Chapter 2: L"H Said in front of Three People
- The prohibition against telling many people L"H
- The leniency regarding L"H spoken to 3 or more:
- An alternate interpretation of "b'apei tlata"
- Only the original listeners may repeat the information
- All three listeners must be repeaters
- Repetition only within the same city
- Not repeating what is said in confidence
- Wording to imply information in confidence
- Adding to the Information; Discussing Another's Background
- In appropriate Listeners; Conclusion of the Applications of "Apei Tlata"
- Disclosing Individual Leanings of Judges or Council Members
- Evaluating a Public Speaker
- Business Matters Assumed Confidential
The following chapter discusses the speaking of L"H when told to a
group of 3 or more people, a leniency know as "b'apei t'lata" (Aramaic for
"in front of three"). It turns out this is not much of a leniency.
1. The prohibition against telling many people L"H
It is forbidden to speak Lashon Hara against one another, even if the
information is true, and even if told to only one person - all the more
so is it forbidden to speak L"H before a group of listeners. The
greater the number of listeners that one gathers to hear his L"H, the greater
his sin, for the subject is further disgraced by the heightened publicity
against him. Also, the speaker causes more people to sin by putting
them in the position to listen to L"H.
2. The leniency regarding L"H spoken to 3 or more
With regard to the leniency stated by the Sages of the Talmud about
speaking L"H to a group of 3 or more (Erchin 15b), this refers to something
which is not absolutely derogatory, but rather something which could be
taken one way or the other. Only for such ambiguous statements, about
which one can only know what was meant if he actually heard how the information
was said, does the leniency of "bifnei shlosha" (Heb. for "in front of
three") apply. Since one who speaks publicly knows that his words
will travel back to the subject, because "everyone has a friend" (i.e.
to repeat things to; an Aramaic expression), the speaker will take care
when he speaks so that what he says is not derogatory.
We will describe one example, so that similar situations can be extrapolated
One person approaches another in the street and asks, "Where can I
find a fire?"
The implications of this answer are dependent upon the way it is spoken
at the time; it is possible to understand the conversation as containing
nothing derogatory whatsoever. In actuality the description above
can be perfectly fine, such as in the case of a family with many children,
and the Holy One helped the family to have great wealth; or perhaps a home
that runs a guest house. Similarly,
The other answers, "That house; they are always cooking meat and fish."
One asks, "Where can I find a fire?"
Again the intention could be matter-of-fact as discussed previously.
Any such ambiguous statement is subject to the laws of Avak
Lashon Hara because it depends upon the way in which it was spoken
at the time. But if the speaker indicates with his voice or gestures
that the house constantly hosts celebrations and feasts, even though such
information wouldn't be absolutely derogatory (i.e. having frequent parties
isn't an actual violation or offense), the Sages deemed it a violation
Lashon Hara, and it would be forbidden to say it even before three
The other answers, "You won't find fire at this hour anywhere other
than the house of Ploni, because at Ploni's house they are always cooking."
According to the above two numbered paragraphs, the leniency known
as "b'apei tlata" means that it is permissible to speak what could be understood
either positively or negatively, in an ambiguous fashion, provided that
one's intentions were non-negative, before three people. Very different
from an allowance to speak any kind of Lashon Hara once one is in a crowd!
3. An alternate interpretation of "b'apei tlata"
There are other authorities (such as Maimonides) who explain this leniency
as meaning that if one spoke disparagingly against another in front of
three people - while the speaker certainly violated the prohibition against
speaking Lashon Hara - if one of the three listeners repeated the L"H to
others, he did not violate the prohibition. The reasoning behind
this is that once three people know about it, inevitably the information
will get around so that everyone will know, because "everyone has a friend,"
and something that would be revealed publicly was not included in the Torah's
prohibition against speaking L"H.
However, this leniency only applies when the repeater mentions the information
in a casual way, but not if he intends to further malign the subject.*
Even if the repeater does not mention the name of the original speaker
of the L"H, but rather says "such-and-such was said about so-and-so," even
so he would not remove his words from the prohibition of Lashon Hara (if
his intention was to harm).
*There are those who require further: his repetition should not be the
actual topic of conversation, but rather something that flows in (and out)
of the conversation rather casually.
4. Only the original listeners may repeat the information
Even though the condition for repeating L"H spoken to three listeners
is that the repeater should not intend to disparage the subject, this only
refers to an original listener who personally heard what Reuven said about
Shimon in front of three others. One who heard the information from
him, however, is forbidden to go ahead - relying on the repeater who said
he heard it as one of three listeners - and tell another about the derogatory
information he heard about Shimon, even if he doesn't mention who originally
spoke against Shimon, so long as it hasn't already received such publicity
that it is generally known.
Further, it doesn't matter if the second listener in the chain knows
personally whether what Reuven said about Shimon really happened, because
the second listener certainly cannot believe that Reuven even spoke Lashon
Hara. Even if he does know that Reuven said this about Shimon, he
doesn't know if it was really said before three listeners. Even though
the first listener in the chain told him that Reuven spoke in front of
three, the second listener cannot rely on him, and instead there is a suspicion
that it was not spoken in front of three and that therefore the information
will not get around. Therefore it is forbidden [for the second listener]
to repeat the Lashon Hara to anyone else.
5. All three listeners must be repeaters
It seems to me (the Chafetz Chaim), that if the L"H spoken before three
people was to Yirei Elokim (people who exemplify the quality of fear of
G-d) who are especially careful not to violate the laws of Lashon Hara,
there is no way the L"H will be publicized. In such a case it is
a Torah prohibition to repeat this information to another. Even if
only one of the three original listeners is a Yirei Elokim that is cautious
with regard to the laws of Lashon Hara, the prohibition applies, because
there aren't three repeaters.
It's also possible that the same restriction applies if one of the three
is a relative or friend of the subject, for that person certainly wouldn't
go and reveal to others what is disparaging about his friend or relative,
and therefore there aren't three.
6. Repetition only within the same city
It further appears to me (the Chafetz Chaim), that only within the same
city where one heard the L"H spoken before three it is permissible to repeat
it, because "everyone has a friend", but not in another city, even though
a few people travel from one place to another. (The Chafetz Chaim
also refers the reader to his footnote below, which details his reasoning
in accordance with the Talmudic sources on "b'apei tlata".)
7. Not repeating what is said in confidence
If the original speaker cautioned the listeners not to repeat the information
he told them, even if he told a large group of people, it would be considered
Lashon Hara for one of the listeners to then reveal the information, even
if only mentioned in a casual manner (see halacha 3 above).
Even if one listener saw that one or two of the other listeners were not
heeding the admonition and were telling others, that third listener cannot
repeat the information to others, even in a casual manner.
(In a footnote, the Chafetz Chaim explains several reasons for this,
two of which are due to the additional aspect of being told something in
confidence. First, there is an opinion that "b'apei tlata" applies
because the speaker expects what he says will get around; an admonition
not to repeat the information would contradict such an assumption.
Second, someone who reveals secrets is called a "Rachil", a talebearer,
so that divulging the information would be inappropriate regardless of
what others do.)
8. Wording to imply information in confidence
There is no distinction with respect to the wording of the admonition
not to repeat the information, whether the speaker said the listeners should
not mention the issue again or whether he told them that they should claim
no knowledge about it - in any form it is forbidden to reveal the derogatory
information about the subject, even to someone unrelated to the subject
(and certainly to the subject himself). For if one were to inform
someone other than the subject eventually the subject would hear it as
well, because "everyone has a friend."
(The Chafetz Chaim adds that it might be permissible to repeat the information
casually provided that the caution is made not to repeat the information
to the subject, and also that the information about the subject is not
Also note that this only applies when there are exactly three listeners,
but when two tell two others there is no leniency. (The Chafetz Chaim
explains in a footnote that it is the listeners we count as likely to repeat
what they heard, but not the speakers as likely to repeat what they spoke
since they probably regret having spoken.)
9. Adding to the Information; Discussing Another's Background
All that we have spoken of regards the prohibition of retelling the
information, but Heaven forbid one should not add even one letter or heighten
the intensity of the information to a listener, such as to comment that
the story heard about Shimon is typical of him, or similar comments.
These additions are certainly forbidden under any circumstances, for the
speaker ultimately damages the subject to a greater degree than does the
information commonly known about him due to its original mention before
Furthermore, by adding to the story the speaker indicates that he has
accepted the original L"H as true, which is absolutely forbidden under
all circumstances (and we will elaborate on this IY"H in chapter
7, paragraph 1).
Therefore one must be very careful even with publicly known information
about a person's background, such as their own lack of observance in their
youth, or the lack of "kosher" conduct of the previous generations in their
family, while the individual has conducted himself in an upright manner
for a long time. In truth, there is nothing wrong with having this
background. It would be forbidden to disgrace and embarrass the individual
because of this background. One who violates this and speaks about
these things before others, even not in front of the subject, in order
to shame him in the eyes of his people, even if he doesn't add one piece
of information beyond the truth, the speaker is counted as one of the speakers
of L"H who does not merit to receive the Divine Presence, as described
in the Gates of Repentance, article 214. The leniency of "apei tlata"
does not apply whatsoever, even though the person's background is publicly
known, since there is nothing wrong with it (as Ezekiel tells us (18:20
& 22): "...the [righteous] son shall not bear the iniquity of his father..."
and "none of his transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered
against him; in his righteousness [and repentance] that he has done he
shall live"), but the speaker wishes to insult the subject because of this.
[A desire to disparage someone is very far from casually mentioning
a known piece of information, the requirement discussed above
in paragraph 3. In addition, the Chafetz Chaim points out in a footnote
that reminding someone of their past in order to hurt them is a violation
of "Ona'at dvarim"; the leniency of "apei tlata" would not override another
10. In appropriate Listeners; Conclusion of the Applications
of "Apei Tlata"
Know further that the leniency of "apei tlata" applies to the speaker.
But with regard to the listener, if the speaker knows the nature of the
listener, that once he hears something he accepts it as true and he might
also add disparaging words to the conversation, to such a listener it is
forbidden to speak even a hint of derogatory information under any circumstances.
A speaker who would repeat L"H to this listener transgresses "before the
blind do not place a stumbling block" (Lev. 19:14); see the introduction,
in which we elaborate on this and other commandments transgressed by speaking
All that we have written in this chapter as forbidden applies even if
the speaker does not identify the original speaker who spoke "b'apei tlata"
(before three); if he simply said, "Such-and-such was said about So-and-So,"
even so it is forbidden.
And after all these details we have clarified, see my brethren how much
one must distance himself from this leniency, for there is almost no practical
application of it. For even after a speaker is sure that he has satisfied
all off the above particulars, he must also wonder whether the halacha
is indeed according to this opinion (as opposed to the interpretation discussed
above in paragraphs 1 & 2), for according to many
authorities there is no talmudic source for this leniency (the Chafetz
Chaim refers us to his footnote earlier in this chapter). Therefore
one who guards his soul will distance himself from relying on this.
11. Disclosing Individual Leanings of Judges or Council
In accordance with what we have clarified BE"H regarding the principles
of "apei tlata", it is important to be careful when seven Tuvei Ha'ir (city
elders) gather to decide upon a legal matter which ascribes an obligation
to one side and a credit to the other. If the members of the council
disagree in their opinions, and the matter should come to a vote to determine
the majority opinion, once they emerge from private discussion with a conclusion,
each member must be very careful afterward not to disclose his own or another's
opinion that was inclined to favor the losing party, were it not that his
fellow council members outnumbered him and forced him to go along with
It doesn't matter if the council members agreed at the outset not to
reveal or tell the person who lost the case, which would certainly be forbidden.
Even to reveal an individual opinion casually, such as when one doesn't
intend to reveal his opinion, but rather accidentally speaks to someone
in a way that the listener can discern from his words that he doesn't agree
with the majority opinion to this day, such as saying that he can't argue
about this with the other council members, so too this is completely forbidden
(and according to the opinion of Hayad Hak'tana even if he told someone
casually that he didn't originally agree but later agreed with the decision
and was part of the majority he violates this law). There is no distinction
between a speaker who says this himself or one whose friend angrily pressures
him about the decision he was part of; in any case it's forbidden to put
the blame of the outcome on his fellow council members and remove it from
himself, even though the opinions he would relay are accurate.
12. Evaluating a Public Speaker
I also see it appropriate to write about one thing in a detailed fashion
which I have seen many people accustomed to violating; namely, when one
speaks in the Beit Midrash it is prohibited for a member of the audience
to make fun of the speaker and say that there is nothing in what he says
or he is not worth listening to. And amidst our numerous sins we
have seen many people break this such that any mocking is not thought of
as any violation whatsoever, yet according to Torah law it is outright
Lashon Hara, for through such talk the speaker causes monetary damage to
his friend (the speaker), and in some cases anguish and shame as well.
While one might say what he says is true, isn't Lashon Hara forbidden
even when the information is true? For what intention could the mockers
have in their mocking? A "baal nefesh" (person who regards what he
does with care) will conduct himself differently, advising the speaker
afterwards, privately, explaining at length how he could speak with a different
style, because when he uses a certain delivery style his words are not
heeded. Through such advice he also upholds the commandment "love
your neighbor as yourself."
In any case one should not discuss a poorly received speech with mockery,
and the leniency of "apei tlata" does not apply. [In the footnotes,
the Chafetz Chaim adds that because the practice of disparaging Rabbinic
speakers is unfortunately so widespread it is impossible to repeat something
said even b'apei tlata, since inevitably the new listener will add his
13. Business Matters Assumed Confidential
If someone tells a group something about his business pursuits or related
matters, his words are generally forbidden to reveal afterward lest he
might experience harm or anguish. Only if, now that the speaker has
revealed this information "b'apei tlata" and is not concerned that
the information will get around, then it is permissible for one of those
listeners to reveal the information to others, so long as the original
speaker did not reveal an expectation that others should not repeat it. However, the listeners must ensure that they comply with the conditions
discussed above. [In a footnote the Chafetz Chaim distinguishes between
information which is not derogatory and information which would cause the
original speaker damage, such as a sin, which if repeated to others could
embarrass him. Objectively damaging information, therefore, is assumed
to be in confidence unless the speaker says otherwise.]
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