Imagine if there existed a spiritual
secret which would ensure that all your actions would be viewed in Heaven in a
positive light. Heavenly angels would come to your defense and would work
strenuously to find excuses for your sins. Amazingly, whatever excuse they would
offer would gain favor in the Heavenly Court. Their defense would result
in your acquittal in many instances and even when the verdict was “Guilty!” you
would be dealt with mercifully.
Surely you would be anxious to hire a
legal team and even pay millions of dollars to receive this sort of defense. In
truth, anyone can obtain these celestial defense lawyers at no charge
It is really quite simple. If we judge
our fellow man favorably, then in Heaven we are judged favorably. To the extent
that we seek to find excuses for our fellow man`s behavior, the Heavenly angels
will seek to find excuses for us. This is the primary benefit—but surely not the
only one—of judging others favorably.
The positive commandment "With righteousness you shall judge your
fellow" (Vayikra), requires one to judge favorably and see his actions in a
positive light. If the circumstances can easily be judged
favorably, one is absolutely required to do
so. If circumstances lean toward a negative
interpretation, nevertheless, says the Chofetz Chaim, it is quite correct to
keep an open mind on the matter
and not decide that the person is guilty. This
is when the person is considered a beinoni (average) in his mitzvah observance. If he is known
to be God-fearing, then one is required to
judge him favorably even when circumstances lean towards
There is no question that judging
unfavorably is the great engine that drives the “loshon hora machine.”
Take the following example:
A person goes to a wedding and tells
his friend, “The service was terrible. It really wasn’t worth the
But perhaps the caterer is
almost bankrupt and he had to manage three
events on the same night just to keep his business afloat and feed his ten
children. Awareness of this possibility would certainly impel you to ignore the
fact that the roast beef was rather rare and was served a
The Torah requires us to make
allowances for people who don’t live up to our expectations of them. By judging
others favorably, says the Chofetz Chaim, we will guarantee ourselves great
reward in the World to Come, and our lives in this
world will be free of strife and low in anger as we become kinder, more understanding
It is a law of “loshon
hora physics” that when one speaks loshon hora about the spiritual failings of
someone else, that loshon hora is most intense and righteously indignant.
Unfortunately, to many
people there is nothing more self-satisfying than identifying and disapproving
of someone else’s deficiency; e.g., that someone does not help his parents or
learn with his children, or does not do some mitzvah that the speaker happens
to observe carefully.
The Chofetz Chaim
informs us that it is loshon hora to say that a person has transgressed a
positive or negative commandment, whether the mitzvah observance is one
generally performed carefully, or one that is largely overlooked. Even if the
criticism is only that the person does not do the mitzvah in the optimum manner
— for example, he does not spend as much as he should on items for Shabbos — it
is forbidden to relate it.
Obviously there are
times when mention of someone’s laxity in mitzvah observance might be necessary.
At times, one needs to warn a child to stay away from someone who is a bad
influence. In such cases, it is worthwhile to ask a posek (halachic authority) how
to relate the information in a way that is permitted by halachah and does not
create unnecessary harm.
R’ Shamshon Raphael
Hirsch once commented on the common urge to speak loshon hora about a fellow
Jew’s laxity in mitzvah observance. He said that the soul’s natural tendency is
to strive ever higher. If a person is actively involved in Torah and mitzvos, then
he is growing spiritually and his soul is content. But if a person is lazy and
his actions are not helping his soul to move upward, then he feels inner
discontent. He seeks to satisfy this discontent by appearing to be growing
spiritually. And how does he accomplish this? By making everyone around him
appear smaller. His thinking goes something like this: “If my fellow Jew
doesn’t give enough tzedakah (charity) or do some other mitzvah that I am
careful to do, then by focusing on his deficiencies, I will feel as if I am
This type of loshon
hora works much like a drug for the soul. When the person makes use of it, he
feels righteous and holy. But as soon as its effect wears off, he realizes that
he is no higher than before. If anything, he is lower.
The Torah does not
want us to find fault with our fellow Jews’ mitzvah observance. When we
denigrate Jews, we not only do something lowly, but we also lull ourselves into
a false sense of complacency. Nothing good comes from fooling ourselves, from
being content with a false sense of spiritual achievement. Hashem wants us to
strive for holiness in our lives, to make spiritual gains which are real and
meaningful. The way to do this is by viewing ourselves in an honest, critical
way, while seeing others in a positive light.
As we have already discussed, there is a tendency to denigrate a fellow Jew whom we see transgressing, and thereby achieve a momentary “high.” On the other hand, the Torah has given us instructions on how to view a person we see transgress, so that we may judge him favorably and interpret his behavior in a more positive way.
The Chofetz Chaim says: If the subject is an “average” person, which means he generally guards himself from sin but does transgress occasionally, then we should attribute his lapse to one of three things: Either he did it accidentally (such as in the case of a storekeeper who gives you the wrong change), or he did not know it is forbidden (such as in the case of a person who transgressed a Shabbos law), or he mistakenly thought that this particular mitzvah is a midas chasidus, an act of piety reserved for people who want to be especially stringent.
This is what we should tell ourselves, even if we see the person transgress several times. We must judge him favorably and it is forbidden to feel animosity towards him because of what we have seen.
The halachah is different, however, when we are certain that the person knows that a particular act is forbidden, and we see him transgress purposely and with specific intent— for example, he walked into McDonald’s and ate a hamburger. If we know that such an act is out of character for this person and he probably did it only this one time and it was not done publicly (in the presence of other observant Jews), then it is forbidden to reveal this information. The Torah requires us to consider the possibility that the person has already engaged in teshuvah (repentance) and we will embarrass him unnecessarily by speaking about the incident.
However, we should approach the person privately and speak to him concerning his transgression. But the Chofetz Chaim cautions: make sure to speak gently and with respect. People are receptive to criticism only when they are treated with respect and shown genuine concern. Furthermore, the Torah cautions us not to rebuke in a hurtful or insulting way. We are commanded: “You shall surely reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him” (Vayikra 19:17). The latter half of this verse teaches us that it is a serious sin to embarrass someone in public even while offering well-intentioned reproof.
All of the above concerns dealing with the average person. If the person we see transgressing is a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) then it would be a great sin to publicize his misdeed because he surely has repented.
In the previous segment, the Chofetz Chaim stressed that when rebuking someone, one must be careful to speak gently and with respect. Here the Chofetz Chaim deals with a different situation. What if you are fairly certain that the person will not heed your rebuke? In this case, you are required to seek someone — for example, a rav, dayan (judge) or parent — to whom the subject will listen, and relate the information to that individual. Make sure, however, that the following three conditions are met:
1. The person to whom you are relating the information must be someone who knows you and who will believe your report.
2. You must give over the information in a sensitive manner.
3. The person to whom you are relating the information must be someone who will handle the matter as discreetly as possible.
Given these conditions, it would be advisable to seek advice from a Torah authority before involving someone else in the process of rebuke.
From these laws, we learn how sensitive the Torah is towards the feelings of all people –- including sinners. Here we are dealing with a person who has sinned intentionally and is not receptive to criticism. Nevertheless, the Torah goes to extreme lengths to protect his reputation, to the point where rebuke is prohibited if it cannot be done in a discreet manner.
The underlying message of these laws is: we Jews are responsible for one another; therefore we have to be concerned when another Jew sins. But at the same time, we have to be equally concerned with protecting that Jew’s feelings, dignity and good name.
We should draw a lesson from these laws to be extremely sensitive to the feelings of every Jew and to avoid tarnishing another Jew’s image through words of loshon hora. By treating each other with love and respect, we will fortify our interpersonal relationships in the way which the Torah desires.
If one were to compile a list of Torah leaders of the past few centuries who most symbolized ahavas Yisrael (love of one’s fellow Jew), the Chofetz Chaim would surely be high on the list. From the Chofetz Chaim’s written works, as well as countless stories about him, it is abundantly clear that he loved every Jew of every shade and stripe.
Nevertheless, in this segment the Chofetz Chaim informs us that when a Jew reaches a certain level of wickedness, it is permissible to tell others of his misdeeds. We are speaking here of a Jew who was raised in a religious environment, but has cast off the yoke of Heaven, God forbid.
Whether the person shamelessly sins in public or refuses to obey the rulings of a beis din (rabbinical court), it is clear that his errant behavior is not a temporary lapse but a deliberate rejection of Torah.
The Chofetz Chaim says that you are allowed to repeat the wrongdoings of such a person whether or not he is present. The reasoning is simple: if we allow a rasha (evil person) to rise up unchecked in our midst and we do not take a stand against the rishus (evil), our silence is not counted as righteousness, but as foolishness for allowing a cancer to grow unhindered.
The Chofetz Chaim takes the uncompromising stand that if you see the rasha do something which you are not sure is wrong; you are supposed to judge him as if he definitely sinned.
It is important to note that we are not speaking here of a person who was deprived of a meaningful Jewish education and whose upbringing was devoid of religious observance. Rambam compares such a person to a tinok shenishbah, a kidnapped Jewish child, who sins out of ignorance. Surely it would be wrong to speak of such a person in a derogatory way.
In Be’er Mayim Chaim, the Chofetz Chaim explains that speaking against a defiant sinner is not loshon hora because the intent is not to denigrate, but to steer people away from this person and his behavior. Before speaking, one should be sure that his intentions are honorable; if someone hates this individual for personal reasons, then he should not be the one to publicize the person’s misdeeds.
In Tehillim (Psalms 122:7-9) we read: “May there be peace within your wall, serenity within your palaces. For the sake of my brethren and comrades I shall speak of peace in your midst. For the sake of the House of Hashem, our God, I will request good for you. “
The question has been asked: Why does King David pray for peace twice, and then conclude with a request for “good”? The answer is that while peace is the greatest of blessings, nevertheless, for the “sake of the House of Hashem,” we seek not peace but rather tov, what is good and correct. There are times when we must stand up for what is right and speak out against those whose behavior threatens our moral fabric. In this way, we will ensure that the “House of Hashem” remains intact and its Master, Whose essence is peace, will rest His Presence in our midst.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim reflects on the attitude of a certain type of individual, a sincerely observant person who acts as if he has either missed a very important piece of information, or he has forgotten that it exists. We are speaking of an observant Jew who frequently transgresses a specific commandment in the Torah. Though he displays this behavior on a regular basis, we are not allowed to relate this information to others because the person may not realize the severity of the transgression involved. As the Chofetz Chaim explains, there are, for example, observant Jews who have a permissive attitude towards certain bad character traits because they consider avoidance of such traits “recommended behavior” and fail to realize that many negative traits (such as the desire for revenge) are prohibited by the Torah. The Chofetz Chaim tells us not to consider these people reshaim (evil people); rather, they are good people who are in need of reproof.
The human mind is a complex machine. At times we may face a serious problem or issue, but our mind does not read it as such and accords it a lower priority than it deserves. This, says the Chofetz Chaim, is often the case with certain forms of negative behavior, where the person simply does not view the matter as a serious sin. But such a person can often be helped. If we approach him respectfully and graphically portray the seriousness of the matter, it is quite possible that he will accept our reproof and change for the better.
On the other hand, the Chofetz Chaim informs us that we should point out this person’s negative behavior to our children or students and caution them not to learn from his misguided ways. As we have already stated, this is not loshon hora because our intention is not to denigrate the person; we are merely concerned that others should not emulate his behavior. However, it is absolutely essential to explain to the children why this is not loshon hora. Otherwise, they may erroneously draw the conclusion that loshon hora can be spoken in other situations.
At times the Torah allows negative information to be related, but only under very specific conditions. Just as the Torah demands of us not to speak loshon hora unnecessarily, so too, does it demand that we not mislead those who need to know the information. They must know that loshon hora is forbidden and that only in this particular case is it permitted to relate negative information.
We can compare loshon hora to toxic waste and the laws of shmiras haloshon to a protective suit worn by people who must handle these wastes. When a responsible person knows that he must deal with dangerous substances he prepares himself properly so that the substance will not cause him — or others — any harm.
One of the beautiful aspects of shmiras haloshon is that it demonstrates how Torah is all encompassing. While the Torah prohibits most forms of negative speech, it provides for the release of necessary information without causing unnecessary damage.
In situations such as a prospective shidduch (marriage match), job possibility or business relationship, the Chofetz Chaim says it is perfectly correct to inquire about someone in order to prevent future harm or dispute.
As we study this topic, we will find 7 requirements that need to be fulfilled before we can request or supply information for a constructive purpose. The Chofetz Chaim offers two preliminary conditions. The first is that we must convey clearly the purpose of our inquiry before seeking information. If we do not tell the person that our inquiry is l’toeles, for a constructive purpose, then we place him in a situation where he will transgress the laws against loshon hora by providing the information. By not informing him of a constructive need for the information, we have caused him to sin by speaking loshon hora, and thus we transgress the commandment “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Vayikra 19:14).
The person who provides the information must do it solely for the constructive purpose of helping to protect us from future harm. He is not permitted to speak if his true purpose is to degrade the subject of the inquiry. If he does have this in mind, then he is guilty of speaking loshon hora.
The second condition which the Chofetz Chaim lists here is that the person providing the information must be exceedingly careful not to exaggerate. Unfortunately, human nature often causes people to exaggerate in order to sound convincing, and this can cause enormous damage.
The Chofetz Chaim alludes to a case where a person exaggerated someone’s negative points when asked for information concerning a shidduch. On that basis, the inquiring party chose not to pursue it any further. As in most cases of loshon hora, the speaker has committed a sin between man and Hashem and also between man and his fellow. He must engage in teshuvah (repentance) on both accounts, and must seek the forgiveness of the subject of his evil words.
As mentioned, there are five additional conditions that must be met which allow a person to release negative information for a constructive purpose. These will be discussed later.
One of the greatest gifts Hashem has given the Jewish People is the ability to cleanse ourselves of our sins through teshuvah (repentance). This gift is especially precious when one has been guilty of speaking loshon hora.
We have learned that when we speak loshon hora, we cause untold damage to ourselves, to our listeners and to the subject(s) of our words. The Chofetz Chaim has chronicled in detail the many sins which can be transgressed through loshon hora. Yet regardless of how grievously we have sinned, Hashem extends to us the gift of teshuvah, enabling us to repair the damage, at least to some degree.
The Chofetz Chaim discusses the parameters of teshuvah as it applies to loshon hora. If one has spoken loshon hora but his listeners did not believe what was said, then the sin is one between man and Hashem. Teshuvah in such a case requires that the person regret his sin, confess it before Hashem, and accept upon himself never to repeat it.
If, on the other hand, the loshon hora was accepted as fact and it resulted in harm, then more is required. For example:
A person lost an opportunity for a promotion because someone provided unnecessary or inaccurate, negative information about him. This constitutes real damage, both monetary and emotional. In this case, the three-part teshuvah outlined above would not be sufficient. One would also have to approach the victim and ask forgiveness for having spoken against him and caused him harm.
Certainly, this is a very difficult thing to do, especially if the victim had been unaware that he was being considered for a promotion. Nevertheless, the Chofetz Chaim informs us that neither Yom Kippur, nor death itself, can erase a sin between man and his fellow man unless sincere forgiveness is sought and it is granted.
(The legendary founder of the Mussar Movement, Rav Yisrael Salanter, found difficulty with the above law. From a Mussar perspective, he suggested that if by telling a person that we spoke loshon hora about him, we will cause additional pain and distress, and then perhaps it is better not to inform him).
The Chofetz Chaim sees this as one of the major pitfalls of speaking loshon hora. Often, people forget about whom they have spoken, or are unaware of the damage their words have caused. In such cases, warns the Chofetz Chaim, they will never have the opportunity to achieve complete teshuvah.
The Chofetz Chaim further cautions that we should be exceedingly careful not to malign entire families. This kind of loshon hora can create a bad reputation for the family which can last for generations and cause untold hardship.
The Chofetz Chaim once suggested the following for a person who wanted to repent for having spoken loshon hora, but could not remember about whom he had spoken: Such a person should become involved in spreading the teaching of shmiras haloshon. In this way, he will atone, to some degree, for the harm which his own words have caused.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim focuses on the mitzvah to extend loans to a fellow Jew. As the Torah states:” … When you lend money to My people …” (Shemos 22:24).
Consider the following situation:
You have a friend who is in need of a loan. He approaches someone you know and asks to borrow some money, but the prospective lender refuses, with the explanation that he cannot afford to extend a loan at this time. However, you happen to know the lender and you know for a fact that he does have the means to extend the loan. You assume that the real reason for his refusal is that he happens to be selfish.
Telling others of the person’s refusal to extend the loan is loshon hora. This is so even in a case where you witnessed the wrongdoing and even if your purpose in telling others is to protest the injustice done.
If the prospective borrower, in a desire to “get even,” tells others what happened, then he also transgresses the negative commandments against taking revenge and bearing a grudge (Vayikra 19:18).
The case of a loan request which was refused is used by the Chofetz Chaim as an example of loshon hora involving a person’s faults bein adam l’chaveiro, between man and his fellow. Similarly, it is forbidden to mention that someone is lacking in any of the interpersonal obligations which the Torah places upon us.
Even if a person were to repeatedly transgress one of these mitzvos—for example, he never extends loans despite the fact that he is fabulously wealthy –— it is forbidden to speak of it. As the Chofetz Chaim explains, we cannot categorize such a person as a rasha (wicked individual) because, unfortunately, many people mistakenly think of such obligations as being voluntary. Thus, they do not see themselves as sinners at all.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim discusses assessments which people make regarding someone’s physical or mental abilities. It is common for people involved in everyday conversation to offer personal judgments about others which are less than flattering. Such statements can have far reaching consequences, especially in the area of shidduchim (marriage matches).
As the Chofetz Chaim notes, many people are unaware that analyzing a person’s attributes and verbalizing a less than flattering opinion of him is loshon hora. The example he offers is of someone who relates that the person under discussion lacks intelligence. Some might argue, “Wait — that’s not loshon hora. It’s true!” Obviously, these people are unaware of a fact which we have already stressed: A statement which is derogatory and true is loshon hora.
One might also justify the statement by saying, “But it is not derogatory to say that a person isn’t smart!” In truth, Hashem has given each of us the exact combination of attributes we need in order to accomplish our purpose in this world. Unfortunately, however, most people do not consider this truth when they evaluate a person. If they hear that someone is not smart, their esteem for that person is automatically lowered.
The Chofetz Chaim warns us that by casually stating that someone is “not smart,” we may ultimately cause that person harm.
He offers three examples of how this could happen:
1. If the person is single, we will render him less desirable, and this will hurt him in a real sense as he seeks to get married.
2. Whether his livelihood is a craft, business or profession, people will be reluctant to deal with him, since most people like dealing with those whom they consider intelligent.
3. If he’s a rav or posek (halachic authority), then people will be reluctant to seek guidance or a psak (ruling) from him. His stature will be diminished, his feelings and his family members may be hurt, and ultimately, he might lose his position.
You might wonder, is it really possible that all of this can come from one small remark?
There is a famous story about the Chofetz Chaim and another rav, who were traveling together. They stopped at an inn, where the hostess recognized the two prominent rabbanim and ushered them to a table reserved for distinguished guests. After they finished a satisfying meal, the hostess returned to the table and inquired, “Did you enjoy the food?”
The Chofetz Chaim’s companion replied, “It was very good. But the soup could have used a little more salt.”
When the hostess left, the Chofetz Chaim, obviously distressed, informed the rav that his words constituted loshon hora.
“Now the hostess will probably reprimand the cook, who is quite possibly a poor widow who must work to support her family.” The rav, however expressed his doubts that his seemingly benign comment could have such repercussions. The Chofetz Chaim then escorted him to the kitchen, where the two peered through the door and witnessed the hostess speaking harshly to the cook, a poor widow, who was in tears.
The rav hurried into the kitchen and said that the food had been quite good. He apologized to the cook and begged the hostess not to say anything more on account of his careless remark.
The moral is:
Think before you speak. Even a seemingly innocent comment has the potential to cause great harm.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim further examines the common practice of discussing other people’s intelligence. He asks the reader to consider the following scenario:
You overhear a conversation in which you are the one who is being evaluated. Everyone involved in the conversation offers his or her own expert opinion, and the group then concludes that you have very little intelligence.
The Chofetz Chaim poses a simple question: “How would you feel?” The Chofetz Chaim answers the question: Your self-image would suffer a terrible blow. You would wonder, “What do they see in me that brings them to this horrible conclusion? Do I really show myself to be a fool?”
And you would conclude that this group’s real intent is evil — to degrade you in the eyes of those who know you. After all, what else could be their motivation?
Yet, as the Chofetz Chaim points out, with most people such conversations do not register even a faint “blip” on the subconscious “radar screen” which alerts God-fearing people when they are becoming involved in loshon hora.
In all probability, such talk will involve greater transgressions than words of loshon hora which are clearly derogatory. When, for example, a speaker attacks someone’s behavior, he may do so out of a sense of conviction. The subject has behaved in a terrible way (at least in the speaker’s opinion) and he wants to register his protest. While the laws of shmiras haloshon do not permit this, at least his intentions were good. By contrast, there is nothing to be gained from discussing someone’s level of intelligence; the only purpose could be to degrade the individual.
Such discussions can be more dangerous than those involving a person’s sins. If someone tells others that a person has sinned, the listeners may tell themselves that perhaps the circumstances were not exactly as had been related; or perhaps the subject had succumbed in a moment of weakness. By contrast, when people hear that someone is lacking intelligence, the natural tendency is to accept this as absolute truth. The listeners look no further. There are no excuses to consider. The person has been labeled, categorized and filed in their minds as “not smart.”
The Chofetz Chaim stresses that in any situation, derogatory comments concerning someone’s intelligence can have terrible repercussions. However, when one speaks negatively of the intelligence of a rav, Torah teacher, or of someone’s new son-in-law or daughter-in-law, the ramifications could be devastating.
We can avoid all these pitfalls by remembering the Chofetz Chaim’s question: “How would you feel if you were the one whose intelligence was being attacked?
In a nationwide test on shmiras haloshon for elementary school children, the question was posed: “What could you tell yourself that would help you to refrain from speaking loshon hora?” The most popular answer was, “By asking myself, ’How would I feel if I was in this person’s place?’ “The innocence of children often allows them to see matters more objectively than adults. These children were able on their own to arrive at the advice of the Chofetz Chaim — advice that we should all take to heart.
The Chofetz Chaim informs us today that the popular pastime of “armchair financial analysis” is actually a forum for loshon hora. This occurs when a group conjectures about another person’s financial standing. The subject might be a neighbor, family member or wealthy individual in one’s city. Such discussions, without any real toeless (constructive purpose), are forbidden, as they can cause great damage.
Sometimes, the group concludes that, based on their information, the person is actually bankrupt, or at least deeply in debt. Such a conclusion can hurt the person in a concrete way. People who hear of this discussion may shy away from doing business with the person, or they may refuse to lend him money.
Obviously, says the Chofetz Chaim, if there is information that must be conveyed to a certain party to enable him to make a prudent business decision (l’toeles), then one can provide the information if seven conditions (which will be discussed later) are met.
The Chofetz Chaim then discusses the issue of “relative statements.” A given statement might be loshon hora when spoken about one person and high praise when spoken about another.
For example, imagine two people who are discussing the charity habits of some community members. “He’s good for $5,” one comments about a certain individual. If that individual is one of the richest men in town, then the statement would be loshon hora.
If, on the other hand, the subject is a poor person, the statement would not be loshon hora at all.
The Chofetz Chaim offers another example. If someone said of a rabbinical student, “He learns for four hours a day,” the listener would not construe this as praise. Yet if the same statement was said of a businessman with a hectic work schedule, it truly would be exceptional praise.
The Chofetz Chaim concludes by cautioning that, in the above cases, one cannot excuse his derogatory comment concerning the rich man or the rabbinical student by saying, “I wouldn’t mind if they said that about me!” Such rationalization completely misses the point. We have different expectations of different individuals, and what might be complimentary when said about one person could very well be derogatory when said about someone else.
In the business world, loshon hora is often spoken as a “marketing tool.” You may have observed this technique when asking a salesman for his opinion about a product and receiving, instead, a thorough denunciation of his competitor’s merchandise. “Well, that’s business,” is an often-heard expression. The Chofetz Chaim informs us, however, that such reasoning is never an excuse for speaking loshon hora.
Maligning competitors’ merchandise is an all-too-common practice. The obvious motivation behind this is a desire to increase one’s sales by minimizing competition. Sometimes there is a second motivation at work: jealousy. Someone with a product to sell finds it difficult to accept the fact that a competitor has better merchandise or better prices. Speaking loshon hora is his attempt at convincing others of what he would like to believe — that his item is superior. (In a later section, the Chofetz Chaim deals with a case where the salesman has only the customer’s benefit in mind.)
The Chofetz Chaim closes this section with an important point. When derogatory information is related by two people, the sin is even greater than if it had been spoken by one person. The reason for this is simple. A report has greater impact when more people give it credence. Think about it: If you hear derogatory information from just one person, you may accept it “with a grain of salt.” You may tell yourself, “I shouldn’t believe everything I hear.” Or you might tell yourself, “This speaker may be biased.”
But when you hear the same information from two people, you perceive it as a widely held notion. The second person has given the report added credibility. The Chofetz Chaim notes that even if one person delivers the initial report on his own and then a second person comes along and concurs with the report, the second person has also committed a grave sin.
In any conversation where loshon hora has been spoken, one may be tempted to add his comments in the belief that the damage has already been done and one more comment will not make a difference. This, too, is a serious mistake. Any additional comment is yet another transgression.
One of the factors which makes loshon hora such a serious sin is that it involves the interaction of two people — the speaker and the listener. Until now, the Chofetz Chaim has been dealing with the speaker’s role. In this section, he puts the listener under halachic examination, and states: It is forbidden to believe loshon hora. One who does so has transgressed a Torah prohibition (see Shemos 23:1 with Rashi). The Chofetz Chaim quotes the teaching that the punishment for accepting loshon hora is greater than the punishment for speaking loshon hora.
The Chofetz Chaim further states that listening to loshon hora is forbidden even if the listener does not intend to accept the information. However, he notes, there is a difference between accepting loshon hora and listening with the intention of not believing what one is about to hear. And with this, we enter the complex issue of toeles, constructive purpose. The Chofetz Chaim examines two common areas in which derogatory information might be required for a constructive purpose—the areas of business decisions and shidduchim (prospective marriage matches). If, for example, one is considering a job offer, a potential business partnership, or a suggested shidduch, he is permitted to listen to relevant negative information. His purpose in such cases is not gossipmongering, but self-protection. However, he must decide in his mind that while he may use negative information to protect himself, he will not accept it as fact.
The Chofetz Chaim is discussing a case where the speaker initiated the conversation. The listener may “tune in” to the conversation l’toeles if either:
— the speaker has already made it clear that he is relating the information l’toeles; or
— The listener arrives when the speaker has already begun relating the information to someone else. This way, the listener is not guilty of causing someone to sin.
The allowance for listening for constructive purposes extends even further, the Chofetz Chaim says. One may listen to important information that applies to his friend to prevent the friend from falling into a bad situation. The listener should first check the accuracy of the information before passing it on to the relevant party. One can also listen to a report that his friend has committed a transgression, if he feels that he is in a position to speak to the person and help him mend his ways.
As mentioned, even when we are allowed to listen to negative information, we are not permitted to accept it as fact without further investigation. This seems to be a difficult demand. If I hear something about someone, and I act upon it, how can I not accept it as fact?
In reality, we do have a natural capacity to reject plausible information as false, and we exercise this capacity in many situations. For instance, imagine if you were to hear a terrible piece of loshon hora about your brother. The inner workings of your mind would immediately label this information as false. “I know my brother, and he wouldn’t have done something like that!” you would tell yourself. Nevertheless, because you care about your brother, you would probably confront him privately and say, “I cannot imagine that it is true, but I heard that...” The Torah requires us to view every Jew as a brother or sister, and extend our natural protective instincts to him or her as well.
In the previous segment, we learned that we are permitted to listen to loshon hora (without accepting it as fact) if there is something constructive to be gained. The Chofetz Chaim now poses an obvious question: How is this halachah applied in reality? How are you to know, before listening to a report, if the information can be used constructively?
The Chofetz Chaim offers the following guideline: If it is apparent that the speaker is about to say something negative about someone, then you should interrupt him and ask whether he thinks that there is something constructive to be gained from your hearing this information. If, for example, the person were to reply that the report could be valuable to the success of a business venture on which you are embarking, then you would be permitted to listen (provided that you do not accept it as fact). If it becomes clear that there is no toeless (constructive purpose) in listening, then it is forbidden to hear the report.
The Chofetz Chaim then discusses another case where one may listen to loshon hora.
Under normal circumstances, it is forbidden to listen to loshon hora spoken by one’s spouse, just as with any other individual. However, if someone has upset your wife very much and she is having difficulty coping, then you are permitted to help her through this situation by allowing her to unburden herself to you. While she is permitted to relate to you what has transpired, you should tell yourself that in her distress, she may be seeing things as worse than they actually are; you may not accept her words as fact. The Chofetz Chaim states that a primary goal in listening to the report should be to try to explain the situation in a positive light so that she will no longer be angry at the other person.
Obviously, this is not a carte blanche for husbands and wives to have free-ranging discussions concerning others. We are talking here about serious problems in which one can help one’s spouse overcome distress and make peace with the situation — and with the other party, if possible.
What if a person mistakenly listens to loshon hora when there is no constructive purpose? Then, says the Chofetz Chaim, he should try to correct his mistake by quickly finding a merit for the person who is being maligned and authoritatively telling it to the speaker. In this way, the listener may succeed in convincing the speaker that he is guilty of misjudgment and that he has no reason to feel ill will towards the subject.
The Chofetz Chaim offers one more case of listening for a constructive purpose. You meet a friend who is angry about an injustice that was done to him. To your innocent question, “How are you?” he responds with a ferocious tirade against the culprit. As a friend, you have two choices. You can agree wholeheartedly with his complaints, so that his anger will continue to rage. Most probably, he will later rant and rave before another friend and then another … thereby causing the loshon hora to spread further. Or you can listen empathetically without showing approval. Then, when his anger had been defused, you can talk softly to him, calm him down and help him see the situation from a more positive perspective.
A baal loshon hora (habitual speaker of loshon hora) in this situation will listen to the tirade and fan the flames of baseless hatred, adding to our source of exile. Those who strive to live by the Torah’s requirements in these matters will use their power of persuasion to uproot ill will, increase understanding and love for one’s fellow Jew, and help bring our Redemption one step closer.
The Chofetz Chaim introduces us to a situation with which we are all familiar:
You are sitting at someone’s Shabbos table or at a wedding, and several people start speaking loshon hora. What do you do? As we have just learned, listening to loshon hora is forbidden; how, then, can you avoid transgression?
The Chofetz Chaim discusses your options.
1. You can rebuke the gossipers (making sure, of course, to do it in a respectful way). You can remind them that this is a Torah prohibition, halachically equivalent to munching on shrimp or bacon.
2. If you know that they will not listen to rebuke, then “it is a great mitzvah,” writes the Chofetz Chaim, to get up and leave table.
3. If you find this impossible, then you should prepare yourself to stand firm so that you will not be guilty of any sin. Make sure to fulfill the following requirements:
a. Decide firmly in your mind that you will refuse to believe any loshon hora.
b. Make sure that your facial expression does not convey any hint of approval of what is being said. At the very least, you should sit stone-faced; if possible, your expression should convey strong disapproval.
The above applies if one is innocently sitting at one’s place when the loshon hora conversation begins. However, if someone strolls through an area where he overhears such a conversation and stops to listen, or if he passes by a group known to be gossipers and stops to listen to their conversation, then, says the Chofetz Chaim, he is considered a willful sinner, even if he takes no part in the conversation and does not approve of it.
The Chofetz Chaim continues that if one associates with such a group with the intention of hearing what they have to say, then he will be inscribed in Heaven as a baal loshon hora (a habitual speaker of loshon hora) and “his sin is too great to bear.”
In a famous incident, the Chofetz Chaim was traveling when he found himself in the company of a group of traders who were deeply engrossed in conversation. The Chofetz Chaim approached them and said, “And what, may I ask, are we talking about? If it’s horses count me in, but if it’s people count me out!”
How did he do it? How did the Chofetz Chaim have the courage to approach mere strangers and tell them, “If it’s people [you’re talking about], count me out”? The answer is that the Chofetz Chaim understood precisely what was at stake. He knew that our Sages teach that one will be inscribed in Heaven as a baal loshon hora for willfully joining a group of gossipers. To the Chofetz Chaim, confronting these men with his question was a small sacrifice, when the stakes were so very high.
In the course of a day, the average person hears hundreds of pieces of information. As each one is digested, we are left to decide whether or not we choose to accept it as fact. And when it comes to loshon hora, many people find themselves inclined to believe what they hear.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim discusses a case where the listener knows firsthand that the facts which the speaker is relating are all true. The problem is that the speaker has chosen to interpret these facts in a negative way. Here the listener is obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of “Judge your fellow with righteousness” (Vayikra 19:15), and to interpret the facts in a positive light. If he fails to do so, then he has transgressed the mitzvah to judge others favorably, in addition to being guilty of accepting loshon hora.
The Chofetz Chaim offers the following example:
Reuven is walking down the street when he meets Shimon emerging from the local beis din (rabbinical court). Shimon is terribly agitated; he has just lost a din Torah (court case) involving a monetary dispute with Levi. Shimon waves the psak din (court ruling) at Reuven. “Did you ever hear something so ridiculous in all your life?” he shouts. “It was obvious that I deserved to win! These dayanim (judges) don’t know what they’re doing! Any other beis din would have seen things my way!”
If Reuven agrees with Shimon, he is guilty of not judging favorably and of accepting loshon hora. In this case, his sins are compounded by the fact that we are dealing with dayanim, who are accomplished Torah scholars.
What Reuven should do is try to convince Shimon that the dayanim have surely done their best to judge fairly and honestly. Furthermore, if in truth Shimon is correct and Levi has cheated him, then he should rest assured that Hashem has infinite methods at His disposal to make up the loss to him.
And what should Reuven tell himself if it appears to him that Shimon is right and the judges have erred? He should realize that without having been present at the din Torah, he cannot possibly know the full story. As such, it should not be too difficult for him to give the dayanim the benefit of the doubt.
We have been learning about kaballas loshon hora, the prohibition against believing loshon hora which is related in one’s presence. The Chofetz Chaim states that this prohibition applies not only to a report of current improper behavior, but to any information which we are forbidden to repeat. For example, if we were to hear that the father of a respected community member had a controversial past, we would not be permitted to believe it. We are also forbidden to believe a negative assessment of someone’s intelligence or physical abilities.
The Chofetz Chaim returns to the subject of listening to negative information l’toeles, for a constructive purpose. If someone is considering taking a partner into his business and then receives derogatory information concerning him, he is permitted to suspect that the information is true and to act on that suspicion. However, he is not permitted to believe it (without further investigation) or to take aggressive action against the person in question. Similarly, if one hears that a storekeeper cheats people, he can protect himself, but he may not attempt to harm the person’s reputation based on this information.
(Whether he can warn others is a complex issue which needs additional study. For further details see Sefer Chofetz Chaim, hilchos rechilus, klal tes.)
Furthermore, he must act toward the person with the same friendliness and kindness that he showed before hearing the report.
To take action upon hearing information but not to believe it may seem a very difficult challenge. However, as the Chofetz Chaim himself is reported to have said, “If it were impossible to keep the laws of loshon hora, Hashem would never have written them in His Torah.” We are, in fact, quite capable of acting based on mere suspicion or remote possibility. We engage in such action every time we enter a car and buckle the seat belt. The chances of a crash or even a short stop are remote, yet we safeguard ourselves.
In a similar way, when hearing loshon hora which may affect us if proven true, we must train ourselves to believe that in all probability the information is false. Nevertheless, we “buckle up for safety,” and take all necessary precautions.
The Chofetz Chaim begins this segment by stressing that many people react incorrectly in cases of negative reports, where the listener needs to reckon with the report and protect himself. While the rules of such cases are complex, the Chofetz Chaim reiterates the basic rule: The Torah allows us only to protect ourselves on the possibility that the information is accurate. Never does the Torah give a person the right to use such information to act against the subject or to cause him a monetary loss. And because the information cannot be accepted as fact (without personal verification), it is absolutely forbidden to harbor any hatred toward that person. Finally, one cannot use the report as an excuse to cancel any obligations toward that person.
The Chofetz Chaim illustrates this last point: A person with an established reputation of being poor is circulating in shul (synagogue) collecting tzedakah (charity) for himself. Your neighbor turns to you and says, “This fellow’s a faker; I hear that he makes more money than we do.” The Chofetz Chaim says that if you decide not to give this man money (without investigation), or to give him less than you normally would, then you are in the category of one who believes loshon hora. For until the man is proven to be a fraud, you have to accord him his original status — that of a poor, upstanding Jew — and to treat him as such.
This is just one small example, says the Chofetz Chaim, of the consequences of accepting loshon hora.
The Chofetz Chaim also deals with a situation where the listener has transgressed by accepting the loshon hora as fact. Now, he regrets his sin. What should he do to rectify it?
The Chofetz Chaim offers a three-point plan:
1. He should strengthen himself and uproot this information from his mind to the point where he no longer believes it.
2. He should accept upon himself to be careful in the future not to accept loshon hora.
3. He should confess his sin (viduy) before Hashem.
The last two of these steps are common to the teshuvah process for any sin. But the requirement that we actually uproot information which we already believe to be true — this seems difficult to navigate.
Rabbi Avraham Pam, z”l, explained how it can be done. He says we must immerse our hearts in the mitzvah of judging people favorably. If you heard that the subject caused hurt to your friend, tell yourself, “I’m sure it didn’t happen exactly as it was reported.” Or, “Perhaps he is going through some personal difficulties. Who knows what I would do in the same situation?” Keep your mind focused like a laser beam on these favorable interpretations and review them again and again. If you flood your thoughts with favorable judgments, you will be amazed to find a gradual change in your thinking take place, as anger gives way to love for your fellow Jew.
We have learned that if someone says, “This isn’t loshon hora. I would say it right in front of him!” the Torah still classifies the statement as loshon hora and we are not permitted to believe it.
Now the Chofetz Chaim takes the case one step further. What if the speaker actually does say the loshon hora in front of the other person? For example, Reuven says in Shimon’s presence, “I saw with my own eyes how Shimon cheated on yesterday’s exam.” Shimon responds with silence. Can we interpret his silence as admission of guilt?
The Chofetz Chaim says that we cannot surmise that the information is true, because there can be a host of reasons why Shimon would stay quiet in such a situation, even if the information were not true. For example, Shimon might reason that people are more likely to believe Reuven’s words which were said about him in his presence, than to believe his denial. Or, he might be silent simply because he wants to avoid conflict.
The Chofetz Chaim suggests that the person may have chosen to be counted among the “those who suffer insult.” He is alluding to an important Talmudic teaching (Shabbos 88b):
“Those who suffer insult but do not insult (in response), who hear their disgrace but do not reply, who perform (God’s will) out of love and are happy in suffering, regarding them the verse states ‘But they who love Him (God) shall be as the sun going forth in its might’ ” (Shoftim 5:31). As the commentators explain, this means that those who bear insult in silence will not be diminished because of this1, while their antagonists will be humbled in the end.
The Torah demands that we never jump to conclusions, even when matters seem as clear as day. The case of one who is silent in the face of insult is an excellent illustration of this truth.
As the Talmud relates (Chullin 60b), at the time of Creation the moon was as large as the sun but was diminished when it complained that it was not fitting for two luminaries to reign together. The sun, which did not respond to the moon’s complaint, remained unchanged.