Because it is so easy to err in the area of constructive speech, the Chofetz Chaim saw fit to offer the following illustration and expound upon it:
You are walking down a street in your city and you see Reuven about to enter a certain store. Reuven is a simpleton, a somewhat naïve fellow who is not alert to the schemes of crooked individuals. The storekeeper, on the other hand, is a shrewd fellow who has little trouble fooling people like Reuven with shoddy merchandise, inflated prices and dishonest weights.
In such a situation, says the Chofetz Chaim, you are obligated to warn Reuven not to enter the store. If he has already entered, advise him to leave as quickly as possible.
The same would apply if you see that Reuven has already agreed to a purchase in which he will be cheated. For instance, the storekeeper tells Reuven that a new jacket, which is on sale at a great price reduction, is a popular brand name. You happen to know that the item is actually a poor imitation of the brand name. Or, the storekeeper tells Reuven that the coat he is about to purchase is on sale for $400, but you know that the same coat is selling everywhere else for $315.
In such cases you must warn Reuven that he is about to be cheated. Of course, before doing so, you must fulfill the five requirements of rechilus l’toeles. Once again, these requirements are:
1. You must be certain that your information about the storekeeper is correct.
2. You may not exaggerate the storekeeper’s faults.
3. Your intent must be l’toeles, for a constructive purpose and not because you happen to dislike t his particular storekeeper.
4. You must be certain that there is no way to convince Reuven to avoid this purchase without telling him the faults of the storekeeper.
5. You will not cause the storekeeper a loss which is not permitted by Halachah (Torah law). If your warning Reuven will result in a major scandal which will force the storekeeper to leave town or close his business, then you must remain silent.
A competent halachic authority should be consulted regarding how best to prevent further fraud.
In the previous segment, the Chofetz Chaim presented a case where one would be obligated to speak rechilus for a constructive purpose. A simpleton was on the verge of making a purchase from a shrewd, dishonest storekeeper. In such cases, one would be required to inform the person not to make the purchase.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim takes the story one step further. The purchase has already been made and the customer has been cheated. Should the observer now go and inform the buyer that he’s been “taken for a ride”? On the surface, the answer would seem to be a resounding “Yes!” Why shouldn’t we let the man know that he has been victimized so that he can demand a refund?
The answer to this is that in certain instances, the man cannot legally demand a refund. For example, the laws of ona’ah (fraud) call for a refund only when the buyer has been overcharged an amount equal to one-sixth of the item’s true value. If the amount is less than one-sixth of the item’s value, the seller cannot be forced to refund the money. (Since the amount is small and most people would not make a claim to recover it, the wronged party is assumed to have relinquished his claim to it — see Mishnah Bava Metzia 4:3). In this case, as well as other cases where Halachah does not call for a refund, it would be forbidden to tell the buyer that he had been cheated, for no constructive purpose would be served.
The Chofetz Chaim says more.
If the buyer asks us whether we think he was cheated, we are not allowed to tell him the truth, for this would cause strife and is therefore considered rechilus. To the contrary, says the Chofetz Chaim; in such a case it would be a mitzvah to praise the transaction and tell the buyer that he did well with his purchase. The Chofetz Chaim assures us that the command “Distance yourself from falsehood” (Shemos 23:7) does not apply here. As we have already explained (Day 92), preserving peace is a form of truth, while spreading animosity is equated with falsehood.
The Chofetz Chaim also points out a case where the amount which the buyer was overcharged is refundable in beis din, but nevertheless it is questionable whether the victim can be told that he was overcharged. This is where the buyer is known to have a loose tongue. He is liable to tell the storekeeper “And if you want to know how I figured out that you swindled me — it was Shimon who told me!” In this case, by informing him that he was cheated, we would be causing him to speak rechilus.
This, in fact, is a very likely possibility. In confronting the storekeeper and making his case, Reuven’s natural tendency would be to draw upon all his evidence, including the identity of his informer. Nevertheless, he would be wrong for doing so.
We know how seriously the Torah views fraud. It is seen, not as a small indiscretion, but as something which destroys the world. Nevertheless, the need to expose fraud does not grant us a license to cause another Jew to sin and to cause strife among the Jewish people.
Righteous indignation is a feeling which nearly everyone experiences at some point in time. While it stems from the sense that truth and justice are on our side, the reality may be precisely the opposite. In a dispute over money, even a businessman who carefully adheres to the Torah’s business ethics in most situations may veer off track. He might find justification for his actions and say, “Since I’ve been cheated, I will never pay the balance that I owe.”
Often, says the Chofetz Chaim, the rationalizations which lead a person to take the law into his own hands are the results of rechilus. An example is when Reuven sees Shimon overpay for an item at a particular store. Though Shimon has already purchased the item, Reuven tells him, “You know, you could have gotten that for much less at the discount outlet.” Shimon now decides to remedy the situation himself, without consulting a beis din (rabbinical court). He withholds the money which he owes the storekeeper on the theory that he is only keeping what is rightfully his own. Of course, he is wrong. As we learned in the previous segment, there are times when a beis din will not force the storekeeper to refund the amount which was overcharged. In any case, one has no right to withhold payment without the authorization of beis din.
For advice about a purchase to be considered toeless (constructive), there must be a reasonable possibility that it will serve a constructive purpose. If no constructive purpose will be achieved, then the advice can only lead to a dispute between the buyer and the storekeeper. That, in turn, may lead to the type of unilateral actions which we have described. Therefore, says the Chofetz Chaim, we cannot inform someone that he has been cheated if it might lead him to withhold payment or try in some other way to cause the seller unwarranted loss.
The Chofetz Chaim comments, “Many people today stumble terribly in this area, offering their opinion to others regarding their purchases. Their friends ask them whether they paid a fair price and they respond, ‘He cheated you!’ ”
As the Chofetz Chaim explains at length, these people fail to foresee the consequences of what seems like the simple observation of a concerned friend. To make matters worse, they often incite the buyer by telling him, “Give back the merchandise! Tell him you can buy it cheaper somewhere else. If you’re embarrassed to do that, send someone else to him with the merchandise. And if he won’t take it back, don’t finish paying him what you owe.”
What are the consequences of this advice?
The advisor in this story has transgressed the negative commandments: “Do not go as a peddler of gossip” (Vayikra 19:16) and “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (ibid. v.14). The Chofetz Chaim focuses on another angle: Is the advisor correct that his friend was actually cheated? Did he study the merchandise well enough to know the makings of this particular product and its market price? Might there be many variations of quality, and therefore price variations, for this product? For instance, one can buy a vacuum cleaner for $150, or for $500. If one pays $500 for a top-of-the-line model, has he been cheated? In addition, observes the Chofetz Chaim, prices can change. Perhaps a certain item has become difficult to obtain, resulting in a price increase.
In the Chofetz Chaim’s illustration, the advisor has given no consideration to these factors. Because he acted without consideration of the halachah, he has enraged the buyer without cause. In all likelihood, the buyer will see no results from his complaint to the storekeeper, and will be left feeling cheated. The resulting conflict and hatred, says the Chofetz Chaim, are rooted in comments which never should have been voiced, even if the purchaser had sought his friend’s opinion. The Chofetz Chaim cautions people to ponder these factors and the relevant laws well before speaking up in such situations. “Then Hashem will assist him that no mishap will come about through him.”
This segment opens with a situation where a friend confronts us: “Someone used my calculator and left it on — tell me who it was!” Revealing the culprit’s identity would be rechilus. One is permitted to say, “It wasn’t me.”
However, this would not be the case where one is present at a private board meeting where the majority voted not to renew Mr. Stein’s contract as synagogue custodian. If Mr. Stein confronts one of the board members and demands to know, “Did you vote against me?” it would be forbidden to respond in any way other than to say, “The discussion at the meeting is a private matter and I am not at liberty to reveal its contents.” This applies even when one actually voted in favor of Mr. Stein and strongly disagrees with the majority decision.
The Chofetz Chaim offers us a real-life situation which often leads to rechilus.
Reuven, who sells Judaica, has received a few rare portraits by a renowned artist. Shimon passes by the store and, seeing the portraits in the window, enters Reuven’s store and negotiates a price for one of the paintings. He tells Reuven, “I left my checkbook at home. Please put this painting aside until I return this evening.” Reuven agrees.
When Shimon returns that evening, he is dismayed to learn that the painting has been sold to Levi! Reuven attempts to excuse himself. “What could I do? Levi desperately wanted that painting. I told him that I had already agreed to sell it to you, but he didn’t care. In fact, he didn’t even give me a choice in the matter. He just put the money on the table and took the painting! Perhaps, had I really tried, I could have grabbed the painting back. But I didn’t want to get into a fight with him — I’m sure you understand!”
If Reuven’s account of what transpired between Levi and himself is accurate, then he is guilty of speaking rechilus. There is nothing constructive to be gained from telling Shimon that Levi is to blame. The sale to Levi is valid; Reuven does not dispute that. Telling the details to Shimon will only serve to cause him to be angry with Levi.
The Chofetz Chaim notes that all too often in such situations, Reuven’s account is merely a cover-up for the real story: Levi has come and offered a better price, or he is a close friend of Reuven, and therefore Reuven is eager to benefit him. Reuven has not even informed Levi that he has already agreed to sell the painting. When Shimon comes along and demands an explanation, Reuven contrives a story so that Levi is blamed and Reuven appears innocent. If this is the situation, then Reuven is guilty of the more severe sin of hotza’as shem ra (slander).
The Chofetz Chaim offers one final word of caution: Sometimes, Reuven is honest and places the blame squarely on his own shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he says, “It was my fault. Someone came along with a better offer and I sold it to him without informing him that I had a verbal understanding with you.” Even then, Reuven should not reveal the identity of the purchaser, for it is possible that Shimon will harbor some ill will towards Levi, despite the fact that he was totally innocent of any wrongdoing.
This concludes the laws of rechilus. In the remaining segments, the Chofetz Chaim offers important illustrations relating to various concepts in shmiras haloshon (guarding one’s tongue).
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Afterword: Business Situations
In this segment we are introduced to Shimon, a reckless businessman with an appetite for risk — especially when the money which he is investing is not his own.
One day, Levi opens the newspaper and comes across an article about rumors concerning a lucrative business partnership between Reuven and Shimon. Levi is dismayed; Reuven is quite wealthy and Shimon is sure to make good use of his partner’s money.
There is no question, says the Chofetz Chaim, that Levi is obligated to warn Reuven of the dangers of such a partnership (provided that the conditions of toeles have been fulfilled).
This applies if the partnership has not yet been finalized. If, on the other hand, Levi learns of the partnership after it is already a reality, then the halachah is different. As we have already learned, it is forbidden to provide someone with information which would cause him to take action which is not sanctioned by halachah. Once a partnership exists, it is not a simple matter to dissolve it. Shimon may suffer a loss from the break-up and a beis din (rabbinical court) might rule that Reuven cannot dissolve the partnership without offering compensation. The fact that in the past Shimon has made some reckless deals may not be sufficient grounds for dissolution. Furthermore, in a court of law, Levi could not testify as a single witness. Even if he had a supporting witness with him, he would have to present his case before a beis din for Reuven to take action. Therefore, Levi cannot relate his concerns to Reuven if he will react by immediately dissolving the partnership.
On the other hand, if by warning Reuven the result will be that Reuven will remain in the partnership but will be on guard to make sure that his money is used wisely, then Levi should inform him.
The Chofetz Chaim also discusses a case where Shimon is not a reckless businessman, but one who has fallen on hard times. He had been successful in the past, but now has suffered some major reversals. Reuven, his prospective partner, is unaware of this, but Levi knows all about it. The Chofetz Chaim addresses Levi. “Beware, my brother,’’ he warns him. To relate such information would be, in the Chofetz Chaim’s words, “a great sin.” We are speaking where there is no evidence that Shimon’s losses had anything to do with recklessness or poor judgment. It was simply a matter of things not going his way. Therefore, says the Chofetz Chaim, there is every reason to believe that Hashem will now take pity on him so that he can succeed as he did in the past. Furthermore, assisting someone so that he can succeed at earning a livelihood and not have to live off community donations is actually the highest form of tzedakah (charity). And one never loses from an act of tzedakah (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 247:2).
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Afterword: Business Situations (continued)
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim teaches us an important rule concerning giving advice.
Shimon is seeking a partner with whom to start a business. He sets his eye upon Levi, who has a reputation as an aggressive, energetic businessman. Shimon does not know Levi personally, but his friend Reuven knows Levi well. In a conversation with Reuven one day, Shimon mentions his consideration of Levi as a partner.
Reuven cannot believe it! His friend Levi has been unemployed for six months and is desperately trying to earn some money. Reuven had promised to help him find a job. And now the opportunity has fallen right into his lap!
But there is something else that Reuven knows. Levi has been borrowing thousands of dollars and has yet to pay back a cent. His situation is becoming desperate, and therefore it is quite possible that he is prepared to make some risky investments to try and earn a quick, sizeable profit and pay off some of his debts. In his heart, Reuven knows the truth: he would not take Levi as a partner in his own business at the present time.
The Chofetz Chaim informs us that there is a vast difference between withholding negative information about someone and offering advice which ignores such information. In our example, if Reuven were to hear that Shimon is preparing to enter into a partnership with Levi, it might be forbidden for him to approach Shimon and inform him that he considers the partnership a risk. He has no proof that Levi is going to do business recklessly; Reuven’s concerns are based merely on his assessment of Levi’s situation. For him to discourage Shimon because of this may very well be forbidden. On the other hand, for Reuven to ignore such information and instead use his conversation with Shimon as an opportunity to encourage Shimon to enter into the partnership would be a transgression of “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Vayikra 19:14), which prohibits us from intentionally offering bad advice.
The Chofetz Chaim bemoans the fact that some people offer such advice because they are blinded by financial considerations. For example, Reuven may be one of Levi’s creditors. He wants to see Levi earn some money so that Levi will pay his debts. It is in such situations that Reuven must be honest with himself and not offer advice that he knows is not in Shimon’s best interests. The same would apply in the area of shidduchim (marriage matches) and other types of relationships.
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Afterword: Shidduchim Situations
The Chofetz Chaim devotes the remainder of his sefer to the topic of shidduchim (marriage matches).
If we were to look at the Torah as a kind of “Manufacturer’s Manual” for how to conduct ourselves in this world in which our Creator has placed us, we would find the power of speech under a chapter entitled “Dangerous Material — Handle with Care.” In no area would this title be more appropriate than in the area of shidduchim. The information which we provide to a party who is considering someone else as a marriage partner for himself or for his child may well determine that person’s decision. Thus, such information may affect the lives of both parties for eternity. The Chofetz Chaim notes that his initial guidelines in this area are so obvious that they should not have to be stated. Nevertheless, he states them, “because of the terrible results which come [from ignoring these guidelines] — and [ignoring them] is perfectly correct to many people. Therefore, I have been forced to explain the great treachery of the baalei loshon hora in this matter. Perhaps through this, Hashem will help to remove some of the intense blindness in this area.”
The Chofetz Chaim has very strong words for those who have the practice of labeling people with derogatory descriptions which have no basis. Labeling is an easy way of showing a complete understanding of someone’s personality when in fact the assessment may be far off the mark.
The Chofetz Chaim offers the example of a young man who is intelligent, but his sincere, innocent nature makes it difficult for him to recognize the shrewd, crafty dealings of others. Or, his spiritual level places him above taking part in the exchange of jokes or verbal fencing which his cynical acquaintances seem to enjoy so much. When an inquiring party seeks information about the young man, they are told, “He’s a nice boy, but not that bright.” Naturally, the party immediately loses interest. Because of this labeling, the young man endures many rejections from potential partners.
The Chofetz Chaim has extremely harsh words for loose-tongued cynics who carelessly offer such false assessments. He applies to them the verse, “May Hashem cut off all lips of smooth talk, the tongue which speaks boastfully” (Tehillim 12:4). The Chofetz Chaim deems these individuals baalei motzi’ei shem ra, those who habitually speak slander, since they give false information about others. They are also guilty of causing others to sin, because they create the impression that to be considered “successful” one needs to demonstrate a quick wit. In fact, those who regularly engage in “quick-witted” conversation often are guilty of transgressing the laws of shmiras haloshon (guarding one’s tongue).
The best way to deal with such people, says the Chofetz Chaim, is to stay far away from them.
This segment concludes with the Chofetz Chaim cautioning us that when asked information concerning a shidduch, we are not to offer negative information about the party’s ancestors. What is important is the person, not his or her family tree.
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Afterword: Shidduchim Situations (continued)
Having informed us in strong terms what we are not permitted to relate when providing information concerning a shidduch, the Chofetz Chaim now discusses negative information which should be related. At times we must remain silent, in keeping with the commandment, “Do not go as a peddler of gossip among your people” (Vayikra 19:16), while at other times we must speak up, in keeping with the end of that same verse, “You shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed.”
If a shidduch is being considered and one is aware that either the young man or woman has a serious flaw of which the other party is unaware, then it must be reported.
For example, if either a young man or woman has a serious hidden medical problem, or is lacking in basic religious observance, these facts must be told. Of course, the conditions for speaking loshon hora l’toeles (for a constructive purpose) must be fulfilled; the speaker must be certain that the information is accurate, that he is not exaggerating the flaw in any way, and that he is reporting the information for a constructive reason and not because he has a personal interest in seeing this shidduch proposal rejected.
The Chofetz Chaim cautions us not to offer negative information about a young man’s level of Torah knowledge. There is no universal standard by which to judge someone’s Torah knowledge. If the girl’s family considers a high level of learning a priority, then there are ways by which they can determine the boy’s level without others having to come forward and offer their opinions. If they did not take these steps, then we can assume that the matter is not such a priority to them. One would, therefore, be guilty of loshon hora if he were to offer such information.
If one knows that the home of either party is one of pritzus (low moral standards), this must be reported. But, says the Chofetz Chaim, this is true only if there is a reasonable chance that the information will be taken seriously and the shidduch will be rejected. Otherwise, such information will be used after the marriage as “ammunition” when problems develop (and, assuming the information is true, they probably will develop). In such a case, reporting the information will only serve to cause rechilus to be spoken.
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Afterword: Shidduchim Situations (continued)
The Chofetz Chaim now discusses dowry and material support which a prospective father-in law offers his prospective son-in-law. First he discusses a case where the shidduch (marriage match) is being considered but has not been concluded.
Suppose you know that there is no way that the father-in-law can provide what he is promising. You know this because you have heard him say that he has no intention of fulfilling his commitment. Or, you know that his financial situation is so pitiful that it would take a miracle for him to provide what he is promising. Then you would be permitted to tell this to the prospective chassan (groom) if the conditions for speaking negatively l’toeles (for a constructive purpose) have been fulfilled.
The Chofetz Chaim stresses that the father-in law’s middle-class status is not a reason to decide that he will not make good on his promise of generous financial support. As we all know, many middle-class people strain themselves to provide for their married children far above what they can actually afford. According to the conditions of toeles, negative information cannot be related unless one has determined that his assumptions are correct.
In addition, before relating such information, one must determine that these matters are important enough to the chassan that the shidduch hinges on them. Sometimes the chassan would like a large financial commitment, but he is not prepared to reject the shidduch because of it.
Also, before informing the young man of such information, one should be certain that the young man himself has been honest and straightforward with his prospective father-in-law. If he has not, then there is no reason to inform him that he is being dealt with in the same way.
All of the above applies before the couple have actually become engaged. When they are already engaged, the halachah is much more restrictive regarding offering negative information. In such a case, one would be allowed to inform the chassan that his father-in-law was deceiving him (after fulfilling all of the above conditions) only if the chassan will react by merely being on guard against deception, or by bringing his problem to a rav (rabbi). If he will react by breaking the engagement, which would be wrong to do without consulting a halachic authority, then he should not be informed.
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM Afterword: Shidduchim Situations (continued)
Through the course of this sefer, the Chofetz Chaim has told us many times that there is a vast difference between knowing information firsthand and hearing it from another party. As we have discussed, if one knows firsthand that a party in a shidduch (marriage match) has a serious hidden medical problem then he is obligated to inform the other party of this. The same would apply if one party is lacking in religious observance, or if his or her home is a place of pritzus (low moral standards).
What if one knows this information from a second source? For example, Reuven heard from a friend, who has since moved out of the area, that a certain young man has a medical problem. The young man is about to become engaged to the daughter of Reuven’s neighbor. In this case, Reuven should state the situation exactly as it is: “I don’t know this for a fact, but I have heard from someone else that this young man has…. I suggest that you check it out.”
The Chofetz Chaim concludes his sefer with the following:
“The general rule is: A person must carefully ponder all his ways, especially the way in which he speaks. He should not meddle in matters between a man and his fellow unless he is certain that his facts are accurate and that his intention is constructive and not because of hatred. He should give thought to the results of his statements, that nothing contrary to halachah should come about because of them. With such care and forethought, Hashem will assist him that he should not be caught in the snare of the yetzer hara (evil inclination).
“May the Rock of Israel rescue us from mistakes and show us wonders from His Torah. Blessed is Hashem forever, Amen v’amen.”
The Chofetz Chaim begins his classic sefer, Chofetz Chaim, by painting a picture of the world and our place in it. He begins: Hashem separated us as a nation. He gave us His precious Torah and brought us into Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Why? For what purpose were we chosen? The Chofetz Chaim answers that we were chosen to perform Hashem’s mitzvos (commandments) and thereby earn enormous goodness and reward in this world and the next.
The Chofetz Chaim notes, however, that Hashem gives us His gifts in a manner that is totally different from that of a human being. A person who presents a gift and then sees that the recipient does not appreciate its value, might feel inclined to take the item back. He might reason that if the recipient does not recognize its value, the gift should go to someone who does recognize it. Hashem, however, acts differently. When in earlier generations He saw that we did not appreciate His Torah, He sent us prophets to help us recognize the value of this most precious gift.
When the era of prophecy came to an end at the start of the Second Temple period, we still lived in our precious Land and the Divine Presence still rested in the Beis HaMikdash (the Holy Temple), providing us with a golden opportunity to serve Hashem and fulfill all His commandments in the way that He desires. But we became entangled in a web of sinas chinam (baseless hatred) and loshon hora (derogatory speech). And because of disunity brought about by these sins our Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and we were exiled from our Land.
The Chofetz Chaim states: “From then until now, each and every day, we pray to Hashem that He should bring us near to Him, as He promises many times throughout His Torah. Yet He has not answered our pleas.”
The Chofetz Chaim concludes that we are the ones who are to blame for this. The 2,000-year-old exile is not a continuous punishment for the sins of those who lived during the Second Temple era. Hashem stands ready to end the exile immediately — were it not for the sins of sinas chinam and loshon hora which continue to wreak destruction among our people.
Previously, the Chofetz Chaim explained the true source of this ongoing exile. He stated that the sins of loshon hora and sinas chinam (baseless hatred) of past generations would not cause Hashem (G-d) to withhold His Presence from us. It is our own sins that keep Hashem from drawing near to us, despite our constant prayers.
The Chofetz Chaim says that if we analyze our sins, there is only one that can be so powerful as to cause Hashem not to redeem His beloved children — the sin of loshon hora. It is simple logic. If loshon hora, and the sinas chinam which it caused, had the negative spiritual power to destroy the Beis HaMikdash, then certainly it has the power to prevent the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash.
The Chofetz Chaim brings many sources to support this point. In Parashas Shemos, the Torah relates the suffering of the Jews in Egypt. The Torah states that Moshe, who had grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, went out among his people and shared their pain and suffering. In his wanderings among the Jews, he encountered the notorious pair, Dasan and Aviram who informed on him after he killed an Egyptian who was attacking a Jew. Moshe said, “Now the matter is known” (Shemos 2:15). The Midrash interprets this to mean, “Now I understand why the Jewish people are in this terrible exile. It is because they speak loshon hora.”
The Chofetz Chaim also cites the episode of the Spies who were sent to scout out the Land of Israel in preparation for the Jews’ conquest of it. Their negative report was loshon hora against Hashem’s precious Holy Land. The Jews wept over this report on the night of Tishah B’Av (the ninth of Av), and it was this sin that ultimately led to the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple). Hashem declared, “You wept in vain. I will establish this night as a night of weeping for all generations.”
The Chofetz Chaim provides further proof. The Torah states “Cursed is he who attacks his friend secretly” (Devarim 27:24). As Rashi explains, this is a reference to loshon hora. A person who speaks loshon hora is cursed. The Talmud (Arachin 15b) goes further, comparing loshon hora to a denial of G-d.
The Chofetz Chaim then offers his final point. The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 6,14) states, “Hashem says, In this world, because there is loshon hora among you, I withdrew My Presence from among you.” Like a letter directly from Hashem – clear and unambiguous.
The message of this statement is incredible. The Beis HaMikdash has not been rebuilt, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is not in our midst, because of the forbidden speech which we utter.
The Chofetz Chaim has stated and proven beyond any doubt that the sin of loshon hora, which was the cause of the Second Temple’s destruction, is the factor which up to this day has prevented us from being redeemed through Moshiach’s arrival. The question is, why? How could this one sin be so destructive?
To understand the severity of loshon hora and its ramifications, one must first understand the judicial system in Heaven through which the Jewish People are judged. The Chofetz Chaim explains that the Heavenly judicial process is initiated by words which Jews speak on this world. Our negative conversations are the key which opens the door for Satan to prosecute.
As Zohar states, (Parashas Shelach), this sin “brings plague, sword and murder to this world. Woe to those who awaken this evil force, who do not guard their tongues and pay no heed to this! They do not realize that the ways of Heaven are reflective of the ways on this world, both for good and for bad. [Through evil talk,] Satan is aroused to voice accusation against the entire world.”
In this vein, the Chofetz Chaim explains that the teaching (Arachin 15b), “Whoever speaks loshon hora raises sins to the Heavens,” should be taken literally. When we speak negatively of our fellow Jews, this causes the sins of our people to be noted in Heaven, where they are brought before the Heavenly Throne for judgment. We think we’re merely chatting, when in reality, we’re delivering the day’s caseload to Satan.
The Chofetz Chaim offers a second reason why loshon hora is so damaging. Because loshon hora utilizes the power of speech to do its damage, it corrupts this faculty and prevents our Torah and tefillah (prayer) from ascending Heavenward. The Chofetz Chaim envisions the sacred words that pour forth from a mouth corrupted by loshon hora. He sees them heading upward toward our “Heavenly bank accounts,” but never quite getting there. We believe we have accomplished something spiritually, but that’s not what happened. The Chofetz Chaim says, “All the words of Torah and tefillah are hanging somewhere between heaven and earth, suspended in the air.” He concludes: if our Torah and tefillah are not being credited to us, then, “From where will we acquire the necessary merit to bring Mashiach and the Final Redemption?”
“I wondered to myself,” the Chofetz Chaim writes, “how was it possible that this Torah prohibition of loshon hora came to be disregarded by so many people?”
The Chofetz Chaim answers this by introducing us to the main strategy of the evil inclination and the tactics which it utilizes to entangle us in the powerful sin of loshon hora.
The average person writes the Chofetz Chaim, is simply unaware that the prohibition of loshon hora applies to information that is true. (Information that is false is termed hotza’as shem ra, slander.) Therefore, all Satan needs to do is to present information as being true and most people will readily repeat it, though according to halachah (Torah law) such talk is absolutely forbidden.
For people who are more learned, Satan uses a different approach. He convinces the person that the subject of the loshon hora is an evil person and therefore deserves that loshon hora be spoken about him, or that this information is not loshon hora.
If these tactics fail, Satan uses an opposite tactic. He causes the person to worry that every word he speaks might be loshon hora even when it is not. Satan makes it appear that the only choice one has is not to speak at all. Since most people are involved in conversation numerous times each day, the only solution seems to be to ignore the laws of loshon hora, for they are impossible to keep. Satan really is quite clever!
Once Satan has convinced people to speak loshon hora, he goes about spreading his web of misinformation further to draw people into listening to the loshon hora, based on their lack of knowledge of the halachah.
For these reasons, the Chofetz Chaim writes, the sin of loshon hora had become small in the eyes of the world. People became accustomed to speaking without measuring their words against the Torah’s standards. Eventually, loshon hora was no longer viewed as an evil, thereby allowing bitter, damaging conversation to become acceptable, unrecognized as the terrible sin that it is.
Shmiras haloshon, guarding one’s speech, became the mitzvah of the pious, not of ordinary Jews, an irrelevant issue to most people. Satan’s strategies had succeeded. A most severe Torah prohibition, certainly equal to that of eating non-kosher food, was now considered to be nothing more than an optional stringency that only few were concerned with.
All of Satan’s strategies, writes the Chofetz Chaim, were based on his ability to spread misinformation. This was possible because the correct information was generally inaccessible. The laws of loshon hora were scattered throughout the Talmud, having never been collected and organized. People were drowning in the sin of loshon hora simply because they were totally ignorant of it and had no way of learning about it.
It was this tragic situation which impelled the Chofetz Chaim to write his monumental work - Sefer Chofetz Chaim.
Sefer Chofetz Chaim made it possible, for the first time, for a person to study the laws of loshon hora in an organized fashion. The Chofetz Chaim writes, “I wrote this sefer, where I gathered all the halachos (Torah laws) that were scattered throughout the Talmud and the writings of halachic (pertaining to Torah law) authorities, especially the Rambam, Smag, and Shaarei Teshuvah authored by Rabbeinu Yonah.”
Before delving into the subject matter of the sefer, the Chofetz Chaim describes its overall structure and the guidelines under which it was written. He begins: “I divided the sefer into two parts. The first is the laws of loshon hora and the second section is hilchos rechilus, the laws pertaining to gossip. I then divided the laws into chapters and each chapter into several segments. I added illustrations so that a person could receive practical advice on how to be careful in given situations. I named the sefer Chofetz Chaim, from the verse:
“Mi Ha-Ish HeChafetz Chaim…Netzor Leshoncha M’ra…” Who is the man who wants life … Guard your tongue from evil … (Tehillim 34:13).
“Because I wanted the sefer to be as accessible as possible, I then separated the material into two parts. The essence, which is the halachah that is derived after careful study and analysis, I called Mekor HaChaim (Source of Life). I gave it this name because speech is the essence of life as we see from the verse “And man became a living being” (Bereishis 2:7) which Onkelos translates as ‘a speaking being.’
“The body of sources and clarifications of each halachah I named Be’er Mayim Chaim (Wellspring of Living [fresh] Water), because these sources were the well from which I drew Mekor HaChaim. Know, my brother, that for every point that is mentioned in this work, I cite the source in Be’er Mayim Chaim.”
The reason why he so carefully cites his sources, explains the Chofetz Chaim, is so that it should be clear to everyone that whatever is mentioned in this sefer is not in any way debatable or optional. Everything here is halachah and is required of each and every Jew.
The Chofetz Chaim offers us strong medicine. He understood that this is what is needed to lift us from the complacency, which is so easily felt with regard to loshon hora.
In his writings, the Chofetz Chaim carefully avoids exaggerations and overstatements. Yet he ends this section by stating: “When one will ponder the sin of loshon hora and understand its significance, the hair on his head will stand on edge from the magnitude of this sin.”
The Chofetz Chaim continues to discuss the structure of his classic work. “And I beseech you, dear reader, if you come across something in my sefer (book) that at first glance appears to be an extra stringency or something that could have been explained in fewer words, do not be quick to decide that it was a mistake.
“Study the matter well in Be’er Mayim Chaim, because there is important information there and you must understand the halachah in its entirety. In truth, each and every halachah in this sefer was pondered in great depth; I discussed the subject matter with friends who are gedolei Torah (great Torah scholars) and I carefully cross-referenced Talmudic sources to check for any contradictions. I am hopeful that one who takes my words to heart and studies these halachos (Torah laws) in depth, will recognize clearly that every word in this sefer is written exactly according to halachah: no more, no less.”
The Chofetz Chaim continues, “I know that there are people whose habit is to downgrade others and speak much loshon hora. Such people will read my sefer to find leniencies that I might have written. They will not study the Be’er Mayim Chaim and they will come to permit things that I never intended to permit. They will use my sefer to speak loshon hora and will tell people that Sefer Chofetz Chaim permits it! Nevertheless, I did not refrain from writing this sefer because of people who would misuse it, because the Torah says “For the ways of Hashem are straight; the righteous will walk in them and sinners will stumble over them (Hoshea 14:10) “.
“And I certainly know that there will be people who will make light of the value of studying this sefer and they will defend themselves with the Sages’ teaching, ‘Better that they should sin out of ignorance than intentionally.’ This is incorrect for two reasons. The above teaching does not apply regarding a halachah that is clearly stated in the Torah — and loshon hora is clearly spelled out in the Torah.
“Furthermore, according to this [misguided] reasoning, we should not teach people the laws of Shabbos or robbery which are also difficult to keep!” In reality, we know that these laws can be observed by everyone, for Hashem, who created man and knows his abilities, gave us these laws. Were they beyond man’s capabilities, Hashem would not have imposed them on us. The Chofetz Chaim adds, “You will find that the study of these laws will make you more aware of loshon hora so that even if, G-d forbid, you should stumble, you will at least not be in the category of a baal loshon hora, a habitual speaker of loshon hora, whom our Sages say (Arachin 15b) will not merit to greet the Shechinah (Divine Presence).
The Chofetz Chaim concludes his forward explaining why he opens his sefer by detailing all the positive and negative commandments that relate to loshon hora. “The study of these commandments and related teachings of Chazal will help the reader to realize the severity of this sin and the damage that words can cause and will certainly weaken one’s inclination to sin.”
The Chofetz Chaim continues, “The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 14,4) states that if one studies a subject intensely, Hashem removes the yetzer hora (evil inclination) from him with regard to that subject. I therefore said to myself, that if a person will study this sefer and ponder what is written here, his inclination for loshon hora will be weakened. He will begin to draw away from this sin and in the course of time, he will see that he can withdraw completely from speaking loshon hora, because to a great extent, this sin is the result of habit.”
“He who comes to purify himself is granted Heavenly assistance” (Yoma 38b). In merit of our efforts regarding shmiras haloshon, the Chofetz Chaim concludes, we will be worthy of the Final Redemption.
The Chofetz Chaim opens his Pesichah (Introduction) with a brief historical perspective of the sin of loshon hora.
Loshon Hora has the distinction of being the first sin ever committed. We know that the Serpent enticed Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. To accomplish his aim, the Serpent utilized a classic loshon hora approach that is used even today. “You should know that the boss is jealous of you. He’s stunting your growth in the company. You really are as good as he is.”
In this case, the “boss” was Hashem. The Serpent told Eve that all Hashem had to do to become the Creator was to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. He drew the logical conclusion that if Adam and Eve were to eat from that same tree they would become just like Hashem. Obviously, reasoned the Serpent, Hashem did not want “competition,” and that is why He forbade Adam and Eve from partaking of the tree’s fruits.
The particular method which the Serpent used so successfully was a combination of loshon hora and rechilus (gossip); he claimed that Hashem was not concerned with their best interests and that Hashem was merely using a ploy to keep them from competing with Him.
We know, all too well, the result of the Serpent’s evil words. Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. Difficult toil to produce food became the lot of men, while childbirth pain became the lot of women. Death was introduced to the world. On man’s very first day on earth, loshon hora had already demonstrated its destructive power.
The Chofetz Chaim puts it succinctly: “One who speaks loshon hora attaches himself to a practice that destroys the world.”
The very first exile of the Jewish people was directly related to loshon hora. The Chofetz Chaim states: “The main reason for the Jews’ suffering in Egypt was loshon hora. Yosef spoke loshon hora about his brothers; therefore Heaven decreed that he would be sold into slavery.”
Further in the Torah, we encounter an event of catastrophic proportion, and we suffer from its consequences to this very day. As the Chofetz Chaim puts it, “The underlying cause of our present exile was the sin of the Spies… The Talmud describes their sin as one of loshon hora.”
Such is the damage which loshon hora has wrought in our people’s history: the first sin ever committed, the underlying cause of our mortality, the catalyst which caused the Jewish people to be exiled in Egypt, and the cause of our exile today. With this powerful piece, the Chofetz Chaim conclusively dispels the myth that loshon hora is relatively harmless.
The Chofetz Chaim writes that one should not equate speaking loshon hora with other negative behavior, such as showing anger or insensitivity. Though these, too, destroy the fabric of one’s soul, loshon hora is in a class by itself. When one speaks loshon hora, he transgresses an explicit negative commandment in the Torah, “You shall not go as a peddler of gossip among your people (Vayikra 19:16).” As one of the 613 commandments, the sin of speaking loshon hora should be approached with the severity we attach to eating non-kosher food.
In the next segment, the Chofetz Chaim will detail many additional positive and negative commandments that one may transgress when speaking loshon hora. Today, he focuses on these important points:
• The prohibition against loshon hora applies to information that is true.
• It applies whether or not the subject is present when the loshon hora is spoken.
• The Torah prohibits not only speaking loshon hora, but also listening to it and accepting it as fact.
The Chofetz Chaim spends a great deal of time detailing the negative commandments a person transgresses when he speaks loshon hora. He does this to make us aware of the enormous damage we do to ourselves when we commit this sin. He shows us that, with loshon hora, one usually transgresses several negative commandments at once.
Another reason why the Chofetz Chaim brings this information at this juncture is to dissuade us from believing that the truth of our information mitigates its status as loshon hora. He details the vast number of negative commandments that are breached precisely when so-called “mitigating circumstances” are present: the information is true; the subject is present, or when we are only passive listeners and not the speaker.
The Chofetz Chaim concludes with an explanation of why the Torah cautions us so strongly regarding loshon hora. If we carefully consider the dynamics of loshon hora, we find that one who speaks loshon hora has not only transgressed a negative commandment, but he has trampled on many Torah laws guiding relations between man and his fellow. The Chofetz Chaim stresses that if we will study this issue a bit more, we will see that loshon hora also causes one to transgress the laws pertaining to man’s relationship with Hashem.
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Introduction: Negative Commandments 1 – 2
In this section, the Chofetz Chaim begins to detail the negative commandments that one transgresses when speaking loshon hora. One is struck by the fact that there is no other sin in the Torah that has as many negative commandments related to it. If we consider the following analogy, we can begin to understand why this is so. If you were to walk down the street and pass an abandoned house, you would probably find a simple “No Trespassing” sign posted on the door. It would probably not be safe to go inside; the floor might be rotted and one misstep could mean an injury. But the only warning is this one simple “No Trespassing” sign, because the potential damage incurred by entering this house would probably not be catastrophic.
On the other hand, if you were entering a military nuclear missile facility, you would see warning signs miles before you actually arrived at the site. You would be put on notice well in advance: “Beware! You are approaching a nuclear missile facility. Authorized Personnel Only!” As you got closer to the facility, the warnings would become more alarming, and the security even tighter — all in proportion to the potential damage which your trespassing could cause.
The Chofetz Chaim has taught us that loshon hora destroys the world, that it destroyed the Beis HaMikdash and can destroy our portion in the World to Come. Hashem, in His great love for us, took a sin which could have been limited to one negative commandment and multiplied it 17 times. These commandments are “warning signs” for us all along the path of daily life, letting us know in clear, dramatic terms that when we open our mouths to speak, we are entering extremely dangerous territory. The positive side of the power of speech is Torah and tefillah (prayer). But the negative side is real destruction.
The Chofetz Chaim begins with the primary commandment against speaking loshon hora and rechilus (gossip):Lo Seileich Rachil B’Amecha, You shall not go as a peddler of gossip among your people (Vayikra
19:16). In its literal definition, a rachil is a peddler. The Chofetz Chaim asks, “Who is the peddler? Someone who collects information about what people say and do and peddles it to others.”
In the classic case of rechilus, one person tells another, “Do you know what he said about you?” An overwhelming amount of animosity in offices, homes and neighborhoods comes from the misguided belief that it is good and helpful to report back to people any negative comments made about them. Many people operate on the theory that we need to know what others are saying about us. But in reality, the Chofetz Chaim says, rechilus serves no positive purpose. It creates enemies. He stresses that even if the information is absolutely true, relating it to others destroys the world.
SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Introduction: Negative Commandments 3 – 4
The relationship in the Torah between tzara’as (a skin disease induced by spiritual impurity) and the sin of loshon hora is well known. Moshe’s righteous sister Miriam was afflicted with tzara’as because she said something about Moshe that had just the slightest taint of loshon hora. Her words were well intentioned and she spoke only to her brother Aaron, yet she was immediately punished with tzara’as and the Jewish people had to delay travel for seven days until she was cured.
If one ever needed proof that loshon hora is as harmful as we have suggested, this is it. There is no other sin so toxic that it comes with its own unique corrective illness. In the Torah’s system of reward and punishment, there are no bolts of lightning striking down wrongdoers, because that would subvert the concept of bechirah (free choice). If Divine punishment were instantaneous, there would be no opportunity to choose between right and wrong. Similarly, if every sin was punishable by its own unique sickness, it would be virtually unthinkable to sin.
But loshon hora is different. It is so dangerous to a person’s well being that Hashem, in His great kindness, provided us with the punishment of tzara’as as a corrective measure. The Chofetz Chaim says that when a person speaks loshon hora, he violates the command “He’Shamer B’Nega HaTzara’as” (Devarim 24:8), in which we are told to carefully guard ourselves against contracting tzara’as. The Torah’s intention is that we should remember to stay away from loshon hora and therefore stay away from tzara’as. Obviously, when we speak loshon hora, we have broken through the protective barriers that the Torah has set up for us and placed ourselves in harm’s way.1
The Chofetz Chaim examines another prohibition, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Vayikra 19:14). This law is violated when one Jew causes another Jew to sin. The Chofetz Chaim informs us that the speaker of loshon hora is compounding his own sin by not only speaking loshon hora, but also causing his audience to listen to loshon hora. The Chofetz Chaim adds that the more listeners present, the more sins one commits. If, for example, a person speaks at a Shabbos table where five people are present, then the violation of “Do not place a stumbling block before a blind man” is multiplied by five.
The Chofetz Chaim adds that this prohibition also applies to the listener of loshon hora. If Reuven begins to speak loshon hora to Shimon and Shimon shows interest in what he has to say, then he too, violates “Do not place a stumbling block before a blind man”. This is because, in all likelihood, the speaker would not continue speaking loshon hora if he did not have a willing audience.
The Chofetz Chaim ends with a word of caution: One should be very careful not to sit with groups who speak loshon hora. He cites the advice that Rabbi Eliezer gave his son Horkanus. “My son, do not sit with groups that talk about the faults of others, because these words rise up to Heaven and are recorded there. And anyone who participates in such gatherings is listed in Heaven as a member of a chaburas resha (a group of evildoers).”