Cynicism: The Joy of Inexistence, Part III
Chapter 7, Law 3(c)
"The Sages said: '[For] three sins a person is punished (lit., 'it is
collected from a person') in this world, and he has no share in the World to
Come: idolatry, incest / adultery, and murder. And the spreading of evil
gossip (lashon hara) is equivalent to all three.' The Sages said further:
'Anyone who speaks lashon hara, it is as if he has denied G-d, as it is
stated, '[...those] who said, 'Because of our tongues we will overpower, our
lips are with us, who is master over us?'' (Psalms 12:5). And the Sages said
further, 'Three does lashon hara kill: the one who says it, the one who
accepts it, and the one who is spoken about. And the accepter more so than
Up until this point, we spent a good deal of time explaining how gossiping
is tantamount to denying G-d. In a word, it is because the chronic
gossipmonger is refusing to accept G-d's purpose for mankind in this world.
Our purpose is to recognize the talents G-d has granted us and use them to
make the world a better place. The gossipmonger, however, refuses to see the
greatness of man. He sees the worst in everyone and everything -- and
invents it if he doesn't see it. And as a result, he fails to see man as a
being capable of greatness. There is always some wickedness to uncover or
ulterior motives to be found. And so, he gives up on himself as well. No one
is really all that great and accomplished -- so what's the point trying
myself? Speaking lashon hara is thus the most anti-life and anti-G-d
activity imaginable, refusing to accept the most basic purpose of our humanity.
Let me finally turn to the first quote the Rambam brings -- that one who has
transgressed the three cardinal sins receives no share in the World to Come
(if he has never repented) -- and that lashon hara corresponds to all three.
(In Judaism we generally speak of three cardinal sins. I realize
Christianity has a list of seven. They're all bad too. ;-) This statement
too strikes us as rather extreme. Gossiping is nasty, but it isn't murder!
And now we are told it equals all three cardinal sins combined!
Before going on, I should reiterate what I mentioned two weeks ago: There's
gossip and there's gossip. At its worst, lashon hara is the defamation of
another human being with the intent of turning his friends against him and
ruining his life. Most of us are not as careful with our mouths as we should
be. However, when we speak, we are generally not particularly intent on
hurting another. We do so because it makes a good conversation item: "Did
you hear what happened to so-and-so?" In fact, we often speak about those we
love most, just that we're a little too open about say, telling our friend
about our spouse's or child's faults.
I would therefore venture that although again we are sometimes far too
careless with our speech, I can't imagine G-d considers us to have denied
His existence or to have violated any of the cardinal sins. But then again
-- to repeat another comment I made in that past class -- we do not find the
Sages anywhere making the distinction I just did -- differentiating between
worse and "better" lashon hara. Even the most casual sort has that taste of
the real thing. The mouth is a *very* dangerous thing to play around with.
It is capable, perhaps more so than any other part of our bodies, of both
wonderful good and horrific evil. We may not take any lapses in our speech
Returning to our previous question, how can lashon hara, even at its worst,
be equated to all three of the cardinal sins? The answer I'd like to suggest
is actually quite intriguing -- and unfortunately all too true.
Jewish thinkers divide the Torah's mitzvos (commandments) into three basic
types. They are:
(a) Mitzvos between man and G-d: Resting on the Sabbath, fasting on Yom
Kippur, keeping kosher, etc.
(b) Mitzvos between man and his fellow: Stealing, honesty in business,
honoring one's parents, returning lost items, etc. (Actually, some view
honoring one's parents as a "bridge" mitzvah, as it is allegorical to
Most Jewish thinkers make mention of these two categories alone, as the
Talmud and earlier sources make ample reference to them (see for example
Mishna Yoma 8:9). Some, however (Maharal, Vilna Gaon, Maharsha), list a
third, actually the most intriguing of all.
(c) Mitzvos between man and himself -- meaning mitzvos the primary focus of
which is an individual's own personal development. This can actually be seen
as a subset of the first two -- as all mitzvos can be categorized as either
relating to man or G-d. However, certain mitzvos focus primarily inwards --
on man's character, defining what kind of human being he is. (Of course at
the same time, *all* mitzvos develop us as individuals to varying degrees;
thus much graying of the boundaries here.) Into this category falls such
mitzvos as Torah study -- the ultimate form of personal spiritual
development, as well as other activities relating to improving our characters.
Against this basic backdrop, the severity of the three cardinal sins comes
into crystal-clear focus. Each is the antithesis of one of the above
categories. Murder is easy; we'll knock that one off first: That is of
course the antithesis of mitzvos between man and his fellow. Idolatry is
also straightforward enough, being the quintessential sin between man and
his Creator. Incest / adultery is a bit more interesting. It's certainly
sinning against one's partner, as well as her husband in the case in
adultery. But when we think about it, at its root such behavior is truly
sinning to oneself. It is the ultimate denial of a person's humanity,
lowering himself to and defining himself as a body rather than a soul. I
live for pleasures of the coarsest kind -- at the total expense of the wants
and needs of others.
We can now appreciate why the Sages view lashon hara in so censorious a
light -- and equate it to all three of the cardinal sins. It contains
elements of all three types of sins -- and in no small measure.
First and foremost, it is one of the severest sins between man and man,
defaming and ruining the reputation of another human being. In Judaism we
don't go for that old expression "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but
names will never hurt me." Only little kids could possibly believe that.
Names are a serious business, capable of ruining a person's life and
self-worth far more so than a few bruises.
Second, speaking lashon hara sins terribly to G-d. Man is a being fashioned
in G-d's image (Genesis 1:26-7). Degrading and putting a person down is not
only an insult to the G-d who created him but lowers the image of G-d in
this world. It belittles G-d's representative in this world, making G-d's
presence that much less evident.
And lastly, lashon hara is one of most terrible sins one can perpetrate
against himself. As we explained in past weeks, putting down mankind is one
of the strongest forms of denying our purpose in this world. Seeing the
worst in man is an enormously powerful opium against self-growth. Rather
than seeing the good of others -- obligating myself to improve as well -- I
put them down. I don't want to see the positive in man -- for if I'd admit
they're so good I'd have to admit I'm not so good -- and I might even have
to do something about it. Instead, I see them in their worst possible light
and forget the whole thing, allowing myself to wallow in my usual senseless
stupor. Finally and not least, spending so much time finding fault in others
is a great way of preoccupying your own mind, distracting you from the
inconvenience of ever having to critically view yourself.
We have finally wrapped up some of the basic concepts of lashon hara,
implied by the rabbinic statements the Rambam quotes here. One more
unrelated important idea before I close -- which I'll try to make brief (not
one of my better talents).
The Rambam (quoting Talmud Erchin 15b) states that lashon hara kills three
-- the speaker, the listener, and the one spoken about. This we can well
appreciate. The Rambam's conclusion, however, that the listener is worse
than the speaker, requires explanation. Isn't the speaker the primary
offender, the listener only passively abetting him in his fiendish deed? In
fact, we all occasionally find ourselves on the listening end of our
fellow's slanderous diatribes -- and we often wish we weren't there, just
that we can find no easy way to interrupt (or at least avoid) our fellow's
The answer is that anyone who sins feels uneasy about it at the start. Any
speaker or comedian who has stood up before an unfamiliar audience knows
that queasy feeling, wondering if his viewers are the sort to be receptive
to his words and style. So too the gossipmonger. He too approaches his
intended audience tentatively, not knowing how well-taken his words will be.
Thus, only when the listener appears agreeable and nods his approval (but
not if he shows his disapproval), does the evil deed truly take effect. This
in fact is the key ingredient to making the slander take hold in all its
destructiveness -- in both the listener's mind and the speaker's. Thus, when
it comes to lashon hara, aiding and abetting is actually the most serious
aspect of the crime. May G-d protect us from this vile sin in all of its forms.
(The final idea above I heard from my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
(www.talmudicu.edu & www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig). I believe I heard
the basic approach to the three cardinal sins from his as well.)
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org