The Chofetz Chaim offers another reason why we should not believe loshon hora which is said in our presence.
When a person speaks loshon hora, he transgresses the negative commandment of “You should not go as a peddler of gossip” (Vayikra19:16), thereby putting himself in the category of a rasha (evil person). As a rasha his words certainly have no credibility, and we may suspect him of lying, exaggerating, and distorting the truth. Furthermore, this wicked individual is telling us negative information about someone who is assumed to be an upstanding, observant Jew! Certainly we should not accept his wicked words as fact.
If we hear the same negative information from two or more people, we may be more inclined to believe it. This is incorrect, says the Chofetz Chaim, because when wicked people speak wicked words, numbers are meaningless. Even if a dozen people are offering the same derogatory information, it should not be accepted.
The Chofetz Chaim adds that this halachah (law) applies even when the two speakers are not deemed reshaim (wicked people). For example, suppose two people approach Levi in the street and inform him that Yehuda is planning to ruin his business. If they are telling the truth, then they are actually doing a mitzvah by warning Levi. Nevertheless, Levi can only protect himself on the chance that the report is true; he cannot accept it as fact.
This is because the testimony of two people has validity only in beis din (rabbinical court). When two people report negative information about someone outside of beis din, they are not restrained by the possibility of being branded as false witnesses, for there can be no such designation outside of beis din. Therefore, their report cannot be accepted as fact.
If a rumor circulates in a city that a Jew committed a crime, one is not allowed to believe it. This applies also to reports in newspapers or other media sources. In this case, too, if the information is relevant for constructive purposes, one should proceed with appropriate caution.
However, there are instances in which one may believe negative reports. When an abundance of reports regarding a certain person circulate over a period of time, telling of various sinful acts which he committed, to the point where he is no longer viewed as an observant Jew, then it would be permissible to believe the reports. As the Chofetz Chaim puts it, we are not required to think that the community has made a mistake again and again regarding the same individual
The famed R’ Yisrael Salanter once said that the “eleventh commandment” is “Don’t be a fool,” which means that the Torah obligates us to use our intelligence and life experience to navigate our lives. So, when someone known to be dishonest attempts to swindle your life’s savings, you are under no obligation to judge him favorably and give him the benefit of the doubt.
The Chofetz Chaim tells us that if someone is a confirmed rasha (wicked person), meaning that he openly and consistently transgresses Torah prohibitions, then one is allowed to accept loshon hora about him. The exact guidelines for classifying someone as a rasha are complex and are beyond the scope of this work. However, one point which has been mentioned earlier bears repeating. Nowadays, most non-observant Jews are people who have never been introduced to the beauty and truth of Torah Judaism. Rambam likens such a person to a “tinok shenishba,” a child who was captured by gentiles and who grew up ignorant of his heritage. Such a person is surely no rasha; we should treat him with love and compassion and surely we should not speak badly of him.
The Chofetz Chaim then discusses the case of a person who recounts a story which reflects poorly on himself and on someone else as well. For example, you are at your twenty-fifth high school reunion and a former classmate is amusing everyone with a story about the time he and a friend — who could not attend the reunion — put maple syrup on the teacher’s chair. While the speaker may find the story funny, his friend might not want to be remembered for such things. And most people would not want their children to discover such stories about them.
The halachah prohibits the listeners from accepting the loshon hora about the second person even though the speaker is incriminating himself as well. At first glance, this halachah seems difficult to observe. How am I to take a story which I heard firsthand and split it into two, believing it only regarding the speaker? The key here is to see halachah as a reality. As the Chofetz Chaim states, I cannot believe the story as far as it concerns the second person, because a Jew has a chezkas kashrus, a presumed status of one who is faithful to Torah and mitzvos — including the Torah’s requirements regarding proper behavior. Therefore, I have no right to believe that the second person has acted improperly unless I know this information firsthand.
A story about the great Torah leader Rabbi Moshe Feinstein bears mentioning. Halachah prohibits a person from walking in front of someone who is praying Shemoneh Esrei. Once, R’ Moshe was on his way to an important meeting when he noticed someone near the doorway praying Shemoneh Esrei. He stopped in his tracks and would go no further. “There is a wall blocking my path,” R’ Moshe explained. The wall, of course, was the strength of the halachah which prohibited him from walking any further. By seeing halachah as a powerful reality, following its requirements becomes relatively easy.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim begins discussing three situations where seemingly there is reason to allow the listener to accept loshon hora as fact. These situations are:
1. Where the speaker’s integrity is, to your mind, beyond reproach, to the point where his word alone is equivalent (in your eyes) to that of two men testifying in court.
2. Where the derogatory information is inferred from an innocent remark which was not spoken with the intent of conveying negative information.
3. Where there is strong evidence indicating that the derogatory information is true.
The Chofetz Chaim devotes the remainder of this segment to a discussion of the first of these situations. Earlier (Day 42), we discussed a case where a person witnessed an act of sin, but knew that the sinner would ignore his words of rebuke. In this case, if it is likely the person will repeat the offense, then the witness would be allowed to relate the information to the sinner’s rav or someone else who is in a position to offer rebuke. One of the three conditions which make this permissible is that the rav or parent knows the witness and trusts his word as he would the testimony of two witnesses.
Here, the Chofetz Chaim points out that for the witness to be permitted to relate what he has seen, it would have to have been an act which was an intentional violation of a well-known halachah. However, in a situation where the perpetrator may have acted out of ignorance or unwittingly, the witness would be required to give him the benefit of the doubt. He would not be allowed to report the incident in a derogatory way to the person’s rav; if he did report it, the rav would not be permitted to accept the witness’s interpretation. The same applies in any situation where it is not clear that the subject has intentionally violated a mitzvah.
For instance, a local charity is seeking a donation from a successful young businessman in the community. The young man refuses to contribute. While giving charity is certainly required by the Torah, refusing a particular request is not a violation of that law. Perhaps the young man has given his share elsewhere, or has less to give than others think. In this example, even if the fundraiser feels that the young man is being stingy, he is not allowed to approach the young man’s rav and ask that he rebuke his congregant for his stinginess.
Similarly, even when the speaker is a person whom the listener trusts implicitly, he would not be permitted to accept any sort of report which the speaker is forbidden to discuss; for example, that the subject lacks intelligence, that he has a shameful family history, etc.
The Chofetz Chaim states that in cases where the information does pertain to an obvious sin, the listener cannot accept the report (from someone whom he trusts like two witnesses) for the purpose of rebuking unless the speaker himself witnessed the incident. Furthermore, the listener, may not repeat the information to others unless there is a constructive purpose (and all 7 conditions are met — see Day 77). Obviously, the listener may not cause the perpetrator physical or monetary harm as a result of the report.
It is important to bear in mind that when one approaches a rav or parent to exercise their positive influence on someone, a potentially volatile situation has been created. This is especially true regarding parents; many parents resent hearing negative reports about their children and when they are approached with such reports their defense mechanisms shift into high gear. In such cases, extreme care and caution should be exercised so that the negative words which are spoken can achieve their intended purpose.
The concept in halachah of Mesiach L’fi Tumo accords a casual remark made in conversation the status of testimony in beis din (rabbinical court). The classic case where this rule is applied is when a man goes overseas and does not return and someone casually mentions that he saw the man’s dead body. In certain specific situations, such remarks may be used to allow the missing man’s wife to remarry. The reasoning is that since the speaker apparently had no motive in mind when making the remark, we therefore assume that it is true.
However, in reference to accepting loshon hora, the Chofetz Chaim states that this halachic principle carries no weight. If in the course of conversation someone innocently mentions some negative information, we are not permitted to believe it. If the speaker mentions a situation in which someone is seen in an unfavorable light, we are required to seek a different understanding of what may have happened, thereby judging the person favorably. In general, whenever we glean negative information from someone’s innocent comments, we are required to disregard it.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) tells us that it is worse to insult someone than to hurt him financially. The Talmud explains: “This (hurtful words) affects his very self, whereas this (monetary wrongdoing) affects only his money”; “with this (monetary wrongdoing) restitution is possible, but with this (hurtful words), restitution is not possible.”
The halachah does not use the principle of Mesiach L’fi Tumo to award someone a monetary claim based on a casual remark. It follows, then, that using such comments as the grounds for insulting someone would be all the more forbidden.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim examines the concept of Devarim HaNikarim, recognizable signs, as it applies to the laws of loshon hora. From a Talmudic interpretation of a story in Scripture (Shabbos 56a) we learn that at times loshon hora may be accepted as fact when there is circumstantial proof which supports it.
The Chofetz Chaim addresses the possibility that we might take this to be a blanket allowance for believing negative information about someone whenever we feel that the situation points to his guilt. The Chofetz Chaim notes that this principle applies only to cases of toeles, where there is a constructive purpose being served. An example would be where a father has strong basis to suspect that the bad reports concerning his son’s friend are true. While a parent is permitted to warn his child to avoid bad company without such evidence, he may do so with greater conviction when his suspicions are supported by strong evidence.
The Chofetz Chaim reminds us that this allowance, like the ones which preceded it, does not apply to common loshon hora where people pointlessly discuss misjudgments, mistakes or negative personality traits of others.
The Chofetz Chaim also tells us that one is guilty of listening to loshon hora merely by turning his attention to hear someone degrade a person for having faults which the listener knows personally to be true. Consider the following:
A particularly unpleasant person works in your office — someone who is never friendly and is always ready to instigate trouble. You have witnessed these traits personally dozens of times, suffered through his tirades, and now possess all the evidence you need to form your opinion of him. If you walk by a group standing at the water cooler and the topic of the day is this person’s awful behavior, the Chofetz Chaim warns: “Don’t bend your ear to listen!” The fact that you have evidence which confirms their loshon hora is meaningless. This is not a case of toeles; therefore, their words are forbidden, as is listening to them.
The Chofetz Chaim says that a Jew should have no interest in hearing his fellow man being degraded. Rather, he should live by the words of Rabbeinu Yonah: “The correct path is to conceal the sins [of others] and to praise a person for the good which can be found in him. It is the way of fools to seek out the blemishes and mistakes of others and to criticize them; they never speak others’ praises or find the good in them” (Sha’arei Teshuvah §217).
In the previous segment, the Chofetz Chaim introduced us to the concept of “Devarim Hanikarim” recognizable signs (i.e. circumstantial proof) as a basis for believing certain forms of loshon hora.
There are two major conditions which must be fulfilled before we can apply this principle:
• The evidence must be directly related to the loshon hora and it must be strong, not superficial.
• The listener must recognize firsthand the validity of the evidence.
Chofetz Chaim cautions that even if we have powerful, firsthand evidence which permits us to believe the loshon hora, we are prohibited from sharing this information with others without a constructive reason.
As mentioned above, the source for the rule of Devarim Hanikarim is a Talmudic interpretation of a story in Scripture. In that incident, King David accepted a report that Mefiboshes, the son of King Shaul, was upset over David’s return to the throne after a rebellion had been quelled. When David returned, Mefiboshes went to meet him looking wholly unkempt. His unkempt appearance gave the impression that he was not happy with David’s return. Nevertheless, David did not rely on this evidence until he personally heard a harsh statement from the mouth of Mefiboshes; only then did David accept as fact the report which he had heard.
From here, says the Chofetz Chaim, we learn that only Devarim Hanikarim mamash, definite recognizable signs, can be used as proof regarding loshon hora (see Shabbos 56a with Rashi and Maharsha).
If you have ever been approached by a person involved in a monetary dispute, you have probably found that in his opinion, his opponent is completely in the wrong with no justification at all for his position. Quite possibly, if you spoke to the other party you would encounter a reasonable person whose claims against the first party are equally valid. The fact is that in financial disputes, there often are no villains. Rather, there are misunderstandings and conditions that were never properly clarified from the start. However, it is natural for the disputants to view matters solely from their own perspectives. This fact can lead to major problems when disputants offer what they consider to be obvious proof before a beis din (rabbinical court).
The Chofetz Chaim provides the following rule: A beis din can make use of such proof only if they can personally vouch for the validity of the proof or if two witnesses testified in beis din to the validity of the proof. In such a case beis din is allowed to actually punish the defendant based on the proof provided.
The Chofetz Chaim bemoans the fact that all too often, a party brings his monetary complaints to leaders of his community, offering circumstantial evidence, and the community leaders take action based on his word alone. The Chofetz Chaim stresses that it is absolutely forbidden to take action against any party without firsthand confirmation of the evidence or valid testimony in beis din.
To believe the litigant based on his word alone is to accept loshon hora; to punish the other party based on such loshon hora is an additional sin; to exact corporal punishment would be a grave transgression of a Torah prohibition (see Devarim 25:3).
In this section, the Chofetz Chaim focuses on the players in the sin of loshon hora: the speaker, the listener and the subject. He begins with some important rules about the subject. Contrary to public belief, one is not allowed to speak loshon hora about his or her relatives, including one’s spouse. The Chofetz Chaim says that many people stumble into this type of loshon hora by rationalizing that most negative talk about family members is not intended to malign, but to voice disapproval. This, of course, is not permitted by halachah. When a relative commits a wrong, one has no right to “put the issue on the table” for open discussion.
Of course, there are times when issues may be discussed l’toeles, for a constructive purpose, as when a sibling has done something wrong and this needs to be told to a parent.
However, cautions the Chofetz Chaim, even in such cases, all seven conditions of toeles (which will be discussed later; see Day 77) must be met. One of the conditions is that the speaker bears no ill will towards the subject and is not recounting the loshon hora to denigrate him. Unfortunately, at times this is the motivation of children when they inform their parents of misdeeds of their siblings. This type of loshon hora can be extremely damaging to family unity; the many roadblocks erected by halachah help us to proceed with caution as we approach this dangerous area.
It is forbidden to speak derogatorily about children.1 While adults understand that “kids are kids” and their negative behavior is often excused as normal immaturity, if the information casts this particular child in a bad light it should not be spoken or listened to. The Chofetz Chaim stresses that it is also forbidden to mention something about a child which is not derogatory but is harmful. The example offered is where someone mentions something negative about a child in the presence of his foster parents. While the information is not derogatory and may describe behavior common to children, it may make the foster parents unwilling to care for this child. The Chofetz Chaim notes that sometimes children can be punished excessively by their natural parents because of information about their behavior which angered the parent. Therefore, one should exercise caution before relating any such information.
From their end, parents and teachers should be careful not to discipline children based on negative reports without following the basic rule for acceptance of loshon hora: the parent or teacher must first investigate the report and determine that it is accurate. Only then can he or she take action.
Rabbi Avraham Pam z”l, used to tell the story of a young child who was punished when an item was found in his knapsack which a fellow classmate had been missing. The apparent culprit insisted that he had not stolen the item and that he had no idea how it had gotten into his knapsack. The teacher refused to believe him and punished him by having him wear a sign which read, “I am a thief.” A long time passed before another boy came along and admitted that he had stolen the item. He had wanted to return it but was too ashamed to admit his guilt, so he stuffed the item into another boy’s knapsack.
An innocent child was humiliated publicly because his teacher immediately accepted the evidence and ignored the child’s protests. If this could happen in a case where the evidence seemed so convincing, how careful must we be not to take action based on reports without first investigating the matter.
1This is the interpretation of the text of Sefer Chofetz Chaim as explained in Sefer Sh’vil HaChaim.
This segment begins with the Chofetz Chaim informing us of how terrible it is to speak loshon hora about a talmid chacham (Torah scholar).
Obviously, we are obligated to honor Torah scholars, and speaking loshon hora is certainly not according them honor. But there is something even more serious at stake. When one speaks loshon hora about a talmid chacham, the underlying message is that the scholar’s flaw disqualifies him from rendering a sound opinion. The speaker of loshon hora is actually saying, “We don’t have to listen to him.” The influence of his wicked words may cause others to say to themselves: “Why should we seek the opinion of this rav? He’s not great enough to come up with the right answer. We might as well just figure things out for ourselves.”
The Chofetz Chaim gives us a helpful insight into the strategy which the yetzer hara uses to entice someone into speaking against a talmid chacham. “It’s true,” says the yetzer hara, “that you should not shame a talmid chacham, but that’s not a problem nowadays. Only in earlier generations, when a Torah scholar was on an exceedingly high level, was shaming a Torah scholar a serious sin. But nowadays, when scholars know so much less, it’s no longer an issue.”
The Chofetz Chaim informs us that this is patently false; the criteria by which we judge whether someone is to be considered a talmid chacham are based on the level of the generation. Anyone who has attained the status of rav (rabbi), dayan (judge), or posek (one who renders halachic rulings) is certainly in the category of a talmid chacham, and speaking loshon hora of him is a very serious sin.
Of course, we are forbidden to speak loshon hora even about an am ha’aretz, someone devoid of Torah knowledge. It is only regarding an apikoros (heretic) that we are permitted to speak loshon hora. This will be discussed in the next segment.
The laws of shmiras haloshon underscore the profound impact which our words have on our relationships with family, neighbors and friends, and the respect which our rabbis and Torah teachers should enjoy within the community. This realization should inspire us to conduct all our dealings and conversations with the care and concern which the Torah requires of us. If we accomplish this, we will serve as a catalyst for elevating our society, and as the “light unto the nations” which Hashem has chosen us to be.
The Chofetz Chaim writes that it is permitted, and at times even a mitzvah, to speak loshon hora about an apikoros. The Chofetz Chaim defines apikoros as someone “who denies the Torah or the prophecies of Israel, either the written Torah or the Oral Torah, even if he says that he believes in the entire Torah except for one verse or one law which is derived from the Torah through the principles transmitted at Sinai.”
In our day, it is difficult to relate to this halachah. This is because the typical non-observant Jew today is a far different personality from the nonobservant Jew of Europe a century or two ago. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the vast majority of Jews were observant of every point of halachah. The winds of change, which were first felt in Germany some two centuries ago, led to the so-called “Enlightenment,” from which later developed Reform Judaism, Jewish Socialism and Communism, and other movements which sought to uproot authentic observance of Judaism. It was in this heretical climate that many, including young men and women who had been raised in observant homes, were swept up by the awful momentum of the time and abandoned the ways of their forebears.
It is a mitzvah to speak derogatorily of an apikoros to publicize his wickedness so that the innocent will know to keep their distance from him and not fall prey to his influence. However, as we have mentioned previously, the average non-observant Jew in our day has the status of a tinok shenishbah (a child who was captured by gentiles) and it is forbidden to speak loshon hora about him.
The Chofetz Chaim stresses that we cannot assume that someone is an apikoros based on hearsay. We can consider someone an apikoros if we personally heard him make heretical statements, or if there are consistent reports throughout the community that the person’s statements and behavior place him in this category.
In concluding this segment, the Chofetz Chaim expresses his concern that baalei loshon hora (habitual gossipers) will use this halachah to label innocent people as “heretics,” thereby claming that blatant loshon hora is a mitzvah! These sinners may feel justified in spreading negative information about anyone whom they please and claim that this was sanctioned by the Chofetz Chaim himself!
Nevertheless, the Chofetz Chaim chose to put these laws into print, citing the verse “For the ways of Hashem are straight; the righteous walk in them and sinners will stumble over them” (Hoshea 14:10). The Torah is the Torah of truth, and when it is followed faithfully, it guides a person’s life along the path of truth. But when a person bends the Torah to fit his own will, then the Torah’s power to guide the person is lost, and he is driven strictly by his own desires.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim discusses the issue of loshon hora as it relates to machlokes (dispute). Specifically, he deals with how and when to speak up regarding a controversy with the intention of quelling the dispute and making peace.
The danger of becoming involved in any dispute is that it is often difficult to know which side is right. What one side sees as a valid complaint, the other may see as nonsense. As the saying goes, “There are two sides to every story.”
How, then, does one handle this kind of situation? The Chofetz Chaim cautions us, “Ponder the matter carefully, in accordance with the laws of the Torah and [only then] decide which side is the baal machlokes (instigator of strife).” Apparently, the Chofetz Chaim is telling us to consult someone whois learned and, with his guidance, sift slowly and carefully through the information to determine if one of the disputants can be classified as a baal machlokes.
This is not an easy task. The Chofetz Chaim says that if, after examining the situation carefully, we cannot determine which side is guilty, then we should refrain from becoming involved.
If, on the other hand, we have determined that one of the parties is a baal machlokes, then the Torah allows us to publicly voice our condemnation of this person as a means of convincing him to end the dispute. We are speaking specifically in a case where the baal machlokes will most likely back away from the battle when he realizes that public opinion is against him. On the other hand, if this person is impervious to public opinion, then there is no constructive purpose in publicly declaring him a baal machlokes, and doing so would constitute speaking loshon hora.
The Chofetz Chaim lists three additional prerequisites before one speaks against a baal machlokes:
1. One must have accurate firsthand information regarding the dispute.
2. One’s intention must be strictly for a constructive purpose and not because he happens to dislike this person. If a previous animosity exists, one is not allowed to become involved. This point will be clarified later in this volume (see Day 83).
3. Obviously, if one can speak privately to the baal machlokes and convince him to desist, then that is the path which one is required to take. However, the Chofetz Chaim recognizes that in the case of the baal machlokes, rebuke may be a double-edged sword. By rebuking him in private one may lose his status as an impartial party and become aligned in the instigator’s mind with his enemies. The instigator may then move quickly to thwart any attempts to rebuke him publicly. If this scenario seems to be a real possibility, then one should not attempt to rebuke the baal machlokes in private.
The Chofetz Chaim now turns his focus in a different direction — to whom am I forbidden to relate loshon hora? He answers, “There is no difference regarding this prohibition, whether the listener is one’s relative or someone distant, or even one’s own wife — unless it is something of which he must inform her for a constructive purpose.”
The Chofetz Chaim focuses on a very typical situation. A husband comes home and his wife asks, “How was your day?” or, “What’s new in shul (synagogue)?” The Chofetz Chaim cautions us strongly against using such questions as a forum for telling one’s wife of any arguments or other unpleasant encounters which he had during the course of the day. Not only is this loshon hora, but it does further damage, since the wife, out of loyalty to her husband, is likely to harbor animosity towards the person whom the husband feels has wronged him. This may lead to her finding the opportunity to castigate the man or his family members, so that a situation which could have been resolved will instead become a full-scale feud between families.
The Chofetz Chaim adds a bit of marital advice. He says that if a husband habitually complains to his wife about the slights and indignities which he perceives have been heaped upon him, then he actually lowers himself in her eyes. She begins to believe that others do not respect him, and that perhaps he is not really worthy of respect. The Chofetz Chaim quotes Avos D’Rabbi Nassan (7:3) which explains the words of the Mishnah, “Do not speak excessively with a woman,” as making exactly this point; excessive complaining to his wife lowers a man’s esteem in her eyes.
The Chofetz Chaim points out that there are clearly cases of toeles (constructive purpose) where spouses are allowed to, and ought to, share information. This applies to business partnerships, as well. Certainly one partner can warn the other about problems with a potential vendor or customer. However, one must be careful to release only that negative information which is absolutely essential.
If it is possible to solve the problem without saying anything negative, then that is the strategy required. For example, your wife says, “Mrs. Klein invited us to dinner next week.” But you have reason to believe that the kashrus level in the Klein’s house does not meet your standards. To avoid speaking loshon hora you should think of some benign reason for declining the invitation. If your wife finds your excuse unreasonable and is upset, then you may tell her your real reason.
In truth, there are many ways to protect a spouse, business associate or oneself from harmful people or situations without resorting to loshon hora. Although it might take a little effort or ingenuity, our Sages assure us that the dividends will surely be well worth our while.
At one time or another, we hear derogatory remarks about Jews. It is tragic enough when such remarks are made by Jews to Jewish listeners. Even more tragic is when they are told by Jews to co-workers or business associates who are not Jewish. The subject of these remarks might be an individual Jew, a specific group of Jews, or Jews in general.
The Chofetz Chaim declares that to speak loshon hora about a Jew when the listener is a gentile is a much greater sin than when the listener is a Jew. One who is guilty of this sin “disgraces the honor of Israel and desecrates the Name of Heaven.”
There is yet another reason for the particular severity of this sin. When one speaks loshon hora to a fellow Jew, there is a possibility that the listener will not be quick to accept the report as fact—especially if he is someone familiar with the laws of loshon hora. Gentiles, on the other hand, certainly do not have a predisposition towards judging Jews favorably. Upon hearing the derogatory report, the gentile will be quick to believe it and pass the information on to others.
When a Jew denigrates other Jews in the presence of gentiles, he is, in essence, contradicting the purpose of his own existence. Our mission in this world as a people is to spread the honor of Hashem by serving as His representatives before the rest of the world. We say in Shema each day: “V’Ahavta es Hashem Elokecha” And you shall love Hashem, your God (Devarim 6:4). Our Sages teach (Yoma 86a) that we demonstrate our love of Hashem by making His Name beloved in the eyes of others. When a Jew studies Torah, speaks pleasantly to people and deals honestly in business, then people say, “Praiseworthy is the father who taught him Torah; praiseworthy is the teacher who taught him Torah. See how beautiful and correct are his ways and deeds.”
Thus the damage caused by relating loshon hora to gentiles goes far beyond loshon hora, which is devastating in itself. Instead of using his abilities to increase Hashem’s honor, the speaker has been guilty of chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s Name).
Our sages teach that all Jews are responsible for one another (Shevuos 39b). That responsibility has an impact on the laws of shmiras haloshon as well. The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that to the extent that we can influence others to observe these all-important laws, we are responsible to do so.
He uses the example of a man who stands at the head of his household. His responsibility in the area of shmiras haloshon extends to his wife and children. Certainly a mother, too, must actively educate and correct her family members regarding shmiras haloshon. The Chofetz Chaim cites a Talmudic teaching that one who has the ability to chastise the members of his household, but refrains from doing so, will be held responsible for their deeds (Shabbos 54b). A parent’s responsibility is awesome.
Let no one think, however, that this is the charge of parents alone. Every Jew must seek to eradicate the sin of loshon hora from his surroundings. The Chofetz Chaim states that children should not allow loshon hora spoken by their parents to go unnoticed. Of course, parents must be addressed with sensitivity and great respect. Often, a rav (rabbi) should be consulted regarding the proper approach to use. The Chofetz Chaim stresses that children who choose to turn a blind eye to their parents’ loshon hora will be held responsible, as will their parents.
There is one overriding rule to bear in mind whenever rebuke is in order. Speak gently, says the Chofetz Chaim. To turn our homes into battlefields will only be counterproductive. Gentle reproof is the only formula for achieving positive results.
The Chofetz Chaim has one final piece of advice. As the saying goes, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Children learn most from observing their parents’ behavior. It is crucial that parents set a good example by avoiding all forms of forbidden speech in conversation. Then, their children will see shmiras haloshon as a way of life.
Our children’s Torah education is our national treasure. Parents make great personal sacrifices to pay for Torah education, driven by the yearning that their children should grow to be Jews who are devoted to Hashem and His Torah. To a great extent, the education of our children takes place within the confines of our homes. If we live according to the Torah’s teachings in all areas of life, then we can expect that our children will follow in our footsteps, in their relationship with Hashem and with their fellow man.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim begins addressing the subject of avak loshon hora (lit. the dust of loshon hora), statements which are not actual loshon hora but which are nonetheless forbidden.
The mere concept of avak loshon hora underscores the severity of loshon hora. This sin is so dangerous that an entire chapter of Sefer Chofetz Chaim is devoted to statements which are forbidden because they hint at loshon hora or because they can lead to loshon hora.
A particle of dust is so miniscule that one has to look very carefully to see it at all. It is often the same with avak loshon hora. One may be dealing with words which seem quite innocuous. In the Chofetz Chaim’s first example, someone comments about a certain person, “It’s amazing how far he’s come.” On the surface, it appears that the speaker has not spoken derogatorily about his subject, nor caused him any harm. But if we probe a bit further, we can expand the statement to mean, “It’s amazing how far he’s come, considering the fact that he has an unsavory past,” or “… considering the fact that he’s not that bright.” In all probability, the speaker’s intention was entirely complimentary. Nevertheless, people may lose respect for the person, no matter what his current status, if they find out that he had a troubled past or if they perceive him as lacking in intelligence.
Perhaps the most famous case of avak loshon hora is when the statement is pure praise of an individual. On the surface, this would seem to pose no problem. What could be wrong with praising someone? To understand the problem we need to examine the dynamics of a conversation. In conversation, each person builds on what the other person has just said. The halachah identifies certain conversations as being likely to lead to loshon hora and declares them forbidden.
In certain situations, praising an individual can lead listeners to focus on the flaws of the person being praised. One is not allowed to praise someone in front of his enemies. The temptation is overwhelming to rebut praise of one’s enemy with criticism.
We should never praise someone excessively, even to his friends. When the spotlight is directed onto someone and his praises are sung, it is quite possible that someone will say, “Yes, he has many fine qualities — except for the fact that…”
We have been discussing praising someone in front of one person or a few people. One should not praise someone in public, says the Chofetz Chaim. This is because the law of averages dictates that there will be at least one person who either is jealous of the person or has something against him—in which case the praise is sure to set off a negative reaction. The only situation where public praise is allowed is when the subject is renowned as a learned, righteous person. In such a case it is reasonable to assume that even if he has critics, they will be reluctant to speak out publicly against him, because by doing so they would lose their own credibility.
Yet in Be’er Mayim Chaim the Chofetz Chaim says that we should avoid sitting among people who are discussing a renowned Torah personality, because there are some people who simply cannot resist offering criticism no matter who the subject is. As we discussed, negative talk about such an individual is a most serious sin, as is listening to and accepting it.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim cites another example of praise which should be avoided. That is when someone publicizes the fact that a person has done an outstanding act of kindness on his behalf, or has presented him with a generous donation or loan. For example, a person announces, “Mr. Rosen welcomed me into his home and treated me like a king!” or, “Mr. Rosen lent me $10,000 just when I needed it desperately!” The result may be a great disservice to Mr. Rosen because he may become swamped with requests, from honest people and from other types, who want to benefit from his generosity.
The Chofetz Chaim also informs us that it is forbidden to live among people who habitually speak loshon hora. He adds that it is certainly forbidden to sit among such people, even if one does not intend to listen to their conversations. He goes so far as to advise Torah teachers that if one of their students is a baal loshon hora, someone who habitually speaks loshon hora, and the teacher feels that he cannot influence this student to change, then he is required to cease teaching that student. (The Chofetz Chaim bases this law on an incident in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 31b) where the student was an adult.)
If by chance one finds himself in the company of baalei loshon hora, he is required to rebuke them for speaking loshon hora and ask them to stop. However, one should first give some thought to whom he is rebuking; if they are likely to respond by increasing their loshon hora, then rebuke should not be given.
If it appears that rebuke might fail to stop the loshon hora but it will not cause it to increase, then one is required to rebuke.
Rebuking is not easy. Often, it seems like an embarrassing, self-righteous thing to do. But the Chofetz Chaim says that we must do it when required, because otherwise we become accomplices in the crime. The Chofetz Chaim offers us an option in cases where rebuke seems doomed to failure—we should change the topic. In many cases that is much easier than one would think. And it accomplishes the goal of moving the person or group away from loshon hora.
Another option is to strongly defend the person being maligned. If one takes control of the conversation and points out that the speaker cannot possibly know the whole story, that his comments are based on hearsay, then even without direct rebuke, one will make his point and raise a reasonable doubt in the listeners’ minds.
We have learned that a person is required to exercise his influence on members of his household so that they will avoid the sin of loshon hora. In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim explains why it is especially important to train children to guard their tongues.
He quotes the Vilna Gaon, who says that proper speech and good character are acquired through practice — lots of practice. If a child is trained to avoid speaking negatively of others, then he will carry this training into adulthood. He will have the necessary control to choose his words carefully.
The Chofetz Chaim maintains that the reason why loshon hora was so widespread in his generation, was that people had been accustomed from their youth to speaking whatever they pleased, without anyone ever telling them that there exists a concept called shmiras haloshon. Thus, people did not even consider the possibility that their words involved any sort of transgression.
The situation, says the Chofetz Chaim, would be different if children were trained from their early youth to watch their words. If children were taught to consider the impact of their words before they speak, they would have the “basic training” they needed to avoid loshon hora, ona’as devarim (hurtful words), and other forbidden speech. And shmiras haloshon would be considered as integral to Jewish life as kashrus or tefillin.
The Chofetz Chaim provides us with all the motivation we need to educate our children in this way. He assures us that our efforts to help our children observe shmiras haloshon will make it easy for them to “safeguard themselves with regard to this sacred quality.” And he assures us that through this, they will merit a beautiful portion in the World to Come and all the blessings of life in this world as well.
Earlier in this volume, we referred to 7 conditions which must be fulfilled before one is permitted to relate loshon hora l’toeles, for a constructive purpose. These are:
1. One must be absolutely certain that the information is accurate. Either one had to have witnessed the incident himself, or he investigated the report and found it to be accurate. If one has second-hand negative information which he wishes to relate for a constructive purpose, he must make it clear that his words are based on hearsay.
2. One must think the matter through and be sure that a wrong has actually been committed. Sometimes, what one may think is a misdeed may in fact be permitted by halachah. One must be certain that his information and his interpretation of the information are correct before the information can be related.
3. One must first approach the wrongdoer and attempt to persuade him to rectify his behavior. For example: A storekeeper was seen cheating a customer. The first step would be to speak to the storekeeper and try to persuade him to return the money. Only after this fails should one consider informing the customer that he was cheated.
4. One is not permitted to exaggerate in any way. This can be especially difficult in a situation where one is relating information regarding an emotional issue.
5. One’s intention must be solely to help the person who is being victimized. If one harbors any ill will toward the subject of the report, then he is not permitted to relate it for a constructive reason. (Of course, one should make every effort to rid oneself of such ill will.) For example, for a storekeeper to tell a potential customer about his competitor’s wrongdoing would have the likely effect of drawing this customer into his own store. In that case, the discussion would be forbidden. In a case where one has constructive negative information to relate but feels that he has a personal interest in the matter, it would be advisable for him to consult a rav (rabbi).
6. If one can effect the same result without speaking loshon hora, then he must use that option. If one wants to warn a friend not to shop in a certain store because of the proprietor’s dishonesty, and there is a way to convince him to shop elsewhere without speaking badly of the proprietor, then that option must be used.
7. One is not allowed to convey the information if this will result in the subject suffering a greater loss than the halachah allows.
In this halachah, we see how crucial a role one’s intentions play in determining whether our actions or statements are praiseworthy. The Chofetz Chaim informs us that derogatory information may be spoken for a constructive purpose only if the speaker is not guilty of the very sin that he is exposing. One who does suffer from the same fault he wishes to expose must remain silent on this matter.
The source for this halachah is the episode in Scripture where King Yeihu was held accountable by Hashem for murdering King Achav’s household, though he was fulfilling a Divine prophecy that Achav’s family would be destroyed because of its idol worship. Because Yeihu, too, was guilty of a degree of idol worship, he had no right to punish those who were guilty of this sin. Therefore Hashem decreed, “And I shall bring to account the blood of [Achav who was killed in] Yizrael upon the house of Yeihu” (Hoshea 1:4).
Why should this factor be significant? If one witnesses a misdeed and can have it rectified by reporting it, why should his own lapses matter? The Chofetz Chaim answers, “This person’s intention in revealing this hidden matter is not for the good, out of fear of Hashem. Rather, he wants to shame his fellow and rejoice over his misfortune.” In other words, it is inconceivable that such a person would reveal this information with pure intentions.
For example, if someone cheats in business, it is impossible that his motivation would be pure in talking about someone else’s business lapses. His true motivation, says the Chofetz Chaim, is a desire to ridicule the wrongdoer. (If the businessman sincerely wishes to save others from this person’s lapses, he should discuss the matter with a rav.)
There is a message here. Our Sages tell us (Kiddushin 70a) that one who degrades another person often does so regarding the very fault which he himself possesses. Sometimes, we notice faults in others because we have them within ourselves. The Torah, in the laws of loshon hora, recognizes this principle and tells us that before we speak against others, we must first correct ourselves.