Lashon Hara is any derogatory or damaging statement against an individual.
In Hilchot Deot 7:5, Maimonides supplies a litmus test for determining
whether something is or isn't Lashon Hara:
Anything which, if it would be publicized, would cause the subject
physical or monetary damage, or would cause him anguish or fear, is Lashon
II. Commandments Regarding Lashon Hara
There are many commandments, positive and negative, which can be violated
when someone speaks Lashon Hara. Two negative and two positive examples:
the speaker includes himself in the derogatory description
Lashon Hara expresses itself in many forms. Lashon Hara can be factual,
such as stating that someone violated a commandment. Or it can be
subjective, such as discussing whether someone is intelligent, attractive,
generous, etc. This type is often worse since listeners often readily
accept an unverifiable opinion. Sometimes whether something is Lashon Hara
depends on the situation: reporting that someone gave a certain amount for
a donation can be derogatory when said about a wealthy person but positive
when applied to one who has lesser means.
Some kinds of statements are not about individuals explicitly, but are
Lashon Hara nonetheless. Insulting someone's possessions ultimately
insults the owner as well. Degrading groups of people reflects unfavorably
upon each member of the group.
It doesn't even have to be speech - any means of communicating derogatory
or damaging information falls under the definition of Lashon Hara.
Some statements are not outright Lashon Hara, but can imply Lashon Hara
or cause others to speak it. These statements constitute Avak Lashon Hara,
meaning traces of Lashon Hara. Some examples:
- In situations which inevitably provoke someone to contradict
the praise, such as in excess, or in front of the subject's
enemy, or in public.
- That leads to harm, such as recounting someone's generous
character when a listener might take advantage of the subject's
- "Who would believe what he used to be like."
- "Don't ask me about what happened with X."
V. Listening to or Believing Lashon Hara
Listening to Lashon Hara is generally prohibited for two reasons:
(1) It is forbidden to accept or believe Lashon Hara, and by
listening to it one might cause himself to believe it.
(2) By participating in a session of Lashon Hara, the listener
would be assisting the other participants to commit the sins
of speaking and believing the Lashon Hara.
Believing Lashon Hara is forbidden regardless of the subject (family, friend,
enemy, etc.), and regardless of the speaker (teacher, parent, spouse, etc.).
Only if the subject is known to commit certain sins or have other problems,
it might be permissible to believe it. In any case, someone can suspect that
the Lashon Hara might be true, such that the listener should take precautions
to protect himself from harm.
If information against someone might be of benefit to another (e.g. a
potential business partner, roommate, etc.), it is permissible for that
person to listen to it. (The listener should state why he is listening to
the information so that the speaker realizes that the intentions of the
listener are constructive, and also so that the speaker doesn't intend to
speak for non-constructive reasons.) However, the listener is forbidden
(1) accepting the information as true (he may only suspect and
(2) taking action against the subject based on the information.
If caught in a group of people who are speaking Lashon Hara, one should try
leave the group or change the topic. If stuck there:
(1) decide in one's heart/mind not to accept the Lashon Hara as true.
(2) do not enjoy the Lashon Hara (because the subject is being
shamed, its a funny story, etc.).
(3) do not pretend to agree or accept the Lashon Hara (make a face,
don't make eye contact, or at least wear a blank expression)
If someone starts speaking Lashon Hara, try to privately and respectfully tell
them that speaking Lashon Hara is forbidden. The best way to prevent others
from speaking Lashon Hara is by setting a good example.
HaLashon, Copyright (c) 1996, 2002 by Ellen Solomon and Project Genesis, Inc.