The Sages teach us, "Anyone who accepts Lashon Hara should be thrown to
the dogs, for it is written (Ex. 23:1), 'Do not raise a false report'
immediately following 'throw it to the dogs (22:30).'" The Sages also
teach us that one who accepts Lashon Hara is worse than the speaker.
2. The prohibition against listening to Lashon Hara
Even merely listening to Lashon Hara is a violation of the Torah, even if
the listener intends not to believe anything while he is listening. Simply
bending his ear to hear constitutes a violation.
There is of course a distinction between hearing and accepting, because in
the case of listening there is no prohibition unless the information has
no future relevance to the listener. If, however, the information - should
it be true - does have relevance to the listener, for example if the
listener realizes at the outset that the speaker that he wants to show
through his story that the subject is untrustworthy or some other such
trait and the listener is considering a business dealing or partnership
with the subject, or arranging a marriage for him or any similar
involvement, it is permissible to listen in order to explore the
information and protect himself. The listener's desire to hear the
information must not be to listen to the disparagement of his friend, but
rather to protect himself so that he will not sustain damage or end up in
a dispute, or any other sort of misfortune.
It is also a principle that if the listener will not benefit by hearing
the information, but through his listening good can come to others, it is
permissible. For example, if he listens to the information so that he can
later verify it and then rebuke the individual in question such that
perhaps through [his involvement] the sinner will repent, or he will
return stolen goods to their owner or he will appease the person he
incensed, or similar rectifications, his listening would be permissible,
as explained above.
In any case, accepting the Lashon Hara as true is forbidden.
3. When it is permitted to listen to Lashon Hara
Let this not be a surprise to the reader that he should say: "How can we
possibly satisfy the expectations of Heaven, for you have defined [the
parameters of the law such that] even listening to the disparagement of
one's fellow is forbidden, yet what if the information is relevant to me,
with regard to my business or for other reasons?"
The answer is: one who wants to satisfy his obligations with regard to
listening [to Lashon Hara] should conduct himself as follows: if someone
were to approach him and should want to talk about another, and he
understands that the speaker wants to speak negatively about the other
person, he should ask the speaker, "Will the information that you want to
tell me have future relevance to me, or will I thereby be able to rectify
a situation by rebuking the offending individual, or some other positive
outcome (as discussed above in paragraph 2)?" If the speaker
replies that it does have future relevance or that he could correct a
situation as discussed above, it is permissible to listen to the information.
[Although he is permitted to listen to it,] the listener should not
believe the information when he hears it; rather, he should only suspect
[its veracity] until he investigates the matter.
However, if the listener understands from the speaker's response that
there is no purpose in what he says, or that he detects that the
information is merely words of spite and hatred, such that the speaker
wickedly ascribes false accusations to the subject and defames him out of
sheer hatred, listening is prohibited.
4. When it is a Mitzvah to listen to Lashon Hara
In some cases it is a Mitzvah (fulfillment of a positive commandment) to
listen to the disparaging words one says against another. For example: if
the listener determines that through listening to the entire story he will
then be able to show the speaker or other listeners that the information
is inaccurate, or some other explanation to exonerate the subject of the
An additional situation in which it is a Mitzvah to listen is when someone
approaches the listener to complain about something one's fellow did
against him, and the listener recognizes that by listening to the speaker
he might be able to quiet his anger so that he will not continue to speak
to others (since they might believe him and accept his Lashon Hara) and
through his listening peace is enhanced among the Jewish people.
With regard to any of these exceptions that we have discussed with regard
to listening [to Lashon Hara] one should take great care not to
definitively believe it when it is heard, but only to suspect its
veracity. [The listener should follow this guideline carefully] so that
he is not also caught in the snare of the sin of accepting Lashon Hara.
5. One who unknowingly joins a Lashon Hara gathering
Now let us return to the concept we mentioned above in paragraph 2, that
even listening to Lashon Hara is forbidden according to the Torah: this is
in the case when one goes out of his way to listen. However, if one is
sitting with a group of people, gathered for a [non-gossip] purpose, and
the people begin speaking forbidden words [of Lashon Hara], and the person
judges that his words of rebuke will not make a dent [in their behavior],
what he can do] depends on the following if it is possible for him to
leave the group or put his fingers in his ears, it is a great Mitzvah for
him to do so, as our Sages tell us in Ketubot (page 5a). If, however, it
is not possible for him to leave their presence, and he judges that the
advice to place his fingers in his ears would be very difficult for him
because those in the group will mock him so that he certainly will not do
it, in any case he should muster all of his internal strength at such an
oppressive moment and fight the Divine war against his inclination that he
should not fall into the Torah violation of listening and accepting Lashon
[Regarding the case in which the person will not leave or plug his ears,]
there are three items which, if the listener is very careful to follow
them, will save him from the Torah violation mentioned above:
- He should decide in his heart with absolute certainty that he will
not believe the derogatory talk being said about others.
- He should not enjoy hearing these forbidden stories.
- He should also take care not to show the speakers any movement that
would indicate agreement with their words; rather, he should remain mute
as a stone. And if he can display an angry face such that they will
realize that he does not agree with their empty words, even better.
6. One who knowingly joins a Lashon Hara gathering
When does [paragraph 5] apply? If at the time that the person joined the
group they were not speaking forbidden words [Lashon Hara] and also if now
he cannot take leave of them. If, however, at the time that he wants to
join them they were already speaking forbidden words, or he can depart
from their company but is too lazy to do so, or he recognizes them to be a
group that is the type to always want to speak badly of others and he goes
and joins them, even if he does nothing to add to or support the
conversation and he is not interested in it, he is nonetheless called a
sinner just as the others in the group. For this person has violated the
words of the Sages who commanded us to avoid listening to improper
And if the listener intended to hear their talk, all the greater is the
sin he bears, and he will be inscribed in the heavenly Book of Remembrance
as an evil person and Ba'al Lashon Hara (habitual speaker of Lashon
Hara). Similarly it is written in Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, who said the
following to his son Hyrkanus: "My son, do not sit with a group speaking
ill of their fellow man, for when their words ascend to Heaven, [the
conversation] will be recorded in the Book, and all who stand there will
be recorded as a part of this wicked group and Ba'alei Lashon
Hara." Therefore one must distance himself very, very far from such an
7. Judging favorably
Know well, that just as we have studied that the poskim (authorities of
Jewish Law) regard it a Torah violation to believe derogatory words about
another, it is also a violation even if the listener knows that the
information he was told is true and the information could be interpreted
in different ways. If the speaker is judging the subject as guilty, and he
thereby dishonors the subject, and the listener knows that it is a mitzvah
to judge him favorably (a law discussed in the Talmud, Shavuot 30a, and a
Torah commandment according to some poskim), if one violates this by not
judging him favorably but rather agrees with the one speaking
derogatorily--not only has he violated "With righteousness you shall judge
your people" (Lev 19:15) but he also accepts Lashon Hara, since by not
judging the subject favorably he has accepted the derogatory statements.
8. Judging the righteous favorably
All this [the requirement to judge favorably discussed in paragraph 7]
applies if the story was about an ordinary person, who typically takes
care not to sin, but succumbs occasionally. How much more so if the story
were about a G-d fearing person [who is even more scrupulous in his
observance of mitzvot] would the commandment of "With righteousness shall
you judge your people" apply (as is discussed by Maimonides in chapter 1
of Pirkei Avot and also by Rabbeinu Yona in Shaarei Teshuva 218). So when
one judges the subject as guilty and agrees with the speaker's disparaging
remarks, he violates this commandment [judging favorably]; clearly, he
also violates the prohibition of accepting Lashon Hara.
9. Prohibition against accepting parallels that of speaking
Just as the prohibition of accepting Lashon Hara applies when the speaker
talks about one who acted improperly, in that we are commanded not to
decide in our hearts that it is true as discussed above in paragraph 1,
the prohibition of accepting Lashon Hara applies to all instances in which
speaking the Lashon Hara is prohibited (such as embarrassing him because
of his older relatives' behavior, or his own past actions when he now
conducts himself appropriately; or degrading him on account of lesser
intelligence, whether in Torah or worldly matters; and the other
categories that we have discussed in chapter 4) with regard
to anything which disparages the subject. For we are commanded not to
accept what a speaker says when through his words he causes us to look
negatively upon the subject.
The guiding principle is as follows: anything for which the speaker is
prohibited to say, there is a prohibition upon the one who believes it for
10. Using Lashon Hara to protect oneself
Even though we learn that accepting Lashon Hara - for one to decide in his
heart that the information is true - is forbidden according to the Torah,
suspecting [the veracity of the information] is appropriate.
[The story of Guedalyah ben Achikam's assassination, in the last chapter
of Kings, is the basis for the Gemara's discussion (Nidah 61a) about
suspecting Lashon Hara to be true. The gemara relates that Guedalyah was
warned about Ishmael, the leader of the assassination, yet he rejected the
informer's story because, "it was Lashon Hara."]
To clarify: the Lashon Hara must be accepted to the extent that it is of
concern, in order that one may protect himself from damage by the subject.
Yet this should not even be viewed as a "safek" (legally binding suspicion
against someone), since the subject retains the supposition of "kashrut"
(legally established as an upstanding citizen). For this reason [that we
may only feel concern about the hearsay], we are required to do him favors
and kindness as we are commanded in the Torah to do for all of Israel.
His caliber is not diminished whatsoever by the Lashon Hara; rather, the
Torah permits us to be concerned in order to protect ourselves and others
from him. Therefore, the halachic commentaries write that it is
permissible to suspect the information only in the case where damage could
come to the listener or others by his not listening (and with respect to
protecting others, much elaboration is needed for understanding--see the
commentary in this section and also in Hilchot Rechilut 9; however, for
any other reason, it is forbidden to suspect the Lashon Hara as true or
pay any heed to it.
11. Suspicions cannot affect the suspected
Many people make mistakes when suspecting the veracity of Lashon Hara and
this subject needs much discussion; while there isn't enough room to
elaborate upon the different kinds of mistakes here, with the help of
Heaven I will discuss them in the last chapter of the section on Lashon Hara.
However, the general guidelines are as follows: when Lashon Hara is to be
regarded as a concern, this is only in order to protect oneself from the
subject. However, Heaven forbid one should not act against the subject,
or cause him harm, or embarrass him on account of the information, either
in a large or small manner. Even if the Lashon Hara was spoken by a
trusted witness whose testimony the Beit Din (religious council of the
city) would accept, the report is only valid when asserted with an oath (a
very serious assurance in the eyes of Jewish law).
Furthermore, just to hate the subject in your heart (i.e. secretly,
without letting the feeling affect one's actions) on account of the Lashon
Hara is forbidden according to the Torah. Certainly the listener cannot
allow the Lashon Hara to weaken his fulfillment of positive commandments
that benefit the speaker [as we are commanded to fulfill obligations
between ourselves and others, such as lending money and giving charity to
12. Repentance for accepting Lashon Hara
If one has already violated the prohibition of listening and believing
Lashon Hara, whether Lashon Hara about someone's religious observance or
about his personal characteristics, repentance is as follows:
1. The listener must strengthen himself and remove the words from his
heart so that he does not believe them again.
2. The listener commits himself not to accept any other Lashon Hara about
one of his fellow people.
3. The listener performs Viduy (in private prayer, confess this sin to G-d).
Through this process he repairs the violation of the positive and
negative commandments which he violated through accepting Lashon Hara
(listed in the introduction), provided that he has not yet
repeated the Lashon Hara.