The Chafetz Chaim lists 31 mitzvot which may be violated when a person speaks or listens to Lashon Hara. This is a staggering number. Even though one does not generally violate them all in one shot, it is important to remember how carelessness can lead one into deeper trouble.
The central prohibition against unethical speech is Leviticus 19:16 - "Lo telech rachil b'ameicha" -- do not go about as a talebearer among your people. [FYI: Rashi's commentary on this verse is a "classic." He discusses the origins of the word rachil (a roving merchant), and a few divergent ideas about the Hebrew language.]
This verse in Leviticus applies equally to Rechilut and Lashon Hara (abbr.: L"H). The Chafetz Chaim gives their exact definitions later on, but for clarity we should mention them here:
- Lashon Hara - any derogatory or damaging (physically, financially, socially, or stress-inducing) communication.
- Rechilut - any communication that generates animosity between people.
Rechilut is often the repeating of Lashon Hara. For example, Reuven tells Shimon that Levi is ugly (Reuven spoke L"H), and then Shimon tells Levi what Reuven said about him. Shimon probably made Levi angry with Reuven, which is Rechilut.
Although Rechilut seems more obviously derived from the verse, both as a cognate (rachil/rechilut) and a concept (talebearer), the Torah is prohibiting any type of harmful or negative speech
in this commandment.
There are several other commandments that directly address "gossip":
- Deut. 24:8 - "Take heed concerning the plague of leprosy" because it is a punishment of Lashon Hara.
- Deut. 24:9 - "Remember what the L-rd your G-d did unto Miriam by the way as you came forth out of Egypt." Specifically, she spoke against her brother Moses.
- Lev. 25:17 - "You shall not wrong one another" which the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) explains that this means saying anything that will insult or anger someone.
- Deut. 19:15 - "One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity or for any sin" because, unlike in a court for monetary matters, the testimony of a solitary witness is not binding, so that his testimony damages the defendant's reputation without any beneficial result.
Several other commandments are more general, yet in certain circumstances apply when Lashon Hara or Rechilut is spoken:
- Ex. 23:1 - "You shall not utter a false report." Acceptance of a false report also follows from this.
- Lev. 19:14 - "Before the blind do not place a stumbling block." This applies to both the speaker and the listener since they are helping each other violate the commandments.
- Lev. 19:12 - "You shall not hate your brother in your heart," referring to contradictory behavior such as acting friendly but then speaking negatively about him behind his back.
- Lev. 19:18 - "You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the children of your people," such as speaking against someone in anger and for something that was done against the speaker.
- Lev. 19:17 - "You shall rebuke your neighbor and you shall not bear sin because of him." This verse contains two mitzvot: (1) stop someone from speaking Lashon Hara (among other interpretations), and (2) don't embarrass him in the process. (Note: rebuke is not a simple topic, especially because the one being scolded may not always listen. This is covered in some detail in the second section of the book, Hilchot Rechilut.)
- Lev. 19:18 - "Love your neighbor as yourself."
- Num. 17:5 - "You shall not act similar to Korach and his company" who sustained a dispute.
- Deut. 10:20 - "To Him [and (by implication) his wise ones] shall you cleave."
- Ex. 23:2 - "You shall not follow a multitude to do evil." The above two commandments refer to keeping good company, which includes those who will refrain from improper subjects in their discussions.
If you've been counting, you'll realize that there are still a good number of commandments that we haven't mentioned yet. To see the complete list, please see the Sefer Chafetz Chaim or its English adaptation, Guard Your Tongue, by Rabbi Z. Pliskin.
It is certainly good to be aware of the various mitzvot. However, the halachot discussed in the Chafetz Chaim are more specific, basically revolving around "Lo telech rachil b'ameicha," "B'tzedek tishpot et amiteicha," and "hocheiach tochiach et amiteicha." The Chafetz Chaim delineates different situations and conditions, and identifies when the speech is forbidden, permissible, and even desirable.