Chapter 7, Law 2
(Note: The text for the beginning of Law 2, more relevant to Law 1, appeared
in the previous two classes.)
"There is a sin much greater than this which is included in this
prohibition (Leviticus 19:16), and it is evil gossip ('lashon hara', lit.,
'the evil tongue'). It is one who speaks disparagingly of his fellow even
though he speaks the truth. One who speaks falsehood, by contrast, is
referred to as a 'spreader of a bad name' ('motzi shaim ra') on his fellow.
However, the speaker of evil gossip is one who sits and says, 'This is what
so-and-so did...;' 'This is who his ancestors were...;' 'This is what I
heard about him...' -- and he speaks of matters of degradation. Regarding
this, the verse states, 'May G-d cut off all lips of smooth talk, the tongue
which speaks boastfully' (Psalms 12:4)."
This chapter of Maimonides discusses a number of prohibitions which relate
to character development and interpersonal relationships -- and in
particular prohibitions relating to speech. This week we arrive at the most
serious and well-known one: slanderous gossip, known as lashon hara ("the
evil tongue") in rabbinic writings. We will use the Hebrew term below.
We will discuss this prohibition in much greater detail in coming weeks --
its scope, its ramifications, its severity, etc. The Rambam devotes quite a
number of laws to it. This week I'd like to lay some groundwork, especially
focusing on a single issue -- the distinction between lashon hara and
"spreading a bad name" ("motzi shaim ra" -- another term we'll use below),
also mentioned above.
First, the Rambam notes that this prohibition also stems from the verse we
discussed in past weeks -- "You shall not go spying in your nation"
(Leviticus 19:16). That verse forbids snooping about searching for some
juicy rumors to report on one's fellow. In Law 1 the Rambam discussed more
specifically reporting information which causes ill will between men, such
as telling B what A said about him behind his back. Here the Rambam
discusses the broader and far severer prohibition of lashon hara --
reporting any slander about one's fellow.
The most interesting observation this week, clearly implied by the Rambam's
words, is that lashon hara is categorized differently from motzi shaim ra.
They are viewed as entirely separate prohibitions. At first glance, we would
tend to think they are almost identical -- whether I slander my fellow
through the mention of true but critical facts or I invent a few nasty
little details to demean him. Either way, we would think the primary evil is
in the defamation of an upstanding individual.
If anything, we would imagine that fabricating details out of thin air for
no other purpose than to degrade is worse than mentioning the truth alone.
The former is outright falsehood, making the victim appear much worse than
he truly is. The latter, lashon hara, is only a matter of stating the honest
facts, which though most of the time should not be aired unnecessarily, only
maligns the victim as much as deserved.
Yet, the Rambam clearly considers lashon hara the more sinister of the two
transgressions. He mentions motzi shaim ra almost in passing as a distinct
law while placing almost all his focus (both here and in the rest of the
chapter) on the evil of gossip, seeing that as the intended target of the
rebuke of Psalms 12:4.
Well for starters, it's clear from the verses themselves that lashon hara
and motzi shaim ra are entirely distinct transgressions. When one *lies* to
disparage his fellow, he transgresses Exodus 23:7: "From a matter of
falsehood shall you distance yourself." When one tells over the honest --
yet derogatory -- truth about his fellow (in particular facts he secretly
spied on his fellow to compile), he transgresses Leviticus 19:16: "You shall
not go spying..." They are totally different transgressions. Though the
outcome is similar, the Torah sees fit to forbid them in separate verses --
actually in separate books, to be precise.
So what is so different about these two prohibitions? There are a few basic
and related ideas here, each important in its own right. Much of the below
is based on ideas heard from my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu
Point one is that speaking truth alone is actually more pernicious than
telling over lies. Honest facts, as we know, have that ring of truth to
them. The Talmud states: "Words of truth are recognizable" (Sotah 9b). When
one is speaking honestly, it sits well with the listeners and it's more
likely to be believed. Thus, ultimately, true words have greater potential
to damage than outright lies. And further, the speaker himself may feel he
is only telling the honest truth -- What could be more ethical? -- and will
let go with far less compunction.
However, "truth" of this sort is really not truth at all. Presenting one
angle of a story -- even if every single fact is true -- can itself be libel
of the worst sort. Ever seen an article about the Israel-Palestinian
conflict in which the headline and first paragraph state unequivocally that
Israel bombed a school, blew up some beach-goers etc. -- only to have a
later paragraph reluctantly admit that Israel claims (much more plausibly
and with much more substantiation) that the fire originated from Palestinian
sources, etc. Or have the headline state, "Israel retaliates against..." --
almost giving the impression that the aggression only began with the
retaliation, the initial terrorist act only being some niggling background
Without much imagination (since we read this daily in the news) the media
can easily state nothing but the truth (or at least accurately report both
sides of a story), while creating a wholly false and misleading image of the
State of Israel. Israel is clearly a totalitarian and repressive Apartheid
regime, ruthlessly maintaining its vice-like grip on hapless Palestinians
who want nothing other than to live in peace and quiet -- except that they
were led to desperation and terrorism because of the miserable, hopeless
conditions Israel has imposed upon them. And at that point it goes without
saying -- as European polls occasionally tell us -- that Israel is the
number one impediment to world peace.
Even worse, of course, if such "facts" play on people's emotions. Seeing
images of Palestinians living in overcrowded poverty, maimed youths,
children crying over their father's coffins, encroaching Israeli army
patrollers armed to the teeth, etc. strengthen such an image many more times
than written facts ever could. And of course, such pictures need not be
doctored up.They are "true". Yet if that is all that is presented such facts
are really not true. They are propaganda. And sadly, rarely is man
sophisticated enough to discern truth from emotion-laden media distortions.
Anyway, I didn't intend this to be a forum for my own political commentary.
The image of Israel just happens to be so egregious an example of this
phenomenon that it bore mention. But the message is equally relevant on the
personal level too. We all have both good and bad qualities. Any reasonably
accurate profile of one of us would depict us as okay mixtures of good and
evil -- and usually in the balance we're really not all that awful. One,
however, who speaks lashon hara presents only the bad, and can easily --
using truth alone -- transform a decent but human individual into an
And this brings us to the true evil of lashon hara -- and perhaps the reason
the Torah sees fit to count it as a separate prohibition. It is not only the
sin of denigrating. It is a matter of taking something as beautiful as truth
-- one of the most precious commodities on this earth, and using that very
concept to misrepresent and malign. It is using truth in all its credibility
to further the cause of falsehood. And that is a horrific corruption which
G-d cannot countenance. The Talmud lists speakers of lashon hara as one of
the four categories of people who will never "receive the Divine Presence"
Lying is lying. It is sinful but it is not really qualitatively different
from any other type of sinful behavior. It doesn't "fool" anyone: the
objective viewer recognizes lying as wrong. And as with all evil, it
ultimately does not last in G-d's world and is destroyed. But good turned
evil is far more sinister. And the damage it may do -- to others and to our
own souls -- is far far more destructive.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org