Speech and Lashon Ha-Ra
Gossip and slander are serious sins in Judaism
Judaism forbids causing any deception or embarrassment through speech
It is forbidden even if the statement is true
There are some exceptions that allow tale-bearing
When non-observant people talk about how difficult it is to observe
Jewish law, they usually mention the difficulty of
observing Shabbat or keeping
kosher or other similarly detailed rituals. Yet
the laws that are most difficult to keep, that are most commonly violated even
by observant Jews, are the laws regarding improper speech. This is a very
important area of Jewish law; entire books have been written on the subject.
The Power of Speech
Judaism is intensely aware of the power of speech and of the harm that can be
done through speech. The rabbis note that the
universe itself was created through speech. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the
Al Cheit confession recited on
Yom Kippur, 11 are sins committed through
speech. The Talmud tells that the tongue is an
instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two
protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.
The harm done by speech is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by
cheating someone financially: money lost can be repaid, but the harm done by
speech can never be repaired. For this reason, some sources indicate that there
is no forgiveness for lashon ha-ra (disparaging speech). This is probably
hyperbole, but it illustrates the seriousness of improper speech. A
Chasidic tale vividly illustrates the danger of
improper speech: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about
the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had
done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his
forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi
told the man, "Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to
the winds." The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple
enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he
had done it, the rabbi said, "Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can
no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect
Speech has been compared to an arrow: once the words are released, like an
arrow, they cannot be recalled, the harm they do cannot be stopped, and the
harm they do cannot always be predicted, for words like arrows often go astray.
There are two mitzvot in the
Torah that specifically address improper speech:
Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Lev. 19:16),
and ye shall not wrong one another (Lev. 25:17, which according to tradition
refers to wronging a person with speech).
Tale-bearing is, essentially, any gossip. The
Hebrew word for tale-bearer is "rakhil"
(Reish-Kaf-Yod-Lamed), which is related to a
word meaning trader or merchant. The idea is that a tale-bearer is like a
merchant, but he deals in information instead of goods. In our modern
"Information Age," the idea of information as a product has become more clear
than ever before, yet it is present even here in the Torah.
It is a violation of this mitzvah to say
anything about another person, even it is true, even if it is not negative,
even if it is not secret, even if it hurts no one, even if the person himself
would tell the same thing if asked! It is said that the telling of gossip leads
to bloodshed, which is why the next words in the
Torah are "you shall not stand aside while your
fellow's blood is shed." The story of Do'eig the Edomite (I Samuel Chs. 21-22)
is often used to illustrate the harm that can be done by tale-bearing. Do'eig
saw Achimelekh the Kohein give David bread and a
sword, a completely innocent act intended to aid a leading member of Saul's
court. Do'eig reported this to Saul. Do'eig's story was completely true, not
negative, not secret, and Achimelekh would have told Saul exactly the same
thing if asked (in fact, he did so later). Yet Saul misinterpreted this tale as
proof that Achimelekh was supporting David in a rebellion, and proceeded to
slaughter all but one of the kohanim at Nob.
The person who listens to gossip is even worse than the person who tells it,
because no harm could be done by gossip if no one listened to it. It has been
said that lashon ha-ra (disparaging speech) kills three: the person who speaks
it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told. (Talmud
In Jewish law, all things are considered to be
secret unless a person specifically says otherwise. For this reason, you will
note that in the Torah,
G-d constantly says to
Moses, "Speak to the Children of Israel, saying:"
or "Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them:" If G-d did not specifically
say this to Moses, Moses would be forbidden to repeat his words! Nor is there
any time-limit on secrets. The Talmud tells the
story of a student who revealed a secret that he had heard 22 years earlier,
and he was immediately banished from the house of study! (Talmud Sanhedrin 31a)
The gravest of these sins of tale-bearing is lashon ha-ra (literally, "the evil
tongue"), which involves discrediting a person or saying negative things about
a person, even if those negative things are true. Indeed, true statements are
even more damaging than false ones, because you can't defend yourself by
disproving the negative statement if it's true! Some sources indicate that
lashon ha-ra is equal in seriousness to murder, idol worship, and
incest/adultery (the only three sins that you may not violate even to
save a life).
It is forbidden to even imply or suggest negative things about a person. It is
forbidden to say negative things about a person, even in jest. It is likewise
considered a "shade of lashon ha-ra" to say positive things about
a person in the presence of his enemies, because this will encourage his
enemies to say negative things to contradict you!
One who tells disparaging things that are false is referred to as a motzi sheim
ra, that is, one who spreads a bad report. This is considered the lowest of the
It is generally not a sin to repeat things that have been told "in the presence
of three persons." The idea is that if it is told in the presence of three
persons, it is already public knowledge, and no harm can come of retelling it.
However, even in this case, you should not repeat it if you know you will be
spreading the gossip further.
When Tale-Bearing is Allowed
There are a few exceptional circumstances when tale-bearing is allowed, or even
required. Most notably, tale-bearing is required in a Jewish court of law,
because it is a mitzvah to give testimony and
that mitzvah overrides the general prohibition against tale-bearing. Thus, a
person is required to reveal information, even if it is something that was
explicitly told in confidence, even if it will harm a person, in a Jewish court
A person is also required to reveal information to protect a person from
immediate, serious harm. For example, if a person hears that others are
plotting to kill someone, he is required to reveal this information. That is
another reason why the commandment not to go about as a tale-bearer is
juxtaposed with "you shall not stand aside while your fellow's blood is shed."
In limited circumstances, one is also permitted to reveal information if
someone is entering into a relationship that he would not enter if he knew
certain information. For example, it may be permissible to tell a person that
his prospective business partner is untrustworthy, or that a
prospective spouse has a disease. This
exception is subject to significant and complex limitations; however, if those
limitations are satisfied, the person with the information is required to
In all of these exceptions, a person is not permitted to reveal information if
the same objective could be fulfilled without revealing information. For
example, if you could talk a person out of
marrying for reasons other than the disease,
you may not reveal the disease.
Wronging a Person through Speech
Leviticus 25:17 says, "You shall not wrong one another." This has traditionally
been interpreted as wronging a person with speech. It includes any statement
that will embarrass, insult or deceive a person, or cause a person emotional
pain or distress.
Here are some commonly-used examples of behavior that is forbidden by this
- You may not call a person by a derogatory nickname, or by any other
embarrassing name, even if he is used to it.
- You may not ask an uneducated person for an opinion on a scholarly matter
(that would draw attention to his lack of knowledge or education).
- You may not ask a merchant how much he would sell something for if you have
no intention of buying.
- You may not refer someone to another person for assistance when you know
the other person cannot help (in other words, it's a violation of
Jewish law to give someone the run-around!).
- You may not deceive a person, even if no harm is done by the deception; for
example, you may not sell non-kosher meat to a
non-Jew telling him that it is kosher, even though no harm is done to the
non-Jew by this deception.
- You may not sell a person damaged goods without identifying the damage,
even if the price you give is fair for the goods in their damaged condition.
- You may not offer a person a gift or invite a person to dinner if you know
that the person will not accept.
- You may not compliment a person if you do not mean it.
Links for Further Reading
Torah.org offers an online course on the
Ethics of Speech, studying
the laws of proper speech as defined in the Sefer Chafetz Chayim.
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1995-2011), Tracey R Rich
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