Thank you to David Solomon for this review material, which was part of his class for BMT students in Jerusalem in 1993.
- The Definition of Lashon Hara
- Commandments regarding Lashon Hara
- Lashon Hara guidelines
- Avak Lashon Hara
- Listening to or Believing Lashon Hara
Now that we have completed the section of Hilchot Lashon Hara, I would like to share some review material that my husband David Solomon wrote as part of a class for students in BMT of Jerusalem in 1993.
Lashon Hara is any derogatory or damaging statement against an individual. In Hilchot Deot 7:5, Maimonides supplies a litmus test for determining whether something is or isn’t Lashon Hara:
Anything which, if it would be publicized, would cause the subject physical or monetary damage, or would cause him anguish or fear, is Lashon Hara.
II. Commandments Regarding Lashon Hara
There are many commandments, positive and negative, which can be violated when someone speaks Lashon Hara. Two negative and two positive examples:
(1) Leviticus 19:15, “Lo telech rachil b’ameicha,” – Do not go about as a talebearer among your people. This is the basic prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara.
(2) Leviticus 19:14, “Lifnei ‘iver lo titen michshol” – Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. One who involves himself in Lashon Hara is helping others to violate the prohibitions as well.
(3) Deuteronomy 24:9, “Zachor et asher asa H’ Elokeicha l’Miriam” – Remember what G-d did to Miriam. When Miriam spoke negatively against her brother Moses, she was afflicted with tzara’at (leprosy).
(4) Leviticus 19:18, “V’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha” – Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the source of the “do unto others” rule, that we should treat others the way we would want to be treated.
Lashon Hara expresses itself in many forms. Lashon Hara can be factual, such as stating that someone violated a commandment. Or it can be subjective, such as discussing whether someone is intelligent, attractive, generous, etc. This type is often worse since listeners often readily accept an unverifiable opinion. Sometimes whether something is Lashon Hara depends on the situation: reporting that someone gave a certain amount for a donation can be derogatory when said about a wealthy person but positive when applied to one who has lesser means.
Some kinds of statements are not about individuals explicitly, but are Lashon Hara nonetheless. Insulting someone’s possessions ultimately insults the owner as well. Degrading groups of people reflects unfavorably upon each member of the group.
It doesn’t even have to be speech – any means of communicating derogatory or damaging information falls under the definition of Lashon Hara.
Some statements are not outright Lashon Hara, but can imply Lashon Hara or cause others to speak it. These statements constitute Avak Lashon Hara, meaning traces of Lashon Hara. Some examples:
- In situations which inevitably provoke someone to contradict the praise, such as in excess, or in front of the subject’s enemy, or in public.
- That leads to harm, such as recounting someone’s generous character when a listener might take advantage of the subject’s good will.
- “Who would believe what he used to be like.”
- “Don’t ask me about what happened with X.”
V. Listening to or Believing Lashon Hara
Listening to Lashon Hara is generally prohibited for two reasons:
(1) It is forbidden to accept or believe Lashon Hara, and by listening to it one might cause himself to believe it.
(2) By participating in a session of Lashon Hara, the listener would be assisting the other participants to commit the sins of speaking and believing the Lashon Hara.
Believing Lashon Hara is forbidden regardless of the subject (family, friend, enemy, etc.), and regardless of the speaker (teacher, parent, spouse, etc.). Only if the subject is known to commit certain sins or have other problems, it might be permissible to believe it. In any case, someone can suspect that the Lashon Hara might be true, such that the listener should take precautions to protect himself from harm.
If information against someone might be of benefit to another (e.g. a potential business partner, roommate, etc.), it is permissible for that person to listen to it. (The listener should state why he is listening to the information so that the speaker realizes that the intentions of the listener are constructive, and also so that the speaker doesn’t intend to speak for non-constructive reasons.) However, the listener is forbidden from:
(1) accepting the information as true (he may only suspect and investigate), or
(2) taking action against the subject based on the information.
If caught in a group of people who are speaking Lashon Hara, one should try and leave the group or change the topic. If stuck there:
(1) decide in one’s heart/mind not to accept the Lashon Hara as true.
(2) do not enjoy the Lashon Hara (because the subject is being shamed, its a funny story, etc.).
(3) do not pretend to agree or accept the Lashon Hara (make a face, don’t make eye contact, or at least wear a blank expression)
If someone starts speaking Lashon Hara, try to privately and respectfully tell them that speaking Lashon Hara is forbidden. The best way to prevent others from speaking Lashon Hara is by setting a good example.
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HaLashon, Copyright (c) 1996, 2002 by Ellen Solomon and Project Genesis, Inc.