In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim begins addressing the subject of avak loshon hora (lit. the dust of loshon hora), statements which are not actual loshon hora but which are nonetheless forbidden.
The mere concept of avak loshon hora underscores the severity of loshon hora. This sin is so dangerous that an entire chapter of Sefer Chofetz Chaim is devoted to statements which are forbidden because they hint at loshon hora or because they can lead to loshon hora.
A particle of dust is so miniscule that one has to look very carefully to see it at all. It is often the same with avak loshon hora. One may be dealing with words which seem quite innocuous. In the Chofetz Chaim’s first example, someone comments about a certain person, “It’s amazing how far he’s come.” On the surface, it appears that the speaker has not spoken derogatorily about his subject, nor caused him any harm. But if we probe a bit further, we can expand the statement to mean, “It’s amazing how far he’s come, considering the fact that he has an unsavory past,” or “… considering the fact that he’s not that bright.” In all probability, the speaker’s intention was entirely complimentary. Nevertheless, people may lose respect for the person, no matter what his current status, if they find out that he had a troubled past or if they perceive him as lacking in intelligence.
Perhaps the most famous case of avak loshon hora is when the statement is pure praise of an individual. On the surface, this would seem to pose no problem. What could be wrong with praising someone? To understand the problem we need to examine the dynamics of a conversation. In conversation, each person builds on what the other person has just said. The halachah identifies certain conversations as being likely to lead to loshon hora and declares them forbidden.
In certain situations, praising an individual can lead listeners to focus on the flaws of the person being praised. One is not allowed to praise someone in front of his enemies. The temptation is overwhelming to rebut praise of one’s enemy with criticism.
We should never praise someone excessively, even to his friends. When the spotlight is directed onto someone and his praises are sung, it is quite possible that someone will say, “Yes, he has many fine qualities — except for the fact that…”
We have been discussing praising someone in front of one person or a few people. One should not praise someone in public, says the Chofetz Chaim. This is because the law of averages dictates that there will be at least one person who either is jealous of the person or has something against him—in which case the praise is sure to set off a negative reaction. The only situation where public praise is allowed is when the subject is renowned as a learned, righteous person. In such a case it is reasonable to assume that even if he has critics, they will be reluctant to speak out publicly against him, because by doing so they would lose their own credibility.
Yet in Be’er Mayim Chaim the Chofetz Chaim says that we should avoid sitting among people who are discussing a renowned Torah personality, because there are some people who simply cannot resist offering criticism no matter who the subject is. As we discussed, negative talk about such an individual is a most serious sin, as is listening to and accepting it.