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Lashon Hara in Front of the Subject

1. The Violation Against Speaking L"H, Even in Front of the Subject
2. When the Leniency of Speaking in Front of the Subject Applies
3. Lashon Hara Meant as a Joke
4. Lashon Hara Without Names
5. Feigning Innocence to Spread Lashon Hara
6. Lashon Hara With No Impact to the Subject
7. The Commandment to Judge Favorably
8. The Prohibition Against Speaking when Judging Negatively

1. The Violation Against Speaking L"H, Even in Front of the Subject

The prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara is so severe, that the Torah prohibited it even if the information is true and in any other case.  It also doesn't help if the speaker is careful to speak about the subject secretly and takes care that the subject never hears about it, for that is also forbidden.  In fact, as a result of such action the speaker also receives the curse (Deut. 27:24): "Cursed be the one who strikes his brother in secret."

Even if the speaker determines that he would say the same thing in front of the speaker, or even if h actually speaks Lashon Hara about someone to their face, he violates the prohibition against  Lashon Hara.  In some ways the violation is worse when in front of the subject rather than behind his back, because when said to the subject's face, in addition to the prohibition of L"H, the speaker also "adorns" himself with the traits of arrogance and audacity.  The speaker will incur more negative judgments as a result, and in some cases causes the embarrassment of the subject, which, as we elaborated on in the introduction, is a violation of (Lev. 19:17) "You shall not bear sin because of him."

(In the introduction, the Chafetz Chaim explains that this verse, "You shall rebuke your neighbor and not bear sin because of him," refers to not embarrassing someone when rebuking someone to help them improve.  All the more so it must be forbidden to embarrass someone when not for a constructive purpose!)

2. When the Leniency of Speaking in Front of the Subject Applies

The leniency mentioned in the words or our Sages that [speech is permissible if] the speaker would not stop from saying the information in front of the subject, specifically regards Avak L"H.  The speaker's words have two meanings, and if we interpret them one way the information is not derogatory.  This issue is known to be dependent upon the intention of the speaker and the way in which the information is related at the time, for if the speaker chooses to he can take care to use a gentle tone of voice and avoid any gestures so that nothing derogatory can be found in his statements, or else the speaker could speak such that the listener understands the intent of the speaker to be of the other, derogatory interpretation.

This is a very difficult subject to condense, and therefore our Sages said that if the person speaks in a manner that he would not be embarrassed to use even in front of his friend [the subject], in such a case the speaker clearly does not have intentions to denigrate the subject and it is therefore permissible.  If, however, it is recognizable from his manner of speaking that he does intend to denigrate the speaker, and if it would be human nature to be embarrassed to speak in such a way in front of his friend [the subject] - even though the topic itself, when interpreted negatively, is only Avak Lashon Hara, and it's even true, and the speaker thinks he would be comfortable saying exactly the same thing in front of the subject - it would be forbidden.

3. Lashon Hara Meant as a Joke

Know further about the severity of the prohibition against Lashon Hara, that even if the speaker is not speaking out of hatred, and does not intend for his statements to be derogatory, but rather only spoken in jest and lightheadedness, even so since they are in truth derogatory statements they are forbidden according to Torah law.

4. Lashon Hara Without Names

The prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara applies even if, at the time of the conversation, the speaker does not identify the subject about whom he is speaking against.  Even if the speaker only relates the story without mentioning the parties involved, yet from the details of the story the listener discerns which person the speaker refers to, the information is Lashon Hara.

Furthermore, even if the speaker's words contained no negative information whatsoever, yet because of his speech harm or embarrassment is caused to the subject, he would also be guilty of speaking Lashon Hara.  If the speaker intended to create such a result through pretending to disguise the subject, the Sages' term for such actions, "Lashon Hara B'Tzin'a," concealed Lashon Hara, would apply.

5. Feigning Innocence to Spread Lashon Hara

There are many more ways through which Ba'alei Lashon Hara (habitual speakers of L"H) convey their information through misrepresentation and deception.  For example, they speak "innocently" about something as if they have no idea that what they convey is Lashon Hara, or they ask about someone's recent activities, or many other means.  Any such methods to "innocently" convey Lashon Hara are forbidden.

6. Lashon Hara With No Impact to the Subject

Know further, that even if no harm is caused to the subject from the Lashon Hara spoken, as when the listeners did not believe the information, or for a similar reason, even in such a case the speaker's words are not exempted from the prohibition of Lashon Hara, and require atonement.  In addition, even if the speaker evaluates in advance that his words will not have any impact on the subject, he is still forbidden to speak them since the information is derogatory.

The Chafetz Chaim completes the chapter with perhaps the most fundamental concept in Lashon Hara, giving the benefit of the doubt. As a result of judging favorably, we very likely will refrain from speaking Lashon Hara.

7. The Commandment to Judge Favorably

It is important to know another fundamental concept within the subject of Lashon Hara.

If one sees a person what said or did something, whether something Bein Adam L'Makom (between man and G-d) or Bein Adam L'chaveiro (between man and fellow man), and it's possible to judge the speech or action favorably and give the benefit of the doubt, if the person is a "yirei Elokim" (sincerely G-d fearing individual), we are obligated to judge him favorably even if the action in question is more logically interpreted negatively.

If the person is a "beinoni" (average person) in that he is generally careful to avoid sin yet on occasion falters, and the doubt could be equally interpreted favorably or unfavorably, one is obligated to follow the favorable judgement.  This fulfills what our Sages say, that one who jugdes his fellow favorably will receive favorable judgement from G-d; he also upholds the commandment (Lev. 19:15), "Judge your fellow people righteously."  Even if the speech or action seems more likely to have a negative judgement as its interpretation, it is proper that the matter should be considered a doubt, and not as a definitive, negative evaluation.

In the case that the action is more likely favorable, it is certainly forbidden to judge negatively.  And if one judges negatively, and as a result goes and speaks negatively against the person, not only has he violated "Judge your fellow people righteously," but he has also violated the prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara.

8. The Prohibition Against Speaking when Judging Negatively

Even if the situation seems to lean to the guilty side, such that the commandment to jugge favorably does not apply, and the observer decides in his own mind that the person is guilty of the action in question, there is no justification because of this incident to go and disparage the person to others, without first fulfilling all of the conditions discussed in the coming chapters 4,5, and 10.  For there are many situations for which even though the person can be judged negatively, the one (privately) judging him cannot embarrass or disgrace the person, as will be clarified in these later chapters.

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