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.