Action or Acceptance of Lashon Hara Without Investigation
1. Not Accepting Lashon Hara When Spoken Publicly
The prohibition against accepting Lashon Hara applies even when the
speaker is speaking publicly before several people. Although it was told
in front of so many people, the listeners may not accept the information
as true. They may only be aware of the information and investigate it.
Should the listeners find out that the story is true (i.e. the subject
acted wrongly - and the situation can be rectified), they should rebuke
the subject regarding the matter.
2. Lashon Hara Spoken in Front of the Subject
There is no allowance in Jewish Law to believe Lashon Hara, even if the speaker says that Lashon Hara in front of the subject, since we did not hear any acknowledgement of the Lashon Hara from the speaker. And we certainly may not believe Lashon Hara spoken when the subject is not present yet the speaker insists that he would still say it in front of the subject.
Many people unfortunately make the mistake of believing this kind of Lashon Hara. Even if the subject says nothing while the speaker speaks disparagingly of him right in front of him, this does not prove in the least that the information is true, even if it is his nature not to keep quiet when told something with which he disagrees yet this is the one time he is silent. Perhaps he conquered his nature and decided not to enter into an argument, or perhaps he realized that people would be more inclined to believe the speaker's story than his response (as is the heinous tendency nowadays to believe that the speaker must be telling the truth simply because he says it in front of the subject - even if the subject denies it one hundred times they won't believe him) so that he feels that it is better to keep silent and be among the downtrodden.* Therefore it is forbidden to take the subject's presence as proof and conclude that the information is true.
*[There is a statement by the Sages that one who is insulted and doesn't reply has all of his sins forgiven. This is one benefit of allowing oneself to be among the downtrodden.]
3. Lashon Hara Spoken by a Group
Just as it is forbidden to accept Lashon Hara if heard from one individual, the law is the same even when heard from two or more. It doesn't help matters that the speakers have made themselves counted among the wicked through their speech - in fact that is even more reason not to believe them.
For even if according to their words the subject acted improperly, they are violating the prohibition of "Lo telech rachil - do not go about as a tale-bearer" which applies even if the information is true. Therefore they are considered sinners, so how could we believe them with regard to someone who we know to be in good standing up to this point, for someone who is suspected of speaking Lashon Hara is further suspected of lying and changing or adding [to the story]. And it is irrelevant that there are two speakers, for the wicked are not aggregated to form a group [for testimony or other purposes within Jewish Law].
Furthermore, even if in their specific case the information that they are spreading would not make them counted as sinners [e.g. the information fills a constructive purpose - see footnote 5 in the Hebrew text], it is still forbidden to accept their words and believe them absolutely, for there is no valid testimony even with two or more witnesses unless taken to a Beit Din (court of Jewish Law). Outside of a Beit Din their testimony is not valid, such that even if they were spreading falsehood they are not called Eidei Sheker, false witnesses - a designation specified in the Torah - but rather Motzei Shem Ra, spreaders of falsehood in a more general sense (see also the Sefer Mitzvot Katan, Prohibition 235).
All this is with regard to deciding that the information is true, while being suspicious of information is permissible even if only heard from one person, as discussed previously in Chapter 6.
4. Proper reaction to rumors
If a rumor circulates that someone did or said something inappropriate according to the Torah, whether a severe or minor violation, it is forbidden to accept the Lashon Hara; the listener may only suspect and investigate the matter. Certainly, if the listener wants to tell others what he heard, he must be sure that he is not doing so to further spread the rumor, as we discussed earlier in chapter 2 paragraph 3 - study the matter as described there.
5. Believing Lashon Hara About a Known Transgressor
All of the above (not accepting Lashon Hara but only suspecting and investigating it) applies when the subject is a typical member of Israel. However,when the subject is an established wicked person, such that it is publicly known that he repeatedly, flagrantly violated well-known commandments --such as adultery and similar acts--it is permissible to believe the Lashon Hara.
6. Lashon Hara Spoken About Oneself and Another
If the speaker tells a story, and within it he mentions something derogatory about himself and another, the listener is only permitted to believe the information about the speaker, not the other person.
7. Lashon Hara Spoken by a Reliable Source
And now we will begin to discuss - with the help of Heaven - Jewish law with regard to accepting Lashon Hara when spoken by someone exceptionally reliable, or from someone who speaks out of innocence, or if the story contains information that corroborates the story as true.While most of the laws for these cases are the same, I have nonetheless separated each one into separate [numbered] paragraphs, since each has some details unique to the laws of each, and also so as not to confuse the reader due to an abundance of pages which elaborate upon each of these cases.
And so, I will begin with the help of the One Who Apportions Wisdom: The prohibition against accepting Lashon Hara applies even when heard from someone who is believed as the word of two witnesses [whose testimony is accepted in Jewish courts]. As we have written before in chapter 4 paragraph 5, it is only permissible to reveal information privately to his Rabbi or a trusted friend if the speaker knows that his words will be believed as the words of two witnesses; in that case it is permissible for his Rabbi to accept this story and hate the subject and distance himself from him until he knows that the person has repented from his evil ways.
Furthermore, telling one's Rabbi is only permissible if the information is the kind which, if true, it would be permissible to talk badly about the subject if he had not repented, such as if the person intentionally committed an act which is widely known to be prohibited, such that there is no way to accord him the benefit of the doubt (such as the story with Toviyah in Gemara Pesachim 113 which is a case of adultery, etc.).
This would not be the case in which one can find a possible justification - for example the person was unaware that what he did was a violation, or perhaps he acted out of carelessness - or generally negative talk about a person, or insulting another's character and as discussed above in chapter 5 paragraph 2,or to mention the actions of someone's parents or relatives or his own [mis]behavior from earlier times; certainly none of these are relevant to the concept of "as believable as two [witnesses]." This is because if it cannot be ascertained with certainty that the information is true, the Torah prohibits speaking negatively about the person and rather he must be judged righteously in this case as is discussed above in chapter 4 paragraph 3. The listener is also forbidden from accepting in his heart the derogatory information for the same reason and as discussed in chapter 6 paragraph 7.
(And furthermore one who accepts the information violates the commandment "Do not place a stumbling block before the blind" along with several positive and negative commandments as detailed in the introduction. Since the speaker certainly violates the prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara, as is agreed by all the authorities that [derogatory speech is considered] Lashon Hara even if it is true, and through listening he brings the speaker to this point, for were he not interested in listening to him, his friend couldn't commit the violation. The more that he accepts the words of the speaker, the more he helps the speaker to continue speaking, and through his listening his friend comes to commit an even greater violation.)
8. Caveats to Believing Information from a Reliable Source
Even in the case of the story about Toviyah mentioned above [in Pesachim 113b, in which someone witnesses a man named Toviyah commit adultery, and the generational leaders rule that it is permissible to hate Toviyah based on the one witness' statement], it is not permissible to accpet the information unless two additional aspects are considered:
The witness must state that he personally witnessed the situation. If, however, he heard it from others, there is no special credence given to this speaker.
Even if the speaker says that he personally witnessed the story, it is only permissible to believe the information and distance oneself from the subject until it is known that the person did not repent from his evil doings. But to go about and tell others is not permissible, as written above in Chapter 4 at the end of paragraph 5. Certainly it is not permissible to cause the subject financial loss, or - Heaven forbid - to abuse him, due to this information.
9. Speaking out of Innocence
If someone says Lashon Hara about another and is "mesiach l'fi tumo" (speaking out of innocence: he does not realize that what he says is Lashon Hara, or of a special interest to the listener), yet the Lashon Hara is something about which we can give the subject the benefit of the doubt, or the information is disparaging the subject's character [which has no practical relevance to anyone], or any other type of Lashon Hara described in 7:7, or the speaker did not witness the incident himself but is repeating it secondhand, it is forbidden to accept the Lashon Hara.
Further, even if the Lashon Hara doesn't fit into one of these categories, in any case the listeners must take extreme caution not to accept the Lashon Hara from this person who is unknowingly speaking negatively about this fellow (in a footnote, the Chafetz Chaim discusses that the listeners should be suspicious whether the speaker is truly speaking innocently or is aware of what he is implying). It is certainly forbidden to rely on the Lashon Hara and repeat it to others or to disparage the speaker in any way because of what the listener has heard. And certainly the listener should not take the law into his own hands on the basis of the Lashon Hara and punish him physically, monetarily, or otherwise.
10. "Dvarim HaNikarim": Substantiating Evidence
[Note:The translation "substantiating evidence" is from Rabbi Pliskin's sefer _Guard Your Tongue_] If someone hears Lashon Hara about which he has substantiating evidence, the law is as follows: if the Lashon Hara (however truthful) is something about which the subject may be given the benefit of the doubt, or it is generally derogatory information about the subject, or any other kind of Lashon Hara mentioned in 7:7, the corroborating evidence does not apply, as we must give an ordinary individual the benefit of the doubt, that he should not be shamed. However, if the Lashon Hara is regarding something about which no redeeming interpretation may be found, it is permissible to believe and accept the LashonHara *.
* The Chafetz Chaim notes that we must be very careful in relying on substantiating evidence to believe Lashon Hara, as it is a natural evil inclination in people to rely upon inconclusive substantiations. Therefore, we must investigate the substantiating evidence and make sure that it is reliable as well.
11. What Constitutes Substantiating Evidence
Only if the evidence truly corroborates, in that it relates to the issue of the story, and if the listener has firsthand knowledge of the evidence, may he rely on it. If however, the evidence is removed from the matter and only slightly substantiating, or if the listener did not come to the evidence firsthand but rather heard it elsewhere, the evidence cannot be considered relevant.
[There is a story in the gemara (Bava Metzia 24a) which the Chafetz Chaim describes in footnote 31, in which Mar Zutra Chasida's money pouchis stolen by one of his guests. Although he does not know which guest is the guilty party, he observes one of the individual swipe his hands on the coat of another. Mar Zutra concludes thathe must be the thief, because,"He has no regard for the possessions of others." In this case the substantiating evidence was an attitude of disrespect for others' property. Perhaps an example of insubstantial evidence is the knowledge that an accused thief does not make blessings before eating his food. Although this shows a lack of appreciation for G-d's material gifts, it does not directly translate into a propensity to steal.]
12. Lashon Hara Based on Permissible Lashon Hara
Furthermore, substantiating evidence - when the conditions are met - can only allow one to belive it himself. However, to go and repeat that information to others is not permissible. Repeating what he heard would be no better than if he himself witnessed the actions of his fellow, for in that case he is also not allowed to tell others, as discussed earlier in chapter 4, paragraphs 3 & 4.
It is important to note that in any case it is prohibited to actually rely on this leniency (accepting corroborating evidence) and take monetary or physical action.
13. Investigating in the Face of Corroborating Evidence
In some cases, a Beit Din (Jewish court of law) may use substantiating evidence as part of testimony. If, for example, someone comes to the Beit Din wailing that someone stole something from him, and he provides substantiating evidence, and the Beit Din knows of the corroborating evidence, or two witnesses testify regarding the evidence, the the Beit Din is permitted to pressure him in order to extract a confession. However, an individual or a Beit Din that does not investigate the evidence supplied by the claimant, may not rely upon the information.
14. Action or Acceptance of Lashon Hara Without Investigation
There are many who err in this halacha, for if someone is robbed of a possession and he suspects another, and he tells the city leaders that he has substantiating evidence, and the leaders beat and punish the person - against Jewish law - to get the suspect to confess.
Truly this is not in accordance with the law, for even if the evidence had specific relevance to the issue at hand, and even if these leaders were considered to be acting as a Beit Din, they still must know about the theft, and have witnesses to confirm the evidence, or the leaders themselves must know firsthand of the evidence. It is wrong to simply rely on the claimant and beat another member of Israel for no legitimate reason.
Even to merely believe the claimant in one's heart, and think that the person in question stole from him, is forbidden as it would violate the prohibition against accepting Lashon Hara. All the more so to rely on the claimant's words and beat the person is forbidden, and one who acts in such a manner also violates "lo yosif," the prohibition against giving someone even one flogging more than mandated by the law.