham and Sarah (cited above in Day 92). When the angels, who were disguised as wayfarers, informed Avraham that in a year hence he and his wife would be blessed with a child, Sarah (who stood listening at the doorway of the tent) laughed incredulously. “After I have withered shall I again have delicate skin? And my husband [too] is old!” (Bereishis 18:12). Hashem was displeased with this response (see Ramban ad loc.) and demanded of Avraham, “Why is it that Sarah laughed, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child though I have aged?’” For the sake of peace between husband and wife, Hashem did not tell Avraham that Sarah had mentioned that he, too, was old.
Let us ponder this for a moment. At the time of this incident, Avraham was ninety-nine years old. Sarah was certainly not saying something derogatory when she referred to her husband as “old.” But the relationship between husband and wife is a very delicate one. Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, determined that even someone as great as Avraham Avinu (our Forefather) might feel slightly hurt upon learning that his wife referred to him as “old.” Therefore, Hashem omitted this part of Sarah’s remark when confronting Avraham.
The Chofetz Chaim concludes this chapter by cautioning us not to reveal private information which has been told to us in confidence. While revealing secrets is not necessarily in the category of speaking rechilus, it does cause harm to the person who confided in us. Furthermore, says the Chofetz Chaim, one who reveals secrets steps beyond the bounds of tznius (privacy and modesty) and goes against the wishes of the other person, which in itself is wrong.
We now begin the concluding chapter of Sefer Chofetz Chaim. In his introduction to the chapter, the Chofetz Chaim writes, “In this chapter, we will explain when it is actually correct to speak rechilus, in cases where the speaker’s intention is to save the person from damage. I ask of Hashem that I should not stumble in a matter of halachah.”
If the Chofetz Chaim found it necessary to offer a prayer at this point, then surely we should handle such situations with the utmost care. We can liken this to a situation where someone faces the possibility of undergoing major surgery. The person would surely ask for a second, expert opinion before making any decisions. Likewise, when our spiritual welfare is threatened by the possibility of stumbling in matters of loshon hora and rechilus, seeking advice of a halachic authority is strongly recommended.
With these caveats, let us examine the following case:
You learn that your friend is in the process of hiring a particular contractor for repairs on his house. You know that this contractor is not to be trusted. You are familiar with cases in which he has repeatedly changed his price, used inferior material, and demanded additional money to finish the job. The Chofetz Chaim states that you must warn your friend, provided that you can fulfill the following five conditions: *
1. Do not jump to conclusions.
All of us have had the experience of having our assumptions soundly disproved upon gaining more information. Before you say something that will cause this contractor a loss of income, you must check your facts and be certain that they show the contractor to be untrustworthy.
2. Do not exaggerate.
Do not use any terms or expressions which will make the fellow appear worse than he actually is. Though you may think that you need to exaggerate so that your friend will take you seriously, it is forbidden nonetheless.
3. Be sure that your only intention is to accomplish something constructive. If you yourself had a bad experience with this contractor and you still harbor some ill will towards him, you should not be the one to tell your friend about his dishonesty. In such a case, it would be wise to seek the counsel of a rav (rabbi) to decide how your friend should be warned.
Furthermore, you must be sure that your friend will not turn the information into rechilus by repeating it to the contractor. As the Chofetz Chaim explains, if it is unlikely that your friend will heed your warning not to use the contractor, then you should not warn him. This is especially true if it is likely that when things do not go as planned, your friend will lose his temper and tell the contractor, “My friend Reuven was right in telling me not to use you!” If that happens, your friend would be guilty of speaking rechilus and you would be guilty of causing a Jew to sin.
4. Seek other alternatives.
If there is any way that you can get your friend not to use this contractor without relating the negative information, then that is what you must do. For example, you might recommend a less expensive contractor, whom your friend would probably want to use.
5. Carefully consider the impact of your words.
In our example, the result of your words should be that the contractor is not hired by this particular customer. However, if the contractor’s business might be ruined, the information cannot be shared. For instance, if your friend owned a newspaper and would publish this information in a consumer advice column, or if he might use some other means which would have a severe impact on the contractor’s livelihood, then it is forbidden to relate the information.
A competent halachic authority should be consulted regarding how best to prevent further fraud.
The wisdom of the Torah is plainly apparent in these laws. The Torah recognizes the need to warn a friend about potential harm. Yet it also encompasses an awareness that businesses and professional careers can be destroyed by mistaken assumptions or competitor’s gossip. The laws of relating rechilus for a constructive purpose are precisely designed so that we can walk the thin line between helpful information and destructive gossip.
In Hilchos Loshon Hora we mentioned seven conditions. Here, only five are mentioned. In Be’er Mayim Chaim (laws of rechilus 9:9), the Chofetz Chaim explains why two of the conditions are omitted.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim offers an example of a person whom you heard plotting to harm or embarrass someone. Certainly if the threat is serious then it must be reported, for there is a clear constructive purpose in warning the person. But if the person who spoke was just venting his anger with no intention of following through on his threat, then there is no constructive purpose. To the contrary, the report will only infuriate the subject and cause more animosity between him and the person who spoke against him.
To judge whether or not there is a constructive purpose in relating rechilus, one needs to carefully examine the situation and use a generous dose of common sense. The Chofetz Chaim offers some criteria for assessing the seriousness of any threats we may hear. The first is to know the person making the threat. Has he taken revenge on others in the past? Is he known to carry out his threats? Has he ever done before what he now claims he is planning to do? If after sizing up the situation the threat seems credible, then the information must be reported to the potential victim, assuming the conditions of toeles (constructive purpose) have been fulfilled.
The Chofetz Chaim cautions us that our first step should be to attempt to reprove the person who made the threat in the hope that this will convince him to retract it. If the situation can be resolved with that one step, it will not be necessary to warn the potential victim and disrupt the relationship. However, one need not reprove in a case where it seems obvious that the person will ignore reproof.
The Chofetz Chaim further cautions us that before reporting to the potential victim, one should try to assess what his reaction will be. If he will react by taking steps to protect himself, or by avoiding his attacker entirely, then he should be forewarned. But if his reaction will be to become enraged and confront the other person, resulting in a full-scale feud, then it would be best to remain silent on the matter.
In general, much common sense is required to decide when a negative comment should be repeated.
In a previous segment (Day 115) we listed five conditions which must be fulfilled before we can relate rechilus for a constructive purpose.
The fifth condition was that the recipient of the information will use it for a defensive purpose and not to punish the subject of the gossip with unwarranted harm. Examining this requirement further, the Chofetz Chaim says that the allowance for telling someone constructive gossip depends heavily on how the recipient of the information is likely to handle it.
The halachah requires us to take stock of this person’s mind and character. We must ask ourselves: Is this a thoughtful person who does his best to act within the guidelines of Jewish law? Or is this a hotheaded individual who will act before he thinks? If we know that this person will thoughtfully consult a rav (rabbi) or beis din (rabbinical court) on how to conduct himself in light of the new information he has received, then we can tell him the information. If, on the other hand, we suspect that he may react first and ask questions later, we are not allowed to reveal the information.
The reason why Halachah does not allow the subject of constructive rechilus to sustain undue damage relates to the laws of witnesses and testimony. When someone repeats information for a constructive purpose, he is actually acting as a single witness. But a beis din will disregard the testimony of a single witness — the Torah requires a minimum of two witnesses for testimony in court to be accepted. Therefore, a beis din would not impose damages on a defendant against whom there is only one witness. If a beis din cannot impose damages against this person, then certainly the recipient of constructive rechilus cannot do so! The consequences of someone speaking constructive rechilus cannot exceed that which would have been extracted by a beis din. The information of a single witness can, however, be used for protective purposes.
What if two people want to inform the potential victim of someone’s plans against him? After analyzing the issue, the Chofetz Chaim rules that here, too, they should not relate the information to someone who is likely to take matters into his own hands and inflict damage upon the victim. This applies even when it appears to the two witnesses that would the victim go to beis din, he would receive authorization for his actions. As the Chofetz Chaim explains, the witnesses cannot assess what beis din would have done because in all probability they are not knowledgeable enough in the relevant laws to know how beis din would have judged.
Furthermore, even if the witnesses were certain that damage was called for, the potential victim would not be permitted to take action without the witnesses testifying in beis din. By relating the information outside of beis din, the witnesses are actually aiding a sinner whom, they know, will take the law into his own hands. The question remains as to what can be done for the person who cannot be trusted to handle constructive gossip? How do we protect him from damage if the Torah prohibits us from giving him the information? The answer is that by remaining silent we are helping him, for he stands to incur greater harm if he uses the information incorrectly. To those who observe this halachah and remain silent in such a situation, the Chofetz Chaim applies the verse, “One who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles” (Mishlei 21:23).
If we take a hard look at the missteps and blunders we make in life, we will find one common denominator in most of these actions: we always have support for what we do. This support helps us overcome objections or guilt by supplying an unending list of rationalizations to free us to pursue our agenda. The source of this support is the yetzer hara (evil inclination) which joins us at birth and remains a challenge, for us to overcome until our last moment on this world.
A situation in which we should be on guard, says the Chofetz Chaim, is where we know that someone has been guilty of thievery or some other form of monetary dishonesty. If the victim is someone who is close to us, then there is a strong natural urge to inform the person of what happened and to let him know the identity of the perpetrator. However, as we have learned, we can only relate such information for a constructive purpose, and only after fulfilling the necessary conditions. If the victim cannot retrieve his money and it is clear that the crime was a “one-shot deal” and will not be repeated, then to tell the victim what happened would be to commit the sin of speaking rechilus.
The Chofetz Chaim also reminds us that we cannot relate such information even when our friend, the victim, pressures us to do so. “I know exactly what happened,” he might tell us. “Just tell me who did it.” Our yetzer hara may tell us that by remaining silent we will be risking this friendship. In truth, however, a genuine friend who really cares about the other person will not allow him to become entangled in sin, even if he will be angry because of this. Friendships are based on giving and there can be no greater gift than the gift of eternity.