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Halakhot of Lashon Ha-ra and Rekhilut

  • Rav Shlomo Levy
Halakhot of Lashon Ha-ra and Rekhilut – Part I
Based on a Shiur by Rav Shlomo Levy
Translated by David Silverberg
     This week we begin a series of shiurim dealing with the halakhic aspects of lashon ha-ra and rekhilut (gossip), speech that is forbidden and permitted.  These shiurim will not address the particular severity of the prohibition against speaking lashon ha-ra, which is already widely recognized and well known.
  1. Introduction
     In approaching the topic of lashon ha-ra, we must discuss two distinct points.  First, we must define the terms, "lashon ha-ra" and "rekhilut," to identify in which kinds of speech one may and may not engage.  Secondly, we must address the question as to when one may speak that which we have already determined to classify as lashon ha-ra.  Under certain circumstances, speech that we indeed define as lashon ha-ra is permissible.  Most of the halakhic discussion surrounds this second point, attempting to determine under which circumstances and for which purposes one may speak lashon ha-ra.
     By way of introduction to this topic, we should perhaps discuss the broader issue of the relationship between Halakha, the specific legal guidelines, and Musar – the general ethic of Judaism.  In other words, does Halakha express the mode of ethical conduct by which we all wish to abide, or are we compelled to observe Halakha simply to fulfill our duty, and Halakha expresses merely the minimum standard we must maintain?
     Needless to say, we outright reject the second approach described.  We, as believing Jews, want to follow the ethical commands of Judaism as a way of life, not merely to fulfill our obligation.
     There is one approach that claims that the laws relate to the external facet of the action, its result, whether or not it harms another person, whereas ethics involves the intentions of the one performing the given action.  Clearly, however, in our view, this approach can never even get off the ground.  For us, certainly in the case of lashon ha-ra, the intentions define the act itself.  The intent is quite clearly relevant even with respect to the straightforward Halakha; intentions affect the Halakha itself, not merely the area of "lifnim mi-shurat ha-din" – the level above and beyond the strict letter of the law.
     Yet another approach believes that the law is what we can coerce upon the individual, whereas ethics includes that which cannot be forced upon people.  In other words, no substantive difference exists between law and ethics, both are of equal importance, only one we can force upon people whereas the other we cannot.  In our terms, this would mean that Halakha represents the minimum obligation, and everything beyond the Halakha, other forms of good deeds, represent ethics regarding which a person bears no outright obligation.
     Indeed, we find in several areas of Halakha a basic obligation cast upon all individuals and an additional level of "hiddur mitzva" – a higher standard beyond the minimum requirement.  Similarly, Halakha recognizes the concept of "korban nedava" – a voluntary sacrifice which one may, though has no obligation to, offer to God.  Generally, however, we must distinguish between different types of mitzvot.  Particularly in our context, when dealing with the laws of lashon ha-ra, Halakah draws no distinction between the laws and the level of "lifnim mi-shurat ha-din."
     The basic foundation of the halakhot of lashon ha-ra involves the harm caused to others, as the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Dei'ot (7:5): "If one speaks matters which, when told from one person to another, cause harm to his fellow, physically or financially, even to merely to cause him distress or frighten him – this constitutes lashon ha-ra."  Meaning, the basic definition of lashon ha-ra is the harm caused to one's fellow.  In such a situation, it is difficult to distinguish between the laws and a level beyond the strict letter of the law.  If someone undoubtedly causes harm to his fellow, then such conduct is forbidden.  We cannot say that strictly speaking one may cause a little harm, and only the level of "lifnim mi-shurat ha-din" forbids causing any harm at all.
     The Chazon Ish writes in his work, "Emuna U-bitachon" (chapter 3): "Ethical obligations form, at times, a single entity with halakhic rulings, and Halakha is what determines the forbidden and the permissible within the ethical code."  There is but one entity; Halakah defines what we must consider ethical.  Halakha does not simply coerce laws upon us, but rather represents what is good and ethical.
     How does Halakha define the parameters of ethical conduct?
     The Chazon Ish brings the Gemara's discussion in Masekhet Bava Batra (21b) concerning a case where schoolteachers came into a town where other schoolteachers already worked.  As often happens, everyone rushed to hire the new schoolteachers.  The previous teachers, who now lost their employment, fought for their livelihood by spreading rumors discrediting the newcomers.  The Chazon Ish claims that if Halakha forbids the actions taken by the new teachers, then their conduct becomes unethical, and the new schoolteachers are permitted to fight against them.  However, the moment Halakha permits the new schoolteachers to do what they did, it defines it as an ethical mode of conduct and determines that the value of competition among teachers, and the consequent rise in educational standards, overrides other considerations.  Therefore, the former teachers may not seek to discredit to the newcomers, and if they do, this constitutes lashon ha-ra.
     The Chazon Ish concludes: "When the Gemara says there in Bava Batra, 'Rav Huna agrees regarding schoolteachers, that they cannot object [to the installment of new teachers],' this halakha includes many ethical laws that arise as a result from this halakha."
     When it comes to the laws of lashon ha-ra, the situation is very similar.  In many instances, the situation requires speaking lashon ha-ra.  Halakha defines what one may and may not speak, it determines what constitutes ethical conduct and what does not.  When conflicting values clash, Halakha determines which value takes precedence.
     This must be the way we address all details of these halakhot.  Therefore, throughout our course of study, we will try to understand not only the halakhic concepts, but also the ethical message that emerges from these concepts.  Through the study of the halakhot we will learn of Halakha's sensitivity to the harm potentially caused to others as well as to other concerns, and we will see how to deal with situations of conflicts between values.
  1. Defining the Prohibition
     As we have seen, the basic definition of lashon ha-ra is the cause of harm.  We refer here to harm in all senses of the word, from damage to one's stature or honor, to physical or financial harm to the subject of one's speech.  Some forms of speech are deemed objectively wrong: telling that someone stole, that he violated Shabbat, etc.  Conversations such as these de facto cause harm to the individual.  But other stories of people are not objectively wrong, but must be assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine the consequences of the given conversation.
     Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl ruled that anything said that hurts the person spoken about qualifies as lashon ha-ra.  In other words, halakha addresses the subjective definition, as well; one must carefully examine every case to see if his speech causes harm to another, and if it does, then it violates this prohibition.
     In effect, the laws of rekhilut follow this same general principle.  Halakha does not forbid telling any story about another; it forbids telling stories only if they cause harm.  The difference between rekhilut and lashon ha-ra is outlined by the Rambam in Hilkhot Dei'ot (7:2): "Who is a 'rakhil' [gossip]?  One who carries information and goes around from one person to the next and says, 'This is what so-and-so said'; 'This is what I heard about so-and-so.'  Even if it is true – this person destroys the world."  Thus, a person who goes to Reuven to tell him what Shimon said violates rekhilut, even though he says nothing about Shimon's conduct or qualities.
     It appears, however, that this is not the only definition of lashon ha-ra.  In his work on the laws of lashon ha-ra, the Chafetz Chayim writes (3:6):
"You should know, that even if no evil befalls that person as a result of the lashon ha-ra, such as if the listeners did not accept his comments, and the like, nevertheless, this does not leave the bounds of lashon ha-ra, and he requires atonement.  Moreover, even if from the outset he figures that no evil will befall the individual in question as a result of his speech, he is nevertheless forbidden from speaking negatively about him."
     The Chafetz Chayim proves his position from the Gemara in Masekhet Arakhin (16a), which notes two conflicting sources as to the possibility of atonement for lashon ha-ra.  One source, the Gemara notes, indicates that those who speak lashon ha-ra have no possibility of atonement, whereas another source claims that the "me'il" (robe) worn by the kohen gadol serves to atone for this transgression.  The Gemara answers that if one's speech indeed caused actual harm to the subject, then he is denied the possibility of atonement.  When, however, his remarks caused the individual no harm, then he earns atonement through the kohen gadol's robe.  This Gemara clearly implies that even when the lashon ha-ra has no practical consequences, the speaker requires atonement; the prohibition applies even if the speech causes the subject no harm.
     However, the Chafetz Chayim acknowledges that one might refute this proof by claiming that the Gemara refers to a case where the speaker intended to cause harm, only in the end, no harm resulted.  When, however, the speaker has reason to believe that his speech cannot cause the subject any harm, he violates no prohibition and does not require atonement.  In any event, the Chafetz Chayim draws proof from other sources, as well, and thus concludes that even if the individual figures based on his assessment, that no harm will result from his negative speech about another, such speech is forbidden.
     Why?  Why would we consider negative speech about somebody lashon ha-ra if it will yield no practical harm?  In fact, the Acharonim discuss the question of whether one may speak lashon ha-ra to somebody who already knows the information.  According to one view, the prohibition of lashon ha-ra does not apply in this case, since the listener is already aware of the incident reported to him, and thus no harm results from this speech.  It emerges, then, according to this view, that we do not apply the prohibition of lashon ha-ra to speech that causes no harm.  Why, then, would the Chafetz Chayim forbid a person from speaking negatively about another if, according to his assessment, no harm would result from this talk? 
     One might explain that the Chafetz Chayim's ruling stems from the concern that one's speech might, in fact, cause harm, in spite of his assessment to the contrary.  This would mean that the single definition of the lashon ha-ra prohibition remains "the cause of harm through speech," only the Chafetz Chayim rules that even when it appears highly unlikely that any harm would result, one may not speak negatively about another.
     We might, however, suggest a different approach.  Chazal speak at length of the severity of speaking negatively about Am Yisrael.  The mishna in Masekhet Arakhin (15a) extract the prohibition of slander from the scouts' negative report about the Land of Israel.  It is obviously difficult to speak of any harm caused to the Land through the slanderous report of the scouts.  But the Gemara remarks: "Come and see how great is the power of lashon ha-ra.  From where?  From the scouts: if this is what happens to one who speaks slanderously about trees and stones, then all the more so [will punishment befall] one who speaks slanderously about his fellow."  How can we possibly draw any comparison between slandering inanimate objects such as stone and wood, and slandering other people?
     The sin of the scouts involved a provocation against God Himself, as Chazal understood from the scouts' assertion, "chazak hu mimenu" – "they are stronger than us," which may also be read as, "they are stronger than Him."  If we view Am Yisrael as the nation chosen by the Almighty, then, in effect, any slander spoken of a Jew involves as well an element "bein adam la-Makom" – it amounts to an insult against God Himself.
     Furthermore, any wrongful action committed by a Jew causes a chilul Hashem, and when a person goes ahead and publicizes it, he further increases the chilul Hashem.
     We have, therefore, two aspects.  First, there is the aspect of ahavat Yisrael: God loves Am Yisrael, and therefore He objects to publicizing negative information about them.  Secondly, spreading the news of the desecration of Hashem's Name causes further desecration, and is therefore forbidden.
     Nowadays, publicizing any piece of information undoubtedly lends it much greater power and places it in the public arena.  According to this aspect of lashon ha-ra, even without causing any harm, reporting negative information about another itself increases evil in the world, and it, too, falls under the category of lashon ha-ra.
     To sum up, the Chofetz Chaim felt the prohibition to speak negatively even when no harm would result was because of the need to be extra cautious of even improbable harm.
     Alternatively, the actual negative advertisement of one of Am Yisrael or God's creations is, in itself prohibited.