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Laws of Lashon Hara

Laws of Lashon Hara

Parshat Behaalotecha

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When Miriam spoke negatively about her brother, Moses, she was rebuked by G‑d and afflicted with the skin disease of tzaraat as a punishment. Due to Moses’ prayers, she was cured soon after, but still needed to remain outside of the camp for seven days.1 Aaron, who had listened to her negative speech without protesting, was also punished, but not as severely.2

Unfortunately, the spies who were sent soon afterwards to Israel did not take a lesson from this story, and they too spoke negatively—about the land of Israel. The result was that the Israelites of that generation all died in the desert.

The idolatrous armies of King Ahab were successful in their battles, because they did not have the sin of lashon haraIn fact, we find that lashon hara, negative talk, is a sin that has caused numerous tragedies for the Jewish people, and indeed the world, since the very beginning of history.

Some examples of this are:

  • The Midrash tells us that the snake slandered G‑d to Eve when convincing her to eat of the Tree of Knowledge.3
  • Joseph spoke negatively to his father, Jacob, about his brothers, causing them to hate him. This led to their selling him, and ultimately caused the Egyptian exile.4
  • At first Moses wondered why the Jews deserved their difficult slavery in Egypt. When he heard that there were talebearers amongst them, he said that he then understood why they deserved this fate.5
  • The slander of Doeg, King Saul’s chief shepherd and the head of the Sanhedrin, caused the massacre of nearly an entire city of kohanim.6 In fact, the armies of King Saul lost their battles with the Philistines as a result of the slander that people spoke against (then future) King David.7
    (On the other hand, the armies of the notorious King Ahab were successful in their battles, despite the fact that they were idolatrous, because they did not have the sin of lashon hara.8)
  • According to the Talmud, it was the slander of Jews by Jews that actually brought about the destruction of the Second Temple.9

The laws of lashon hara are too lengthy to include in one article. In fact, Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin wrote an entire book about these laws. The book is called Chafetz Chaim (which caused the author to be known as the “Chafetz Chaim”) too. The name is inspired by the verse in Psalms, “Whoever of you desires life (chafetz chaim) . . . guard your tongue from evil . . .”10

Nevertheless, here is a brief overview of some of the laws, mostly gleaned from Chafetz Chaim:

  1. Lashon hara literally means “bad talk.” This means that it is forbidden to speak negatively about someone else, even if it is true.11
  2. It is also forbidden to repeat anything about another, even if it is not a negative thing. This is called rechilut.12
  3. It is also forbidden to listen to lashon hara. One should either reprimand the speaker, or, if that is not possible, one should extricate oneself from that situation.13
  4. Even if one has already heard the lashon hara, it is forbidden to believe it. On the contrary, one should always judge one’s fellow favorably.14
  5. If one has already heard the lashon hara, he is forbidden to believe itNevertheless, one may suspect that the lashon hara is true, and take the necessary precautions to protect oneself.15
  6. It is forbidden to even make a motion that is derogatory towards someone.16
  7. One may not even retell a negative event without using names, if the listeners might be able to figure out who is being spoken of.17
  8. In certain circumstances, such as to protect someone from harm, it is permissible or even obligatory to share negative information. As there are many details to this law, one should consult a competent rabbi to learn what may be shared in any particular situation.18
Footnotes
1.

See Numbers, ch. 12. The commentaries to vv. 1–2 discuss what it was that she said.

2.

See Rashi to verse 9, and Rabbeinu Bechayei to verse 1.

3.

See Bereishit Rabbah 19:4 for the snake’s slanderous claim.

4.

See Genesis, ch. 37, and Bereishit Rabbah 84:7.

5.

See Exodus 2:14 and Rashi on this verse.

7.

Midrash Shocher Tov 7:8.

8.

Ibid.

9.

Talmud, Gittin 55b–56a.

11.

See Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 156:10.

12.

See Leviticus 19:16, and Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot, chapter 7.

13.

Chafetz Chaim 6:2, based on Talmud, Ketubot 5a and other sources.

14.

Ibid. based on Talmud, Pesachim 118a, and commentary of Rashbam ibid. s.v. Hamekabel.

15.

Talmud, Niddah 61a. See Jeremiah, ch. 41, where the story is told of how Gedaliah did not believe lashon hara at all, and thus allowed his adversaries into his palace. They eventually killed him, as well as most of his men.

16.

In the words of King Solomon: “An unscrupulous man, a man of violence, he walks with a crooked mouth; he winks with his eyes, shuffles with his feet, points with his fingers. Contrariness is in his heart; he plots evil at all times; he incites quarrels” (Proverbs 6:12–15).

17.

Chafetz Chaim 3:4.

18.

See Chafetz Chaim, ch. 10.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron was educated in Chabad yeshivahs in Los Angeles, New York, Israel and Australia. He was the Rosh Kollel of The Shul of Bal Harbour, Florida, and is now an adult Torah teacher in Surfside, Florida. He teaches classes on Talmud, Chassidism, Jewish history and contemporary Jewish law.
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Cyrus Zoleta Pasig City April 25, 2017

Is it a sin when you say that a person you may or may not know might think of negative thing to you or other? The reason I'm asking this question is that for me to be able to clearly comprehend situation of this kind. Because we always have a tendencies of trying to protect ourselves or someone that is close to us. But in trying to do so, we tend to think of others first of what they might say or do. Reply

Anonymous Yose April 24, 2017

This is very helpful for those who want to have a clean mouth, but otherwise, use soap to wash it out Reply

Anonymous April 12, 2017

Dear Rabbi,

I am from the Philippines and need a clarification. If Lashon Hara means Evil Tongue then what do you call a person who always think of another, and that person might think negative or evil to another person? Reply

Aryeh Citron Surfside August 9, 2016

Regarding old sins or crimes committed, even if they were as serious as murder, I don't see a point in informing the spouse, if, in fact, the person has turned a new leaf and has repented. This is true in a case, as you say, that they are not presently a threat. Reply

Anonymous Texas August 8, 2016

"When someone's life, profession or spousal choice is at stake, it is a mitzvah to share the relevant negative information." --Aryeh Citron

Dear Rabbi, what if the transgression is serious, (possibly murder and at least manslaughter), but happened almost two decades ago, and the perpetrator regrets doing it.

You learn they recently married, and you do not think they are a threat to their spouse.

Is it a mitzvah to inform or to keep quiet? Reply

Anonymous Atlanta July 18, 2014

My life, profession and spousal choice seem to already be dead. Evil Mitzvot. I heard of a story where a rabbi said cut open a feather pillow and let all the feathers fly out. Then go back a week later and gather up the feathers.

There must be a healthy way the Torah recommends. The current method is usually bullycide (I always wanted to understand why people do that--but this was not my preferred learning method). This is not my preferred reaction. Reply

Anonymous July 17, 2014

There is a lot of good information about loshon hara and how to prevent it but I am not sure how the person in the receiving end of it should react, especially if someone's welfare could be compromised as a result. Reply

Aryeh Citron May 20, 2014

When someone's life, profession or spousal choice is at stake, it is a mitzvah to share the relevant negative information. Reply

L Atlanta May 18, 2014

I am confused about loshon hara. Some of this is obvious, that we can kill with words so must avoid that. But we can kill with silence as well. Did people practice loshon hara about Hilter in the early years? Speaking up, in this instance, would have been a Mitvot for sure for six million people in addition to many more who suffered greatly. Did HaShem allow such tragedy because people were looking the other way? It seems that the more Divine preference might have been to say something about Hitler that may not be complimentary, so go so far as to say he was not nice. Can we concede that he was not nice? And if so, have I now committed loshon hara and sinned greatly? Reply

Robert Spinelli Chicago, IL/USA May 30, 2011

This is immensely helpful: I have been studying the laws of lashon hara and trying to live by these laws for years: this wisdom can *prevent* innumerable crises and miseries. By keeping silent when we should, we help sustain this world and we respect the laws of Adoshem. Reply

Chani Benjaminson, chabad.org January 16, 2011

Thanks for sharing Vesselin! You can find more material on Lashon Hara at:
chabad.org/k8321 Reply

Vesselin Kissiov Stara Zagora, Bulgaria January 13, 2011

I am a Christian from Bulgaria who admires the Jewish teaching about "Lashon Hara". Would someone recommend me good online articles about this topic? Reply

Jeff Willis, TX August 25, 2010

I would like to say thank you and express my appreciation because you provide me the opportunity of learning. Because of your program I become a better Jew as it is my responsibility to explore every avenue of Jewish education and you provide this opportunity. If I learn and practice, I help save Jewish lives and the Jewish people. To me, your service and program is a Mitzvah. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel August 24, 2010

A friend of mine and I are having a debate about whether laws concerning lashon hara apply to speaking negatively about non-Jews. I say that they do, he says that they don't. Reply