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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Mankind Was Created in the Image of God

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
(Genesis 1:26-31 ESV)

Out of all of God’s creation, only mankind was created in the image of God. But was does it mean to be created in the image of God?

The Hebrew word for “image” used in Genesis 1:26 is tselem (צֶלֶם), Strong’s H6754. The usage of this word suggests that man is made in the likeness or resemblance of God.

God clearly does not have a body of flesh and bones. Yeshua said, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24 KJV).

In the Book of Revelation, John wrote, “And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God” (Revelation 4:2-5 KJV).

Certain groups, notably the Mormons, have committed the error of saying that God the Father has a body, and have thus become anthropomorphites, people who say that God has a human form.

This form of doctrinal decay has also set in among certain segments of American Evangelicalism, most notably in the Pentecostal Word Faith movement. Many Evangelicals have (temporarily or permanently) bought into the idea that the Father has a body.

Anthropomorphites argue that man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27) and point to verses that refer to the strong right arm of God, the eyes of God, and so forth.

Tatian the Syrian said, “Our God has no introduction in time. He alone is without beginning, and is himself the beginning of all things. God is a spirit, not attending upon matter, but the maker of material spirits and of the appearances which are in matter. He is invisible, being himself the Father of both sensible and invisible things.”

The Bible is clear that mankind, unlike the rest of creation,  is made in the image of God. Furthermore, the Bible repeats this truth after sin enters the world, which means even though sin has stained and marred us, we remain God’s image bearers.

Part of being made in God’s image is that Adam had the capacity to make free choices. Although he was given a righteous nature, Adam made an evil choice to rebel against his Creator. In so doing, Adam marred the image of God within himself, and he passed that damaged likeness on to all his descendants (Romans 5:12). Today, we still bear the image of God (James 3:9), but we also bear the scars of sin. Mentally, morally, socially, and physically, we show the effects of sin.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.
(Romans 5:12-13 ESV)

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 3:7-10 ESV)

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:9-11 KJV).

John Calvin wrote the following comments on Colossians 3:10:

“We are renewed after the image of God. Hence, too we learn, on the one hand, what is the end of our regeneration, that is, that we may be made like God, and that His glory may shine forth in us; and, on the other hand, what is the image of God, of which mention is made by Moses in Genesis 9:6, the rectitude and integrity of the whole soul, so that man reflects, like a mirror, the wisdom, righteousness, and goodness of God. He speaks somewhat differently in the Epistle to the Ephesians, but the meaning is the same. Paul, at the same time, teaches, that there is nothing more excellent at which the Colossians can aspire, inasmuch as this is our highest perfection and blessedness to bear the image of God.”

What John Calvin is saying is that to image God is to “mirror” His invisible attributes to the world, somewhat like Moses, who radiated the glory of God after being in God’s presence. Therefore we are not to reflect Adam, the culture or even ourselves to the world. Rather God has bestowed upon us the amazing ability and awesome responsibility to be His mirrors on the earth, reflecting His goodness and glory to all for His glory and our joy. All persons are God’s image in a basic sense, but Christians image Him more than non-Christians and mature Christians do so even more.

God formed man from the dust and gave him life by sharing His own breath (Genesis 2:7). Accordingly, man is unique among all God’s creations, having both a material body and an immaterial soul/spirit.

The good news is that when God redeems an individual, He begins to restore the original image of God, creating a “new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). That redemption is only available by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior from the sin that separates us from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Through Christ, we are made new creations in the likeness of God (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The image of God is generally held to mean that people contain within their nature elements that reflect God’s nature: compassion, reason, love, hate, patience, kindness, self-awareness, etc. Man was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Though we have a physical image, it does not mean that God has one. Rather, God is spirit (John 4:24), not flesh and bones (Luke 24:39).

Yeshua alone has imaged God perfectly. Many New Testament Scriptures, and even Yeshua Himself, declare this.

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
(2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV)

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him.
(Colossians 1:11-16 ESV)

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
(Hebrews 1:1-4 ESV)

And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me.
(John 12:44-45 ESV)

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
(John 14:8-11 ESV)

Yeshua told is how we can best mirror the image of God and the radiance of His Glory as Moses did. Yeshua said, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16 ESV).