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Chapter 5: Lashon Hara About Interpersonal Matters

  1. Lashon Hara about One Who Violated a "Bein Adam l'Chaveiro" Commandment
  2. Insulting Another's Abilities
  3. Beware of Deceptive Reasoning
  4. Disparaging a Torah Scholar
  5. Strength and Wealth
  6. Subjectivity of Lashon Hara
  7. Disparaging Another's Belongings
  8. Lashon Hara in Front of Two

In chapter 4, the Chafetz Chaim focused on Lashon Hara about someone's behavior "bein adam la'makom," between man and G-d (observance of that type of commandments). In chapter 5, the Chafetz Chaim discusses Lashon Hara about issues that are "bein adam la'chaveiro," between man and his fellow, and also belittling another's abilities. It is interesting why the Chafetz Chaim separated the two chapters, as there is probably no technical difference between relating Lashon Hara about someone for eating non-Kosher food, refusing to give charity, or for being of below average intelligence. But perhaps theinterpersonal dimension adds two things:

  1. Because people are more likely to feel a need to get personally involved (an injustice to a friend, a comparison of another to themselves), there is a greater likelihood to relate the Lashon Hara.
  2. The possibility of violating other commandments in the process, as we shall see.

1. Lashon Hara about One Who Violated a "Bein Adam l'Chaveiro" Commandment

It is just as forbidden to relate Lashon Hara about someone who violated a commandment "bein adam l'chaveiro" (between man and G-d) as it would beto disparage him for actions "bein adam la'makom" (between man and fellow man), even if the speaker does not mix any falsehood into his story.

I will not avoid the fact that there are many cases and conditions, and often they might change the application of the law [for it might be justified to intervene in a situation], and we will detail these at length, G-d willing, later in Chapter ten. Now, however, we will clarify one of these cases [in which speaking L"H would be forbidden], so that there should be no doubt. If the speaker witnesses one person who asks his friend to lend him money (which is the Torah commandment in Ex. 23:24, "Im kesef tilveh" - if you should lend money [to another] - as explained in Sefer HaMitzvot by Maimonides), or to do some other favor for him, and his friend does not fulfill this request; or [the friend involves himself] in the prohibitions which are "bein adam l'chaveiro" such as resentment and revenge (cf. Lev. 19:18; and according to what is explained in Yoma 23: "What constitutes resentment and revenge?" ) - since the friend did not cause the other harm* (and also since there is no value to the other in telling people what happened), therefore one who goes and disparages the friend with this story by telling people, is considered in violation of the law against speaking Lashon Hara.

All this applies even if the speaker witnessed the incident himself, and he even verified that the friend who refused was able to do the favor but did not out of his bad nature; [in all such cases] the prohibition applies which was elaborated upon in the previous chapter, paragraph 3, with regard to actions "bein adam la'makom."

Even if the good deed was withheld from someone [not in the speaker's audience], and the speaker's pure intention is for pursuit of truth, and certainly if the refusal was against the speaker himself, it is undoubtedly forbidden for the speaker to disparage him for this. [Furthermore, if the speaker is the one "wronged" and] violates this, he does not only commit the sin of speaking Lashon Hara but he also violates the prohibition of "lo titor" - do not bear a grudge. And if the speaker intends through his speech to take revenge, by publicizing the evil nature [of his friend] to others, he violates the prohibition "lo tikom" - do not take revenge - in addition to the prohibition of Lashon Hara (cf. Lev 19:18).

* An example of "revenge" in this context would be someone who refuses to do his friend a favor in retribution for his friend's refusal to help him sometime in the past.

2. Insulting Another's Abilities

Up until this point we have cited many situations with regard to the prohibition against speaking about them in which the actual law might vary depending upon the circumstance (i.e. sometimes it is permissible to relate Lashon Hara in the right way to an appropriate party for a constructive purpose). Therefore now, in the following paragraphs, we will discuss a subcategory [of the laws of Lashon Hara] that is the greatest among other subcategories, because there is no justification for the speaker [of this kind of information], for he does not intend any constructive purpose whatsoever, but rather only to gossip about the shortcomings of another. And errors in this area are the most prevalent, for nearly everyone falters in this regard, and mostly due to lack of awareness. Therefore I request that the reader should not be amazed by the extent to which I will elaborate on this topic and explicitly delineate each detail, for I thought that perhaps through this the L-rd would help [us] to turn away somewhat from this great pitfall. So I testify and state...

It is forbidden to disparage another regarding his personal qualities: whether in wisdom, whether in strength, whether in wealth, or anything along the same lines.

And I must explain my words according to all detail. "Whether in wisdom" - such as telling others that Ploni is not a wise person. It does not matter whether the information is [completely] false or partially true, and the speaker exaggerated beyond the truth. [For insulting another's intelligence through lying is] surely a terrible sin, even worse than typical Lashon Hara [about truthful matters], called "Motzi shem ra" - "creating a bad reputation" - for the speaker lowers the subject of the Lashon Hara through his falsehood. However, even if the information is completely true, haven't we already cited all the Rishonim (commentaries and authorities of Jewish law from the Medieval period) etc. in the first chapter [who agree that the prohibition against Lashon Hara applies]: even with regard to truthful matters, such that the disparaging of another's personal qualities is certainly included in the definition of Lashon Hara.

[Furthermore,] the Rambam wrote in Ethics of the Fathers (1:17) as follows: "Lashon Hara is speech about the wickedness of a person, or his shortcomings, and to disparage him in some way from this negative speech, and even in the one doing the disparaging is also lacking..." And the Rambam elaborates that [speech is categorized as] Lashon Hara if it is true (see abovementioned source). In addition, from what the Rambam wrote in Hilchot Deot (ch. 7), Lashon Hara is something which, if known to others, causes the subject damage to his person or finances, or oppresses him or frightens him.

It seems clear, therefore, that the wicked behavior of negating another's character is Lashon Hara as explicitly prohibited by the Torah [rather than a derived prohibition, etc.]. For if we think carefully we will find that [disparaging another] can cause that person financial damage, or oppression, etc.

First, let us clarify what we are doing to [the subject of the Lashon Hara], since saying that someone isn't wise, there is no greater insult than this. If the subject is not yet married, and such information would circulate among people, he will not be able to find someone who wants to marry him. If he has a business, regardless of the business he is in - be it a craft or teaching - he will not find someone to become a partner with him.

Particularly if the subject of the Lashon Hara is a guide and teacher in Jewish matters, and someone tells others that he is not highly intelligent, not only has the speaker violated the Torah prohibition against Lashon Hara, for certainly if the information is accepted by the listeners and publicized within the town the teacher will suffer a financial loss because no one will go to him for the resolution of religious matters. Furthermore, the speaker [through his Lashon Hara] could cause worse than this, for through diminishing [the Talmid Chacham/Torah authority's reputation] before the community, he will come to be cast out of the community. v'damo v'dam zerotav tluyin b'hamsaper hazeh, ki al ydei halashon hara shelo yarad imo l'chayav mamash.

Additionally, [one who speaks Lashon Hara against a Talmid Chacham] diminishes the honor of the Torah and its scholars. He is called "disparager of a Talmid Chacham," and the Sages tell us that there is no repair for what he inflicts. Also through his actions, the speaker - Heaven forfend - undermines Torah observance, because if the Rabbi later encourages the community regarding a Torah commandment, they will not regard his words whatsoever, for the Ba'alei Lashon Hara ("Masters" of Lashon Hara) had previously announced to all of them that the Rabbi is not a wise person.

3. The Evil Nature of Lashon Hara Through Insult

Generally, the Evil Inclination encourages one to believe that [insulting another's personal qualities] is not even Lashon Hara. Reflect upon the following: if you were to discover that someone publicized that you are not very smart (or any other kind of personal insult), how you would react (lit. thunder) against him! "What evidence of foolishness could he had seen in me?" you would think. "Nothing! Rather, he has a wicked heart and a Ba'al Lashon Hara ("Master" of speaking Lashon Hara) who only wants to disparage and denigrate his fellow man." Yet when you do the same to your fellow, since in several areas he is better than you, you think that such insults do not represent any sin whatsoever! See what blindness man possesses [with regard to this type of Lashon Hara]!

If you explore further, you will find that this is one of the worst types of Lashon Hara. One reason is because of the speaker. Namely, in all other instances in which he tells others that one of their brethren violated a prohibition - whether Bein Adam l'Makom (between Man and G-d) or Bein Adam l'Chaveiro (between man and fellow man) - it is possible in many cases that the speaker is speaking out of a zealousness for the truth. Although his intention does not help with regard to the law [it is still prohibited to speak L"H in such a case] as discussed above in Chapter 4, paragraph 2, and also in this chapter, paragraph 1, in any case the speaker's intentions were not evil. However, in this case the speaker's intentions are solely to disparage and denigrate the one he speaks about, and this is a very evil character trait, as is written in Shaarei Teshuva by Rabeinu Yona (Gates of Repentance - a classic work on Jewish ethics).

Additionally, [this type of Lashon Hara is worse] because of the one who accepts it. For in all other types of Lashon Hara discussed previously, the listener does not accept the information immediately. Furthermore, certainly many listeners would even reply, "As long as we haven't seen it with our own eyes we won't believe it; and certainly even if what you say is true, there is obviously a reason why the person came to do this, for it is impossible to believe [the Lashon Hara you have spoken] on the surface meaning alone." Also, should the information later prove to be false, the speaker would be embarrassed and shamed before everyone since he propagated a lie against his fellow. However, in this case, if one denigrates his fellow by calling him a fool or simpleton in front of everyone, and as a result the person spoken about is disgraced and shamed in the eyes of all the people of the city. It is common, among our great many sins, that no one in hte group of listener would stand up against the speaker and say, "Stop speaking and be concerned for the honor of Israel! Why do you need to disparage this person so much?" [Rather, since no one replies,] it is as if the speaker has done nothing wrong in speaking.

4. Disparaging a Torah Scholar

So far we have only discussed when someone disparages another with regard to general intelligence; how much more so [is the violation] when one criticizes an individual who is esteemed in the community as a Torah scholar. If someone says, "He's not so learned, he only knows a limited amount of Torah," and thereby diminishes others' regard for the scholar, the speaker has committed a grave violation of Lashon Hara.

Even if the information is true [it is Lashon Hara] - for the very reason that he spoke was not for a constructive purpose, but rather to lower another from his stature in the eyes of the listeners - since inevitably as a result of such talks the subject will receive some sort of damage or at least endure suffering.

Let us discuss two illustrations:

Speaking against a community Rabbi in front of members of the community, saying that he does not possess very much Torah knowledge, but rather he knows just enough to answer the halachic issues that commonly arise within the community. Even if this is true it is complete violation of the Torah prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara, for through his words the speaker completely diminishes the honor of the Rabbi, which can very well result in the downfall of his career. Furthermore, the speaker also diminishes the honor of the Torah and its observance, as discussed above in chapter 2.

Or speaking similarly against a newly married person living in one's city, for certainly that would ultimately undermine the respect given him by his in-laws and the members of his household when they learn that others in the city speak badly of him - a man of little achievements. There is no damage greater than this kind.

It is impossible to enumerate all of the possible cases related to this type of Lashon Hara, but those who seek wisdom can become wise, for my purpose is to give warning, and the thoughtful person will understand the various implications himself.

Know further, that it is also the law if one craftsman tells people that another craftsman's work is not one of quality, that it is entirely Lashon Hara, for in this case certainly all the same issues apply [as discussed above in this subsection]. If, however, the speaker does not intend - in this case or any above - to disparage the speaker but rather to achieve a constructive purpose, this will all be clarified with G-d's help in Hilchot Rechilut, chapter 9.

One more application: disparaging a craftsman's abilities, especially to other craftsmen, is also Lashon Hara, as such statements damage his reputation.

Disparaging a craftsman's abilities,especially to other craftsmen, is also Lashon Hara, as such statements damage his reputation.

It is impossible to enumerate all of the possible cases related tothis type of Lashon Hara, but those who seek wisdom can extrapolate theimplications for themselves.

5. Strength and Wealth

Now let us clarify what we mentioned above in paragraph 2, "whether in strength," specifically to tell members of the community that someone is a weak person. [Whether such talk is prohibited] depends as follows: if the person has responsibilities or dealings such that [talk about his weakness] would cause him harm - such as in the case of a hired laborer, a teacher, and similarly many other professions - then it is certainly included in the violation against speaking Lashon Hara.

And regarding "whether in wealth," telling others that someone is poor or not as well off as townspeople say he is, and his possessions are really owed to others to repay his debts, this is also included under the prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara. For certainly if one were to publicize this information throughout the city the victim of the Lashon Hara would not be able to find someone to lend him money in the future, which would cause him great damage, greatly diminishing the quality of his life in every respect.

For all of these things, one must be very careful, for since he does not have a constructive intention he must certainly beware not to cause harm to the subject of his discussion. Should he feel compelled to talk about the person for a constructive purpose, we will clarify the relevant laws in detail IY"H (with G-d's help) later in part 2, Hilchot Rechilut, chapter 9.

It is very important that every person should take care not to hastily decide, "I do not intend to disparage the person I'm talking about; rather, my purpose for speaking is constructive," because there are many detail to the laws that permit such speech, as will be elucidated in chapter 9.

6. The Subjectivity of Lashon Hara

Be familiar with another simple rule regarding Lashon Hara: it depends upon the subject being talked about. It is common that one can say the same piece of information about two people, and in the case of one he is speaking that man's praise while in the case of the other the speaker violates the prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara.

Let me illustrate this concept. If one were to speak about a person for whom others provide him with food such that he does not need to concern himself with a livelihood, and said that he studies Torah about three or four hours each day - because of his personal situation such talk would be highly derogatory and fall under the category of Lashon Hara. However, if one were to day the same [that he studies 3-4 hours daily] about a layman who earns his own living, such speech would be tremendous praise for him.

The judgment is similar with regard to any other positive commandments which are dependent upon an individual's financial resources, such as honoring the Sabbath. For one could talk about one of the less well-off members of the community and describe the various food and other items he purchases to enhance his Sabbath, and his efforts could be quite impressive. Yet if one gave the same description of the Sabbath prepared by a person thought to be of great wealth, it would be quite disgraceful and shameful in the eyes of the community members, and in this case it would be called Lashon Hara. So too with regard to charitable giving, for it depends upon the financial resources of the individual, and something done by one can be praiseworthy yet when done by another, disgraceful.

Similarly with regard to one's interactions with others, for example if one were to say about an average person that he treats his employees a certain way it might not be so negative, but if one were to say the same thing about a highly regarded member of the community it could be derogatory about him. Everything follows this pattern [of subjectivity]. For this reason it is difficult to include all the possible contexts within which people falter with regard to speaking Lashon Hara.

Simply take the words of Maimonides into your head and remember them always: that anything which, were it to be publicized, could cause your fellow monetary of physical damage or could frighten him or cause him mental anguish, is Lashon Hara.

And be careful, my brethren, that your evil inclination should not prompt you to say, "Didn't our Sages teach us, 'Anything which would be hateful to you, do not do to your friend'?" And you would err to say, "What did I say about him, that he only studies Torah three or four hours per day? But aren't I supposed to love him more than myself - why, if only I should be so fortunate for people to say that I study Torah three or four hours per day!" And the issue is the same with regard to giving charity, preparing for the Sabbath, and anything similar. Certainly the person who applies such reasoning is in error, for the intention of the Talmudic statement, "Anything which would be hateful to you etc." means if you were in the other's same situation and the action would be hateful, which truly depends upon the person who is the subject of the discussion as well as the situation at the time, for if according to the context it would be derogatory, any such talk would be Lashon Hara according to Jewish Law.

7. Disparaging Another's Belongings

Know further, that just as it is forbidden to speak negatively about one's fellow, so too is it forbidden to speak negatively about his belongings. And this is very common among our many sins today, that one merchant will disparage the wares of another *merchant, and any similar behavior due to jealousy, and this is undeniably Lashon Hara according to the Torah.

8. Lashon Hara in Front of Two

The prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara, for the Torah has forbidden speaking derogatorily about another even if the information is true, applies even in private. All the more so is it forbidden to tell two people something disparaging about another. In fact, the sin is greater than if the speaker were to only tell one person in private, for people are inclined to believe the information even more and it will cause disgrace in their eyes when they hear the information from two people. In every place [in this book] where the prohibition of Lashon Hara is mentioned in a general manner, it applies to every manner of conveying derogatory information, unless a particular means is specifically singled out as an exception.

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