18 September 2016

Lashon HaRa: When Is It Permissible and When Is It A Mitzvah?

15 Elul 5776

Please keep in mind that some of the matters this blog concerns itself with involve not just a one-time occurrence which affects one or two Jews, but these are ongoing, constant threats against the spiritual integrity of entire communities in Eretz Yisrael. To me, it is like exposing and warning the community against a bunch of pyromaniacs who are intent on burning the house down around us. 

That said, this blog takes the warnings below very seriously. Everything must be balanced and we must guard ourselves from falling to either extreme at all - either to speaking lashon hara all the time or to not speaking it at all, even when it is necessary. 

Speaking Lashon Hara – When It’s Permissible

1. Speaking L”H to help others
If someone witnessed another person wronging his fellow, perhaps by theft or damage of property or injury – whether the wronged person is aware of the damage or theft or not – or by insulting or embarrassing him, and the witness knows that the offending party did not make amends (repaying the theft, repairing the damage, requesting forgiveness, etc.), even if he was the sole witness, he may discuss the incident with others in order to help the guilty party (i.e. to repent and correct his ways) and also to publicly disparage such evil behavior. However, the witness should take extreme care that the seven conditions that follow are met.

This is why we have the laws and if we are careful to obey the laws, we will be on solid ground.

2. The 7 conditions to satisfy before speaking L”H
  1. The speaker must have witnessed the incident himself, rather than knowing about it from rumor. (If he has only heard about the incident, then he must verify its authenticity firsthand.)
  2. The speaker should reflect thoroughly, not hastily concluding something is theft or damage or any other offense, that the action in question is truly a violation according to halacha.
  3. The speaker should first approach the transgressor privately, and rebuke him with gentle language (such that the transgressor would be inclined to listen), because perhaps this can have an impact and inspire the person to improve his ways. If the transgressor does not listen, then the speaker should alert the public of the individual’s guilt. (In a case where the speaker knows in advance that the transgressor won’t listen to rebuke,we will discuss it IY”H in paragraph 7.)
  4. The description of the sin should not be exaggerated [for “effect” or any other reason].
  5. The speaker must have pure intentions (“to’elet,” lit. “purpose”). As we will discuss later in paragraph 4, the speaker should not – Heaven forbid – enjoy his friend’s (the transgressor’s) disgrace, nor act out of a previous hatred he felt for the person.
  6. If the purpose of speaking the Lashon Hara (e.g. causing the sinner to repent, warning the community to stay away from such activity) can be achieved in another way rather than speaking Lashon Hara, it is forbidden to speak Lashon Hara.
  7. By speaking Lashon Hara, the transgressor should not be caused more damage than would be appropriate as determined by a court of Jewish law reviewing the case. This is discussed in detail in Hilchot Rechilut chapter nine. [An example would be if a thief would be obligated to repay the victim $100, but Lashon Hara caused him damages of $500.]
3. Speakers with the same sins cannot speak
All this applies if the witness is a better person than the transgressor. If, however, the witness is just as bad a sinner, sick with the same immoral behavior, it is forbidden to publicize the incident. A person with similar sins does not have the intention of revealing the unknown out of goodwill and fear of G-d, but rather to enjoy the disgrace of his fellow.

This is referred to in Hosea 1:4, “And I have accounted for the sins of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu.” Jehu fulfilled a mitzvah (positive commandment) by cutting off the house of Ahab in Jezreel, for he was commanded by a prophet, and Jehu thereby was granted the kingship for four generations, as G-d told Jehu (Kings 2 10:30), “… as you have done to the house of Ahab according to what was in my heart, your fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.” However, G-d similarly meted punishment upon the house of Jehu because he committed transgressions as Ahab had done.

4. Constructive intentions
The fifth condition for speaking L”H, that one should have constructive intentions, is as follows.
Proper intentions include any of the following:

  • To help the wronged party. This is indicated by an audience which is capable of helping him.
  • Certainly if the people he tells can help the wronged party, it is proper to tell them, and
  • Even if that purpose won’t be achieved, but he wantes others to avoid evil ways when they learn that people criticize those who commit such sins
  • and perhaps the sinner himself will repent from his evil ways and make up for his actions when he hears that people disparage him for such behavior.

Even in the third case the speech would not be considered Lashon Hara but rather constructive, so long as the speaker does not intend to enjoy the disgrace he puts upon his fellow. The speaker must speak out of a passion for the truth, and hope that through his words some constructive purpose will result.

If, however, the speaker realizes his words will not result in any constructive outcome, for example the group he would tell are “ba’alei Lashon Hara” (habitual speakers of L”H, such that they will indiscriminately repeat it), and that they have committed similar evils and thought nothing of it, one should be extremely careful not to speak to them. Not only will speaking to them provide no purpose, but it may also cause great damage. The listeners very likely will tell the guilty party what the speaker said, thus violating “Lo telech rachil b’ameicha” (“do not spread tales”). As a result of such talk, great disputes often ensue, and possibly even – G-d forbid – “malshinut” (a Jew reporting another Jew to non-Jewish authorities). Even if all other conditions are met, should there be the potential for Malshinut, Lashon Hara may not be spoken.

It makes no difference whether the victim (of the theft, embarrassment, etc.) requested the speaker’s involvement or not. For if getting involved is permissible, that would be even if the victim didn’t ask, and if it is forbidden – if not all conditions were met – it would not help had the victim asked.

Even if the victim is a relative [getting involved when not all conditions are met] would be forbidden. (Many falter in this area. When people hear that someone harmed their family member, even though they haven’t verified the information or gotten the details, they immediately take action against the other person. They think they are fulfilling the commandment, “mi’bsarcha al titalem,” do not neglect your brethren. Yet they are making a grave error, for there is no distinction between a relative and everyone else regarding the laws discussed above, for the commandment, “mi’bsarcha al titalem” was not meant to justify violating other commandments, Heaven forbid.)

5. Causing Rechilut is forbidden
Speaking Lashon Hara is included in the sins “bein adam l’chaveiro” (between people), and therefore if the seven conditions are met, it is permissible to publicize the lowliness of the gossiper. However, discussing the misdeed may only be done if the subject of the gossip is already aware of what was said about him. Otherwise, “everyone has a friend” (translation of Aramaic expression meaning “people talk”), and someone will tell the subject, which is Rechilut (actively spreading gossip), as we will discuss in Hilchot Rechilut.
It is certainly forbidden to inform the very person about whom Lashon Hara was spoken, even if one wants to do so out of a passion for the truth, for this is blatant Rechilut, and even if the disgraced is a respected Jewish leader who happens to be the witness’ father or teacher.

6. When even Rechilut might be permitted
(This paragraph continues the idea from the one before, that a witness to L”H may not repeat the incident unless the victim (subject) knows about the talk.)

In certain cases, it is permissible to tell others about a sin bein adam l’chaveiro (i.e. one person wrongs another) even if the victim is unaware of the offense. This is when speaking about it will result in an actual positive outcome and also all the conditions above (in paragraph 2) are met.

“Actual positive outcome” requires definition so as not to cause misunderstanding.

One example would be if one recognizes the nature of someone as a gossip-monger, and he is embarrassing another person to his face and will similarly go to others and continue to denigrate him, and as we wrote above the bystander must first attempt to rebuke the gossiper, and he has rebuked him yet his words were not accepted. This situation is common among our many sins, for almost all of us falter with regard to Lashon Hara and particularly accepting Lashon Hara. It is likely that people will accept this person’s Lashon Hara, and it will be difficult to later remove his words from their hearts, because the first to speak out in an argument is believed to be right. Therefore it is certainly proper that the bystander should go before those people first, and elaborate upon the severe dishonesty of the gossip-monger, and tell them how he is disparaging the subject without reason, about no wrongdoing whatsoever. Then, when the gossip-monger later approaches the group and tells his tale, they will not believe what he says, but rather they will chastise him. When he sees that the audience does not believe his words, and that his talk even brings embarrassment upon himself, he will be more careful in the future. For this purpose, it is certainly permissible because the soul of the subject will be saved from anguish and embarrassment, and also the souls of gossiper and listeners will be saved from the curse of Gehinom. Also, the mitzvah of “hocheich tochiah et amitecha” (rebuke your fellow) will be fulfilled.

7.Rebuke the transgressor first
Next we will clarify what we wrote under the third condition in paragraph 2, that the witness must first rebuke the transgressor before speaking L”H about the incident or situation.

This applies in general, but if the witness knows the individual will not listen to his words and will not accept his rebuke, he does not need to rebuke him.

However, the speaker must be careful to speak in front of at least three people. If he were to speak to only one or two people, it would appear as if he does not want what he says to get back to the subject, that he wants to flatter the subject and deceive him, and insult him in secret. It would also appear that the speaker was enjoying telling the Lashon Hara. In addition, the listeners would be suspicious of the speaker and say that the information is untrue and that the speaker is deceiving them, for otherwise he would first discuss the issue with the subject directly. If this would happen, his Lashon Hara would not achieve any constructive purpose as stipulated in paragraph 4.

Therefore, one must speak this L”H publicly – before three individuals – for this is considered equivalent to speaking in front of the subject, and the listeners will not suspect him, because an “adam kasher” (generally law-abiding individual) does not speak complete lies to a large group.

Nonetheless, the listeners are forbidden to accept the L”H and allow the subject to be disgraced in their eyes. As we explained in chapter 6, even if the information isn’t absolutely false, there may be extenuating circumstances or an unknown detail which sheds an entirely different light on the matter. Therefore, it is forbidden for them to conclude that the information indicates something negative against the subject, yet they may listen to it so that they may investigate it further and if it is true then rebuke the subject and he might heed their words, as well as the other constructive purposes discussed above in paragraph 4.

8. When the speaker fears retalliation
All this applies if the witness is not afraid of retalliation by the subject, but if one does fear such consequences, it may be permissible to be lenient and speak to another about the incident, even in front of fewer than three people.

9. A speaker who is always righteous in his speech
(Note: the next paragraph almost never applies!)

If the speaker is publicly recognized as one who does not shame another, and anything he says about someone who is not present he would also say if that person is present, and he is also known as someone who only speaks the truth, it is permissible for him to relate an incident or transgression that someone has committed against his fellow, provided that the speaker knows that the subject will not accept his words of rebuke, even before fewer than three people, because the listeners will not suspect him of deception or disgracing others. Rather, they will recognize him as one pursuing the truth, helping the fallen, and publicly declaiming evil deeds. However, in this case, as well as in paragraph 8, all the conditions listed at the beginning of this chapter must be met, except for first rebuking the subject or relating the incident publicly.


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Speaking Lashon Hara About a Heretic

The prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara applies when spoken about someone who is considered “amitecha” (of your people), namely in observance of Torah and mitzvot. However, regarding those who are recognizably “apikorsim” (heretics), it is a mitzvah (fulfillment of a positive commandment) to disparage and shame them, to their face and behind their back, for everything that one witnesses or hears about them.

The Torah states (Lev. 25:17 & Lev. 19:16) “One should not wrong his fellow” and “Do not act as a talebearer among your people,” but heretics do not fit under this category for they do not act as “your people.” Therefore, we follow the practice (as taught in Avot D’Rabbi Natan, a work from the Talmudic era), “those who hate you, L-rd, I will hate, and your rebellious ones I will dispute.”

An “apikorus” (heretic) is one who denies the laws and prophecies of Israel, whether the Written Law or Oral Law. Even if he says, “All the Torah is true with the exception of one Scriptural verse, kal v’chomer, g’zeira shava, or one grammatical detail,” he is included in this category. [“Kal v’chomer” and “g’zeira shava” are Talmudic terms for two of the logical principles from which we understand many laws.]

*Important note: there is a large in-between category not mentioned in this paragraph, namely those who do not observe – or even commit some sins – but without the malicious intent of heresy. Lashon Hara against someone in this middle category is forbidden. The purpose of these laws permitting speech against an actual heretic is not for a community to degenerate into nasty name-calling, but rather to protect itself against the influence of those who flagrantly do not care about the image they set for the community and even intentionally wish to destroy it.

Determining Whether Someone is Considered an Apikorus

[The permissibility to speak against an apikorus (heretic)] applies if one heard words of heresy directly from an individual. However, if he heard the heresy second hand, he is forbidden to speak against the person, whether in his presence or behind his back. Rather, he should suspect the person as an apikorus, and also warn others to stay away from him until the matter is clarified. Further, he should not believe in his heart that the information is true, according to the laws against accepting Lashon Hara discussed in chapter 6.

Verification is required when one hears that an ordinary person has spoken heresy, but if the person is a publicly confirmed heretic one may speak Lashon Hara about him as if he heard the heresy himself.