Rechilus is forbidden even when told to one person. Certainly, says the Chofetz Chaim, it is forbidden when said publicly. One might argue: “If I announce in public, ‘Chaim called Meir a fool,’ Chaim is sure to find out what I said. So obviously, I’m not afraid for Chaim to find out, and obviously I’m telling the truth.” Anyone who would put forth such an argument is overlooking a fundamental point of hilchos rechilus. As we have already learned, rechilus by definition is true information and it is forbidden even if the speaker would be unafraid to make the same statement in the subject’s presence.
The Chofetz Chaim presents a case of avak rechilus, “the dust of rechilus.” The classic case of avak rechilus is where a person makes a statement which could be interpreted either positively or negatively. A few people standing outside a shul (synagogue) are approached by a stranger. He wants to know where he can get something to eat. One member of the group says, “Why don’t you go to Levi? He always has something cooking on the stove.” The issue is whether or not this is a derogatory statement. The speaker may have meant, “Levi is always eating, so he always has food cooking” or he may have meant, “Levi always has guests, and he’s always prepared for extra company.”
In the first part of this volume (Day 29), we discussed whether or not such ambiguous statements are permissible. Here, the question is whether or not someone else may repeat this statement to Levi in the speaker’s name. The Chofetz Chaim informs us that it is surely forbidden to repeat the remark to Levi in a way which indicates that it was meant derogatorily. If it is repeated in a way which indicates that it was intended as a compliment, this would seemingly be permissible. However, if Levi is a person who tends to be suspicious of people’s motives and judges them unfavorably, then the remark should not be repeated to him even where the connotation is positive. The same would apply where there already exists some bad feeling between Levi and the person who made the remark, for here, too, it is likely that Levi will understand the remark the wrong way.