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Chapter 2: L"H Said in front of Three People

  1. The prohibition against telling many people L"H
  2. The leniency regarding L"H spoken to 3 or more:
  3. An alternate interpretation of "b'apei tlata"
  4. Only the original listeners may repeat the information
  5. All three listeners must be repeaters
  6. Repetition only within the same city
  7. Not repeating what is said in confidence
  8. Wording to imply information in confidence
  9. Adding to the Information; Discussing Another's Background
  10. In appropriate Listeners; Conclusion of the Applications of "Apei Tlata"
  11. Disclosing Individual Leanings of Judges or Council Members
  12. Evaluating a Public Speaker
  13. Business Matters Assumed Confidential

The following chapter discusses the speaking of L"H when told to a group of 3 or more people, a leniency know as "b'apei t'lata" (Aramaic for "in front of three"). It turns out this is not much of a leniency.

1. The prohibition against telling many people L"H

It is forbidden to speak Lashon Hara against one another, even if the information is true, and even if told to only one person - all the more so is it forbidden to speak L"H before a group of listeners.  The greater the number of listeners that one gathers to hear his L"H, the greater his sin, for the subject is further disgraced by the heightened publicity against him.  Also, the speaker causes more people to sin by putting them in the position to listen to L"H.

2. The leniency regarding L"H spoken to 3 or more

With regard to the leniency stated by the Sages of the Talmud about speaking L"H to a group of 3 or more (Erchin 15b), this refers to something which is not absolutely derogatory, but rather something which could be taken one way or the other.  Only for such ambiguous statements, about which one can only know what was meant if he actually heard how the information was said, does the leniency of "bifnei shlosha" (Heb. for "in front of three") apply.  Since one who speaks publicly knows that his words will travel back to the subject, because "everyone has a friend" (i.e. to repeat things to; an Aramaic expression), the speaker will take care when he speaks so that what he says is not derogatory.

We will describe one example, so that similar situations can be extrapolated from it:

    One person approaches another in the street and asks, "Where can I find a fire?"
    The other answers, "That house; they are always cooking meat and fish."
The implications of this answer are dependent upon the way it is spoken at the time; it is possible to understand the conversation as containing nothing derogatory whatsoever.  In actuality the description above can be perfectly fine, such as in the case of a family with many children, and the Holy One helped the family to have great wealth; or perhaps a home that runs a guest house.  Similarly,
    One asks, "Where can I find a fire?"
    The other answers, "You won't find fire at this hour anywhere other than the house of Ploni, because at Ploni's house they are always cooking."
Again the intention could be matter-of-fact as discussed previously.  Any such ambiguous statement is subject to the laws of Avak Lashon Hara because it depends upon the way in which it was spoken at the time.  But if the speaker indicates with his voice or gestures that the house constantly hosts celebrations and feasts, even though such information wouldn't be absolutely derogatory (i.e. having frequent parties isn't an actual violation or offense), the Sages deemed it a violation of Avak Lashon Hara, and it would be forbidden to say it even before three listeners.

According to the above two numbered paragraphs, the leniency known as "b'apei tlata" means that it is permissible to speak what could be understood either positively or negatively, in an ambiguous fashion, provided that one's intentions were non-negative, before three people.  Very different from an allowance to speak any kind of Lashon Hara once one is in a crowd!

3. An alternate interpretation of "b'apei tlata"

There are other authorities (such as Maimonides) who explain this leniency as meaning that if one spoke disparagingly against another in front of three people - while the speaker certainly violated the prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara - if one of the three listeners repeated the L"H to others, he did not violate the prohibition.  The reasoning behind this is that once three people know about it, inevitably the information will get around so that everyone will know, because "everyone has a friend," and something that would be revealed publicly was not included in the Torah's prohibition against speaking L"H.

However, this leniency only applies when the repeater mentions the information in a casual way, but not if he intends to further malign the subject.*  Even if the repeater does not mention the name of the original speaker of the L"H, but rather says "such-and-such was said about so-and-so," even so he would not remove his words from the prohibition of Lashon Hara (if his intention was to harm).

*There are those who require further: his repetition should not be the actual topic of conversation, but rather something that flows in (and out) of the conversation rather casually.

4. Only the original listeners may repeat the information

Even though the condition for repeating L"H spoken to three listeners is that the repeater should not intend to disparage the subject, this only refers to an original listener who personally heard what Reuven said about Shimon in front of three others.  One who heard the information from him, however, is forbidden to go ahead - relying on the repeater who said he heard it as one of three listeners - and tell another about the derogatory information he heard about Shimon, even if he doesn't mention who originally spoke against Shimon, so long as it hasn't already received such publicity that it is generally known.

Further, it doesn't matter if the second listener in the chain knows personally whether what Reuven said about Shimon really happened, because the second listener certainly cannot believe that Reuven even spoke Lashon Hara. Even if he does know that Reuven said this about Shimon, he doesn't know if it was really said before three listeners.  Even though the first listener in the chain told him that Reuven spoke in front of three, the second listener cannot rely on him, and instead there is a suspicion that it was not spoken in front of three and that therefore the information will not get around.  Therefore it is forbidden [for the second listener] to repeat the Lashon Hara to anyone else.

5. All three listeners must be repeaters

It seems to me (the Chafetz Chaim), that if the L"H spoken before three people was to Yirei Elokim (people who exemplify the quality of fear of G-d) who are especially careful not to violate the laws of Lashon Hara, there is no way the L"H will be publicized.  In such a case it is a Torah prohibition to repeat this information to another.  Even if only one of the three original listeners is a Yirei Elokim that is cautious with regard to the laws of Lashon Hara, the prohibition applies, because there aren't three repeaters.

It's also possible that the same restriction applies if one of the three is a relative or friend of the subject, for that person certainly wouldn't go and reveal to others what is disparaging about his friend or relative, and therefore there aren't three.

6. Repetition only within the same city

It further appears to me (the Chafetz Chaim), that only within the same city where one heard the L"H spoken before three it is permissible to repeat it, because "everyone has a friend", but not in another city, even though a few people travel from one place to another.  (The Chafetz Chaim also refers the reader to his footnote below, which details his reasoning in accordance with the Talmudic sources on "b'apei tlata".)

7. Not repeating what is said in confidence

If the original speaker cautioned the listeners not to repeat the information he told them, even if he told a large group of people, it would be considered Lashon Hara for one of the listeners to then reveal the information, even if only mentioned in a casual manner (see halacha 3 above).  Even if one listener saw that one or two of the other listeners were not heeding the admonition and were telling others, that third listener cannot repeat the information to others, even in a casual manner.

(In a footnote, the Chafetz Chaim explains several reasons for this, two of which are due to the additional aspect of being told something in confidence.  First, there is an opinion that "b'apei tlata" applies because the speaker expects what he says will get around; an admonition not to repeat the information would contradict such an assumption.  Second, someone who reveals secrets is called a "Rachil", a talebearer, so that divulging the information would be inappropriate regardless of what others do.)

8. Wording to imply information in confidence

There is no distinction with respect to the wording of the admonition not to repeat the information, whether the speaker said the listeners should not mention the issue again or whether he told them that they should claim no knowledge about it - in any form it is forbidden to reveal the derogatory information about the subject, even to someone unrelated to the subject (and certainly to the subject himself).  For if one were to inform someone other than the subject eventually the subject would hear it as well, because "everyone has a friend."

(The Chafetz Chaim adds that it might be permissible to repeat the information casually provided that the caution is made not to repeat the information to the subject, and also that the information about the subject is not derogatory.)

Also note that this only applies when there are exactly three listeners, but when two tell two others there is no leniency.  (The Chafetz Chaim explains in a footnote that it is the listeners we count as likely to repeat what they heard, but not the speakers as likely to repeat what they spoke since they probably regret having spoken.)

9. Adding to the Information; Discussing Another's Background

All that we have spoken of regards the prohibition of retelling the information, but Heaven forbid one should not add even one letter or heighten the intensity of the information to a listener, such as to comment that the story heard about Shimon is typical of him, or similar comments.  These additions are certainly forbidden under any circumstances, for the speaker ultimately damages the subject to a greater degree than does the information commonly known about him due to its original mention before three people.

Furthermore, by adding to the story the speaker indicates that he has accepted the original L"H as true, which is absolutely forbidden under all circumstances (and we will elaborate on this IY"H in chapter 7, paragraph 1).

Therefore one must be very careful even with publicly known information about a person's background, such as their own lack of observance in their youth, or the lack of "kosher" conduct of the previous generations in their family, while the individual has conducted himself in an upright manner for a long time.  In truth, there is nothing wrong with having this background.  It would be forbidden to disgrace and embarrass the individual because of this background.  One who violates this and speaks about these things before others, even not in front of the subject, in order to shame him in the eyes of his people, even if he doesn't add one piece of information beyond the truth, the speaker is counted as one of the speakers of L"H who does not merit to receive the Divine Presence, as described in the Gates of Repentance, article 214.  The leniency of "apei tlata" does not apply whatsoever, even though the person's background is publicly known, since there is nothing wrong with it (as Ezekiel tells us (18:20 & 22): "...the [righteous] son shall not bear the iniquity of his father..." and "none of his transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; in his righteousness [and repentance] that he has done he shall live"), but the speaker wishes to insult the subject because of this.

[A desire to disparage someone is very far from casually mentioning a known piece of information, the requirement discussed above in paragraph 3.  In addition, the Chafetz Chaim points out in a footnote that reminding someone of their past in order to hurt them is a violation of "Ona'at dvarim"; the leniency of "apei tlata" would not override another prohibition.]

10. In appropriate Listeners; Conclusion of the Applications of "Apei Tlata"

Know further that the leniency of "apei tlata" applies to the speaker.  But with regard to the listener, if the speaker knows the nature of the listener, that once he hears something he accepts it as true and he might also add disparaging words to the conversation, to such a listener it is forbidden to speak even a hint of derogatory information under any circumstances.  A speaker who would repeat L"H to this listener transgresses "before the blind do not place a stumbling block" (Lev. 19:14); see the introduction, in which we elaborate on this and other commandments transgressed by speaking L"H.

All that we have written in this chapter as forbidden applies even if the speaker does not identify the original speaker who spoke "b'apei tlata" (before three); if he simply said, "Such-and-such was said about So-and-So," even so it is forbidden.

And after all these details we have clarified, see my brethren how much one must distance himself from this leniency, for there is almost no practical application of it.  For even after a speaker is sure that he has satisfied all off the above particulars, he must also wonder whether the halacha is indeed according to this opinion (as opposed to the interpretation discussed above in paragraphs 1 & 2), for according to many authorities there is no talmudic source for this leniency (the Chafetz Chaim refers us to his footnote earlier in this chapter).  Therefore one who guards his soul will distance himself from relying on this.

11. Disclosing Individual Leanings of Judges or Council Members

In accordance with what we have clarified BE"H regarding the principles of "apei tlata", it is important to be careful when seven Tuvei Ha'ir (city elders) gather to decide upon a legal matter which ascribes an obligation to one side and a credit to the other.  If the members of the council disagree in their opinions, and the matter should come to a vote to determine the majority opinion, once they emerge from private discussion with a conclusion, each member must be very careful afterward not to disclose his own or another's opinion that was inclined to favor the losing party, were it not that his fellow council members outnumbered him and forced him to go along with their opinion.

It doesn't matter if the council members agreed at the outset not to reveal or tell the person who lost the case, which would certainly be forbidden.  Even to reveal an individual opinion casually, such as when one doesn't intend to reveal his opinion, but rather accidentally speaks to someone in a way that the listener can discern from his words that he doesn't agree with the majority opinion to this day, such as saying that he can't argue about this with the other council members, so too this is completely forbidden (and according to the opinion of Hayad Hak'tana even if he told someone casually that he didn't originally agree but later agreed with the decision and was part of the majority he violates this law).  There is no distinction between a speaker who says this himself or one whose friend angrily pressures him about the decision he was part of; in any case it's forbidden to put the blame of the outcome on his fellow council members and remove it from himself, even though the opinions he would relay are accurate.

12. Evaluating a Public Speaker

I also see it appropriate to write about one thing in a detailed fashion which I have seen many people accustomed to violating; namely, when one speaks in the Beit Midrash it is prohibited for a member of the audience to make fun of the speaker and say that there is nothing in what he says or he is not worth listening to. And amidst our numerous sins we have seen many people break this such that any mocking is not thought of as any violation whatsoever, yet according to Torah law it is outright Lashon Hara, for through such talk the speaker causes monetary damage to his friend (the speaker), and in some cases anguish and shame as well.

While one might say what he says is true, isn't Lashon Hara forbidden even when the information is true? For what intention could the mockers have in their mocking? A "baal nefesh" (person who regards what he does with care) will conduct himself differently, advising the speaker afterwards, privately, explaining at length how he could speak with a different style, because when he uses a certain delivery style his words are not heeded. Through such advice he also upholds the commandment "love your neighbor as yourself."

In any case one should not discuss a poorly received speech with mockery, and the leniency of "apei tlata" does not apply.  [In the footnotes, the Chafetz Chaim adds that because the practice of disparaging Rabbinic speakers is unfortunately so widespread it is impossible to repeat something said even b'apei tlata, since inevitably the new listener will add his own thoughts.]

13. Business Matters Assumed Confidential

If someone tells a group something about his business pursuits or related matters, his words are generally forbidden to reveal afterward lest he might experience harm or anguish. Only if, now that the speaker has revealed this information "b'apei tlata" and is not  concerned that the information will get around, then it is permissible for one of those listeners to reveal the information to others, so long as the original speaker did not reveal an expectation that others should not repeat it. However, the listeners must ensure that they comply with the conditions discussed above. [In a footnote the Chafetz Chaim distinguishes between information which is not derogatory and information which would cause the original speaker damage, such as a sin, which if repeated to others could embarrass him. Objectively damaging information, therefore, is assumed to be in confidence unless the speaker says otherwise.]

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