"There are [within] this [topic] matters which are the 'dust' of lashon
hara (gossip). How is this? [For example], 'Who would have guessed that
so-and-so would become what he is today?' Or one who says, 'Be quiet about
so-and-so. I don't want to tell you what happened with him.' ;-) So too
regarding any similar statements.
"So too when one discusses the good of his fellow in front of his enemies,
this is considered the dust of lashon hara, for this will cause them to
speak of his disparagement. Regarding this Solomon said, 'One who blesses
his fellow loudly, rising early in the morning, a curse it will be
considered for him' (Proverbs 27:14) -- since from his good will result his
"So too one who speaks lashon hara in a joking and lightheaded manner,
meaning that he does not speak out of malice. This is as Solomon says, 'As
a madman who shoots firebrands, arrows and death, so too is a man who
deceives his fellow and says, 'Am I not just kidding?'' (Proverbs 26:18-19).
"So too one who speaks lashon hara surreptitiously. This is when he speaks
with [feigned] innocence, as if he does not know the the matter is
demeaning. Instead, when [others] object he says, 'I didn't know that this
is how so-and-so acted or that this is disparaging.'"
This week the Rambam discusses what he (and the Talmud) refer to as the
"dust" of lashon hara (gossip). The apparent meaning is that such acts are
not lashon hara per se, but peripherally involve the speaker in derogatory
speech. "Real" lashon hara is only when one slanders his fellow with intent
to malign and defame. The examples listed here are "lesser" forms of lashon
hara, in which either the manner, the intent or the harm is not as severe.
They are forbidden all the same, yet the Rambam saw fit to categorize them
separately. We're not talking this week about transgressions which
approximate denying G-d and trespassing the cardinal sins, yet serious they
I should also add that the commentators note that many of the examples
cited here are forbidden by the Torah, although some are only forbidden
rabbinically. Thus, the distinction the Rambam here makes is not meant to
imply we may treat any such types of lashon hara any more lightly. We must
rather take care with any lapses in our speech lest we become accustomed to
gossiping in more malicious manner.
The Talmud (Erchin 16a) states that the eight vestments worn by the High
Priest in the Temple afforded atonement for eight different sins the
Children of Israel transgressed. The idea was that each of his garments
bonded Israel to G-d in ways which undid the damage inflicted by particular
sins. One of these garments was the High Priest's blue robe ("Me'il"; see
Exodus 28:31-35). This robe contained golden bells on the bottom, whose
"sound would be heard upon his entering the Holy and on his departure [so
that] he will not die" (v. 35). States the Talmud there, the High Priest's
robe atoned for the sin of lashon hara, for, "says the Holy One, blessed be
He, 'Let a noisy object (lit., 'an object of sound') atone for the act of
making noise' (lit., 'for the act of voice')."
The Talmud there makes a similar statement regarding the purification of
the leper ("metzora"). A metzora is a person afflicted by certain white
patches on his skin, called tsara'as. This was not a physical ailment but a
spiritual one, inflicted by G-d as punishment for sin. (It has no parallel
to the disease we call leprosy today. In fact, nothing in the Torah or
Talmud gives one the impression that the metzora so much as did not feel
well.) The primary sin which warranted leprosy was the speaking of lashon
hara. The classic example of this is Miriam, sister of Moses, who
complained to Aaron about Moses's divorcing his wife and was consequently
stricken with tsara'as (see Numbers 12).
The punishment for tsara'as was solitary confinement (Leviticus 13:46),
outside of town, giving the gossipmonger -- whose contentious words created
divisions among men -- a taste of his own medicine. (His confinement was
*not* for the sake of quarantining the contagious!)
Now, after the metzora has repented and his condition healed, he undergoes
a purification process, allowing him to return to society. Part of the
process involved a pair of birds. One was slaughtered over an earthenware
bowl containing stream water, and the other was dipped in the water-blood
mixture and used to sprinkle it on the recovering metzora (see Leviticus
14). Asks the Talmud, why were birds in particular used for this procedure?
It answers, "Says the Holy One, blessed be He: 'He did an act of
chattering; therefore said the Torah, 'Let him bring a "chatterer" as
sacrifice''" (Erchin 16b). His use of his speech all too much resembled the
interminable twittering of birds.
My teacher, R. Yochanan Zweig (http://rabbizweig.com &
http://www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig), asked that both of these
Talmudic statements seem to really downplay the speaking of lashon hara.
What earlier was tantamount to denying G-d is now equated to "noise" and
the chirping of birds! Isn't it really so much worse? It's not "noise";
it's what the noise says! And we would certainly think that it takes far
more than a jingling garment or twittering bird to atone for it!
My teacher answered that practically speaking, most of the lashon hara
that's out there is really not much more. A did not speak against B to
defame him and ruin his life. He basically did so because he couldn't stand
the silence. He had some juicy news to share with his buddies, gaining
himself a little attention and popularity. Most people, when they speak
about others, actually care little about the one they're speaking against.
They're doing it for themselves -- with an eye towards their own image and
popularity rather than (and carelessly inconsiderate of) the resulting
damage done to their fellow. Thus, the Sages correctly compared lashon hara
(at least the sort so easily expiated) to the chirping of birds. So as not
to look dull or slow on the uptake, we often engage in conversation about
as worthy and profound as the twittering of birds. (None of this, by the
way, says much for a recent on-line social fad.)
Likewise, the Rambam rightly calls speech such as lashon hara for a "joke"
the "dust" of lashon hara. Forbidden it certainly is, but it should more
accurately be seen as senseless noise-making rather than G-d-denial.
This is actually a dangerous point -- for it gives the impression that
certain forms of lashon hara are not as bad as others -- proffering an
extremely dangerous opening for the rationalization of our misbehavior. Let
me therefore repeat that lashon hara is strictly forbidden in all its
manifestations. Gossiping for a "joke" is about as justifiable as eating
pork for fun. And this is all the more true regarding lashon hara which
hurts deeply the victim and represents a serious misuse of one of G-d's
greatest gifts to mankind.
Even so, two points should be stated. First of all, we should not consider
most of the Jewish people, though clearly not as careful with their speech
as they should be, the equivalent of heretics and transgressors of the
cardinal sins. And second, even more significantly (and pointed out by my
teacher), the victim of lashon hara, the person spoken against, must bear
this in mind. When A spoke against me, he didn't really have it in for me.
He just couldn't resist delivering a good punchline. It was not *me* he had
in mind but *himself*. And it should be that much easier for the victim to
find it in his heart to forgive the speaker and let the entire episode pass.
Many years ago, when I was a teenager in high school, I happened to
overhear someone make a nasty (but witty) comment about one of my siblings.
It shook me at the time, for I had previously considered the fellow
particularly nice and menschlach (I won't try to translate that one). And I
went about for several weeks after thinking, "So I was wrong about that
jerk all along..." In hindsight, however, it's clear that the fellow had
nothing whatsoever against anyone in my family. He's actually one of the
few from those days whom I still consider a friend today. He just happened
to have come up with a good remark -- which he was quick to put to use.
(Such remarks are usually tendered quickly -- before the speaker has a
chance to think about what he's saying.)
We are thus this week introduced to another level of gossip, the "dust" of
lashon hara, which though clearly not as severe as malevolent lashon hara,
is rather unsympathetically labeled by the Sages as twittering -- on the
part of the birdbrains who actually speak it. So although for the sake of
correctness we must categorize it as less severe than quintessential lashon
hara, the Sages were equally clear that it must not in any way, shape or
form be viewed as anything other than mindless drivel -- at the same time
terribly wronging the person so thoughtlessly spoken about.
One interesting aside before I close. One of the examples cited by the
Rambam above was praising another before his enemies -- as they'll be bound
to counter with their own nasty two cents. This is based on Talmud Erchin
16a and Bava Basra 164b. The Talmud itself, however, makes no mention of
the person's enemies. Rather, it simply states that one must not praise his
friend -- apparently in front of any audience -- since from the good will
result bad. The Rambam inserted this detail on his own, presumably because
he saw no wrong in praising another before anyone other than his enemies,
since what harm could possibly result?
Others, however, understand the Talmud according to its simple reading,
that it is always forbidden to praise another (see Rashi to Erchin and
Rashbam to Bava Basra). What could possibly be wrong with praising?
Explains the commentator Rashi that what is forbidden is praising another
*excessively*. And the reason is because the speaker himself will feel
compelled to balance out his remarks by adding something derogatory.
Alternatively, the listeners -- even if they harbor no ill-will towards the
person -- will feel obliged to counter in some way, since no one feels
comfortable when someone lays it on so thick. This explanation of the
Talmud is too accepted in Jewish law (see Chofetz Chaim 9:1).