The Laws of Lashon Hara

Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD.
(Leviticus 19:16 KJV)

It is forbidden to speak disparagingly of one’s chaver (male firend) or chaver (female friend). Even if the information is entirely truthful, it is called Lashon Hara (evil tongue). If the information also contains any fabrication, it is also called Motzi Shem Ra (to produce a bad name). The speaker of Lashon Hara violates the prohibition of Leviticus 19:16.

Leviticus 19:16 explicitly prohibits Lashon Hara and Rechilut (talebearing or gossip that incites hatred and resentment), yet there are many more commandments that bear on the speaking of Lashon Hara.

The above seriousness of speaking Lashon Hara relates to someone who incidentally includes something inappropriate in his speech. But those who make it a habit to talk about others in a derogatory manner (“Did you hear…..”, “Do you know she…..”, etc.) are labeled Ba’alei Lashon Hara (masters of Lashon Hara, in that such speech is an integral part of themselves), and their transgression is far more severe. They regularly create a Chilul HaShem (desecration of the name of God; Leviticus 22:31-33) because of their rebellious manner. Though they may view their activities as social tools, such behavior cuts them off from many good things in the world around them.

Therefore shall ye keep my commandments, and do them: I am the LORD. Neither shall ye profane my holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am the LORD which hallow you, That brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD.
(Leviticus 22:31-33 KJV)

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:17-19 KJV)

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
(James 2:10-13 ESV)

The comparison of Lashon Hara to well-known and agreed-upon sins such as murder is surprising. But at the same time, we can imagine why: just as the violation (sins) of the Ten Commandments damage and destroy vital physical aspects of the world, Lashon Hara afflicts the emotional and social realms.

There is no difference when speaking Lashon Hara whether one tells a juicy story of his own will or because someone encourages (or pressures) him to do so. Even if the speaker’s teacher (Rebbe) or parent whom the person must honor and fear, and not contradict, requests that he tell about an incident, if the relating of the information would result in Lashon Hara or even Avak Lashon Hara (speech that provokes Lashon Hara), he cannot say it.

If you think about it, Lashon Hara isn’t any different from any other commandment. If someone encouraged you, or even nagged you, to eat a cheeseburger, you would still be fully responsible for your actions. Certainly social pressure for gossip seems more effective than it is for food, drink and many other areas, but that may be because we are not used to saying “no” to evil speech.

Even when subject to great financial loss, one is not permitted to speak Lashon Hara. This may mean that he will be viewed as a fool, and denied financial opportunity by the “intelligent” people with whom he associates. As in all Mitzvot Lo Taaseh (Torah prohibitions), we are commanded to forgo all of our income.

It is generally helpful to try and develop a (personal) rational approach to the laws of Lashon Hara. When someone is confronted with a situation in which he is expected to speak derogatorily about someone, if he can respond with a simple personal philosophy (or sometimes just enough self-confidence to convey adherence to a personal philosophy), he will leave most of those situations with others’ respect intact. And in those situations which are not in the “most” category, the best thing to do is remember the benefits that accrue through hardship in observing this mitzvah.

If someone stands to lose personal honor by not speaking Lashon Hara, he must also sustain the loss and remain silent. For example, if one is sitting in a group speaking Lashon Hara, and he has no way to separate from them at the moment, he cannot participate in their lively discussion. This applies even if he will look like a simpleton or social clod. He should try to hold himself back and remember the many sayings of the Sages regarding his situation: “Better to be considered a fool in the eyes of man throughout one’s lifetime than as a wicked person in the eyes of God for one moment (Eduyot 5:6),” “the reward is according to the effort (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 5:25),” “one hundred times more in hardship than without it (i.e. the reward is one hundred fold; Avot d’Rabbi Natan),” and the Vilna Gaon who writes that “for every second that one remains silent he will merit reward beyond the comprehension of any being, even celestial.”

Whether spoken, written, or hinted with gestures or any other way (if you looked at the Rashi in Leviticus 19:16 you saw that winking was described as a characteristic behavior of Holchei Rachil – those who go about slandering), any communication of Lashon Hara is prohibited. This also applies if you weren’t the writer of a piece disparaging someone. Rabbi Pliskin elaborates on a footnote in the Hebrew about the communication of Lashon Hara: showing a letter or other writing (e.g. a newspaper) to belittle its writer would also be forbidden. I would anticipate that this would also apply to footage in a film or other media.

Even if you’re disparaging yourself alongside the subject, it is prohibited. It doesn’t matter if you look even worse than the subject, and it doesn’t matter if you mention yourself first. Rabbi Pliskin gives some nice examples:

  1. Ben and I both shoplifted when we were younger.
  2. Nobody in our group studies Torah properly.

It is also forbidden to speak Lashon Hara about yourself.

The Hebrew word translated “gossip” in the Old Testament is defined as “one who reveals secrets, one who goes about as a talebearer or scandal-monger.” A gossiper is a person who has privileged information about people and proceeds to reveal that information to those who have no business knowing it. Gossip is distinguished from sharing information in two ways:

  1. Intent. Gossipers often have the goal of building themselves up by making others look bad and exalting themselves as some kind of repositories of knowledge.
  2. The type of information shared. Gossipers speak of the faults and failings of others, or reveal potentially embarrassing or shameful details regarding the lives of others without their knowledge or approval. Even if they mean no harm, it is still gossip.

King Solomon wrote, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (Proverbs 21:23 ESV).

In his epistle to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:29-32).

James, the brother of Yeshua, had plenty to say about the tongue. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26 ESV). He also wrote, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:5-10 ESV).

King David wrote, “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred. My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue, LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them” (Psalms 39:1-6 KJV).

“If an evil thought should arise in the mind, suppress it. Watchfulness in the habit, is the bridle upon the head; watchfulness in acts, is the hand upon the bridle. When not able to separate from wicked men, we should remember they will watch our words, and turn them, if they can, to our disadvantage. Sometimes it may be necessary to keep silence, even from good words; but in general we are wrong when backward to engage in edifying discourse. Impatience is a sin that has its cause within ourselves, and that is, musing; and its ill effects upon ourselves, and that is no less than burning. In our greatest health and prosperity, every man is altogether vanity, he cannot live long; he may die soon. This is an undoubted truth, but we are very unwilling to believe it. Therefore let us pray that God would enlighten our minds by his Holy Spirit, and fill our hearts with his grace, that we may be ready for death every day and hour.”
(Matthew Henry’s Concise  Commentary)

It is quite obvious from the texts of the Bible, Rabbinical Commentaries and Christian Theologians that the tongue (although small) is capable great sin. This is an area we all need to work on constantly. Psalms 39:1 is one of my favorite passages from Scripture, my tongue has always been my greatest stumbling block in my walk with YHVH.

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