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The Prohibition of Communicating Lashon Hara

  1. Definition of Lashon Hara: Negative Comments, Whether True or False
  2. Biblical Source for the Prohibition Against Lashon Hara
  3. Habitual Speakers of Lashon Hara
  4. Profound Consequences of Speaking Lashon Hara
  5. Being "Coerced" into Speaking Lashon Hara
  6. Speaking Lashon Hara to Avoid Financial Loss
  7. Speaking Lashon Hara to Avoid Personal Dishonor
  8. Various Methods of Conveying Lashon Hara
  9. Disparaging Yourself Along with Others

This chapter discusses the general prohibition of conveying Lashon Hara through any form of communication, and also the great significance of adherence to and negligence of these laws.

1. Definition of Lashon Hara: Negative Comments, Whether True or False

It is forbidden to speak disparagingly of one's "chaveir" (lit. friend--we will discuss who this technically includes later). Even if the information is entirely truthful, it is called Lashon Hara. If the information also contains any fabrication, it is also called motzi shem ra (lit. putting out a bad name). The speaker of Lashon Hara violates the prohibition of "Lo telech rachil b'ameicha (Lev. 19:16)."

2. Biblical Source for the Prohibition Against Lashon Hara

Leviticus 19:16 explicitly prohibits Lashon Hara and Rechilut (talebearing that incites hatred and resentment), yet there are many more commandments that bear on the speaking of Lashon Hara, as discussed in the introduction.

3. Habitual Speakers of Lashon Hara

The above (the seriousness of speaking Lashon Hara) relates to someone who incidentally includes something inappropriate in his speech. But those who make it a habit to talk about others in a derogatory manner ("Did you hear.....", "Do you know she.....", etc.) are labeled ba'alei lashon hara (lit. masters of Lashon Hara, in that such speech is an integral part of themselves), and their transgression is far more severe. They regularly create a chilul Hashem (desecration of the name of G-d; cf. Lev. 22:32) because of their rebellious manner. Though they may view their activities as social tools, such behavior cuts them off from many good things in the world around them.

4. Profound Consequences of Speaking Lashon Hara

Ba'alei Lashon Hara are also cut off from something else: olam habah (the World to Come). The Sages say (Bab. Erchin 15b) that for three transgressions one forfeits his portion in olam habah: murder, adultery, and idol worship, and that lashon hara is equivalent to all three. The Chafetz Chaim adds that when someone accustoms himself to speaking Lashon Hara, he rationalizes it to the extent that he begins to view Lashon Hara as entirely permissible.

The comparison of Lashon Hara to well-known and agreed-upon sins such as murder is surprising. But at the same time, we can imagine why: just as the "Ten Commandments" sins damage and destroy vital physical aspects of the world, Lashon Hara afflicts the emotional and social realms.

5. Being "Coerced" into Speaking Lashon Hara

There is no difference when speaking lashon hara whether one tells a juicy story of his own will or because someone encourages (or pressures) him to do so. Even if the speaker's Rebbe (teacher) or parent--whom the person must honor and fear, and not contradict--requests that he tell about an incident, if the relating of the information would result in Lashon Hara or even Avak Lashon Hara (speech that provokes Lashon Hara; more about that later), he cannot say it.

If you think about it, Lashon Hara isn't any different from any other commandment. If someone encouraged you, or even nagged you, to eat a cheeseburger, you would still be fully responsible for your actions. Certainly social pressure for gossip seems more effective than it is for food, drink and many other areas, but that may be because we are not used to saying "no" to evil speech.

6. Speaking Lashon Hara to Avoid Financial Loss

Even when subject to great financial loss, one is not permitted to speak Lashon Hara. This may mean that he will be viewed as a fool, and denied financial opportunity by the "intelligent" people with whom he associates. As in all Mitzvot Lo Taaseh (Torah prohibitions), we are commanded to forgo all of our income.

(The source for this is in Shema: b'kol l'vavcha, b'kol nafsh'cha, ub'kol m'odecha: "You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your possessions.")

It is generally helpful to try and develop a (personal) rational approach to the laws of Lashon Hara. When someone is confronted with a situation in which he is expected to speak derogatorily about someone, if he can respond with a simple personal philosophy (or sometimes just enough self-confidence to convey adherence to a personal philosophy), he will leave most of those situations with others' respect intact. And in those situations which are not in the "most" category, the best thing to do is remember the benefits that accrue through hardship in observing this mitzvah.

7. Speaking Lashon Hara to Avoid Personal Dishonor

If someone stands to lose personal honor by not speaking Lashon Hara, he must also sustain the loss and remain silent. For example, if one is sitting in a group speaking Lashon Hara, and he has no way to separate from them at the moment, he cannot participate in their lively discussion. This applies even if he will look like a simpleton or social clod. He should try to hold himself back and remember the many sayings of the Sages regarding his situation: "Better to be considered a fool in the eyes of man throughout one's lifetime than as a wicked person in the eyes of G-d for one moment (Eduyot 5:6)," "the reward is according to the effort (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 5:25)," "one hundred times more in hardship than without it (i.e. the reward is one hundred fold; Avot d'Rabbi Natan)," and the Vilna Gaon who writes that "for every second that one remains silent he will merit reward beyond the comprehension of any being, even celestial."

8. Various Methods of Conveying Lashon Hara

Whether spoken, written, or hinted with gestures or any other way (if you looked at the Rashi in Lev. 19:16 you saw that winking was described as a characteristic behavior of holchei rachil - those who go about slandering), any communication of Lashon Hara is prohibited. This also applies if you weren't the writer of a piece disparaging someone. [Rabbi Pliskin elaborates on a footnote in the Hebrew about the communication of Lashon Hara: showing a letter or other writing (e.g. a newspaper) to belittle its writer would also be forbidden. I would anticipate that this would also apply to footage in a film or other media.]

9. Disparaging Yourself Along with Others

Even if you're disparaging yourself alongside the subject, it is prohibited. It doesn't matter if you look even worse than the subject, and it doesn't matter if you mention yourself first. Rabbi Pliskin gives some nice examples:

Ben and I both shoplifted when we were younger.
Nobody in our group studies Torah properly.
It is also forbidden to speak Lashon Hara about yourself.
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