We discussed last week how the Torah prohibits speaking badly about our
friend even if we are saying the truth. But we still need to define
what ‘speaking badly’ means. There are some descriptions of people that
are considered objectively derogatory, such as, ‘arrogant’, ‘selfish’
and ‘evil’. One cannot use such terms in describing someone else. One
may argue that he would even say such things about a person right in front
of him and therefore it should be allowed. This is not the case; indeed
it is even more disdainful to actually be willing to say such harmful
things to a person’s face.
Another reason that one may think justifies speaking badly about someone
is that that person says the same thing about himself. For example, one
may think, “John often says how lazy is so why can’t I say it?!’ However,
any trait that is objectively negative remains negative even if the person
happily admits that he has that trait. One last justification to speak
lashon hara is, “I am only joking’ - that too does not justify criticizing
There is a second category of descriptions which are not objectively
negative, rather they can be interpreted in either a negative or neutral
way. For example, ’he is always cooking food in his house” could be taken
to simply mean that he cooks a lot or it could imply that he is greedy.
This kind of speech may be allowed if the following conditions are
1.The speaker must not intend his statement as a criticism:
2.He must be sure that the listener will not interpret it in a negative
If there is any doubt as to how the listener will interpret it then it
should not be said.
At this point it is important to acknowledge that all these laws may seem
overwhelming but we should not be discouraged. A major tenet of Judaism
is that we should not jump too quickly in his spiritual growth. Rather we
should take small, meaningful steps. So too with regard to lashon hara -
it is not possible to drastically change our speech in one moment. A
suggested first step is simply to try to be more aware of our speech and
at least notice when we are speaking negatively. Once we can do this then
we can begin to slowly change the way we speak.