The Laws of Lashon Ha-ra and Rekhilut - Part I

  • Rav Shlomo Levy




            This series of shiurim will deal with the halakhic aspects of lashon ha-ra, that is to say, with the question of permitted forbidden speech. It will take for granted that the great severity of the prohibition is known.




            When we approach the issue of lashon ha-ra, we must deal with two points:


1. Defining lashon ha-ra and rekhilut, or in other words – what is one forbidden and what is one permitted to relate about another person.


2. The main question: In which cases is one permitted to speak lashon ha-ra? That is to say, in certain situations particular statements may indeed be defined as lashon ha-ra, but for various reasons relating to benefit, one is permitted to say them. Most of the halakhic discussion relates to this issue, defining the cases in which and the purposes for which one is permitted to speak lashon ha-ra.


            As an introduction to the issue, I wish to discuss a point that is not strictly halakhic, namely, the relationship between Halakha, i.e., the law, and morality. In other words, does Halakha give expression to the moral act that we should all aspire to do, or perhaps is halakhic observance undertake merely to fulfill one’s obligation, expressing a minimal moral standard but no more.  The second approach is, of course, totally unacceptable to us. We, as believers, wish to live in accordance with Halakha as a way of life, and not merely in order to dispense legal obligations.


            There is an approach that claims that the law addresses the external aspects of our actions, focusing on the results of our deeds, whether or not they cause harm, whereas morality relates to intentions. From our perspective, such an approach does not get off the ground. In general, and certainly in the case of lashon ha-ra, the intention defines the act itself. At the most basic halakhic level, intentions are of great relevance, they belong to the realm of strict law, and are not relegated to the realm of “beyond the letter of the law.”


According to another approach, the dictates of law may be coerced upon the individual, whereas the demands of morality may not. That is to say, there is no essential difference between law and morality, both are good and correct, but regarding one we use coercion, whereas regarding the other we do not. In our case, Halakha is the minimum obligation; beyond that good deeds are governed by the rules of morality, but a person is not obligated to perform them.


There are, indeed, areas of Halakha, in which there exists a basic obligation that in incumbent upon everybody, and a lofiter manner in which to perform the mitzva (hiddur mitzva). There are, comparably, in the world of the Temple service, free-will offerings that can express this type of motivation.


Generaly speaking, however, we must distinguish between different types of mitzvot. In our case, i.e., regarding lashon ha-ra, there does not seem to be a gap between strict Halakha and a morality "beyond the letter of the law."


The critical element regarding lashon ha-ra is the issue of harm. This is made clear by the Rambam in Hilkhot De'ot 7:5:


One who relates matters which, when passed from one person to another, will cause harm to a man's person or to his property or will even [merely] annoy him or frighten him are considered as lashon ha-ra.


            That is to say, the defining factor regarding lashon ha-ra is the damage that one person causes to another. In such a case, it is difficult to speak about strict law and “beyond the letter of the law.” If it is clear that the speaker is causing harm to the subject of his speech (i.e., the person about whom he speaks), he is forbidden to do so. One cannot claim that a certain amount of harm is permitted by strict law, with lesser harm being simply “beyond the letter of the law.”


The Chazon Ish writes in his book, Emuna u-Bitachon (chap. 3):


Moral obligations are sometimes as one with the rulings of Halakha. Halakha determines what is forbidden and what is permitted according to the rules of morality.


            There is no dichotomy; Halakha defines what is moral. Halakha is not arbitrary compulsion, but rather it is, by definition, the good and moral deed.


            Halakha defines the limits of morality. How so?


            The Chazon Ish brings the Gemara in Bava Batra 21b that speaks of the case of new teachers that arrived in a town that already had teachers, and as is often the case, everyone flocked to the new teachers. The old teachers fought for their livelihood, and denounced the new teachers.


            The Chazon Ish argues that if the new teachers’ action wsa halakhically forbidden, their actions would be immoral, and the old teachers would be permitted to fight them. But since Halakha allows the new teachers to act as they did, it defines their actions as moral, because it determines that the value of competition between teachers, which leads to a rise in their quality, outweighs the other values at play. Accordingly, the old teachers are forbidden to slander their new colleagues, and if they do so, it is defined as lashon ha-ra.


            The Chazon Ish concludes:


And when they said in the Gemara in Bava Batra: "And Rav Huna agrees about teachers of young children that he may not raise objections," this ruling implies many moral rulings that follow from the Halakha.


            The same is true regarding lashon ha-ra generally. In many cases there is a great need to speak lashon ha-ra. The Halakha which defines what is permitted and what is forbidden, defines what is a moral act and what is not. In the case of a clash of values, Halakha defines which value supercedes the other.


            This is the way we must relate to all the specifics of lashon ha-ra. Over the course of our study, we shall try not only to understand the halakhic parameters, but also the moral message that issues forth from these laws.


            As such, studying these laws will teach us about Halakha's sensitivity to damaging one’s fellow along with other values, as well as how to resolve a situation where two values come into conflict.




We have seen that the defining factor regarding lashon ha-ra is the causing of harm. This includes all types of harm, from harm to a person's standing or good name, to physical or monetary harm to the subject-victim of the lashon ha-ra.


Telling information that is objectively negative, such as relating that a person stole or desecrated Shabbat, is problematic because it is reasonable to assume that the subject could be damaged by the sharing of this information.


There are other stories that do not relate any objectively bad information about the subject, regarding which one needs to consider what the consequences of sharing the information might be.


Rav Nebenzahl states in a responsum that saying anything that offends its subject/victim falls into the category of lashon ha-ra. That is to say, Halakha also relates to subjective definitions. Every case must be subjected to this standard; words that cause a person harm are defined as lashon ha-ra.


Essentially, the laws of rekhilut, speech that causes enmity, are based on this same principle. Not every story told about another person is forbidden, but only that which will cause him harm. The whole difference, as the Rambam in Hilkhot De'ot (7:2) puts it, is as follows:


Who is a speaker of rekhilut? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: "This is what so and so said;" "This is what I heard about so and so." Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.


That is to say, one person goes to another and tells him that a third person said such-and-such. He tells him nothing about his actions or about his character.


Is this the only definition of lashon ha-ra? The answer seems to be no.


The Chafetz Chayim writes in his work by this name (3, 6):


Realize that even if no harm comes to the subject of the lashon ha-ra because the listener would not believe that lashon ha-ra or for any other reason, nevertheless, the comment is lashon ha-ra and requires atonement. Moreover, even if the speaker assesses beforehand that no harm will occur as a result of his comment, one is nevertheless forbidden to speak ill of his fellow.


            The Chafetz Chayim's proof is from the Gemara in Arakhin 16a. The Gemara there points out a contradiction, citing one source which indicates that those who speak lashon ha-ra have no atonement, while another source states that the robe worn by the High Priest atones for lashon ha-ra. The Gemara resolves the difficulty by saying that in a case where "his actions were effective" – i.e., where his words caused harm – there is no atonement. But in a case where "his actions were not effective" – i.e., where his words did not cause any harm – the robe achieves atonement. The Gemara implies that even in a case where there are no consequences, the robe is needed to achieve atonement, that is to say, lashon ha-ra is forbidden even in a case where "his actions were not effective."


            The Chafetz Chayim did not content himself with this proof alone, for it may be argued that in the Gemara's case the person intended to cause harm, and therefore atonement is necessary even if "his actions were not effective." But in a case where the person assesses that no harm will ensue, atonement is unnecessary. In any case, the Chafetz Chayim adduces proof from other sources as well. His conclusion is that even if a person assesses that his speech will not cause any harm, he is nevertheless forbidden to speak in a derogatory manner about another person.


            But why is this so? What is the rationale to say that even words that cause no harm are deemed as lashon ha-ra?


            This can be answered based on a discussion the Acharonim raise regarding speaking lashon ha-ra to a person who is already aware of the information shared with him.


            According to one opinion, in such a case there is no prohibition of lashon ha-ra, for the listener already knows the inforrmation, and no damage is caused. According to this approach, one could explain that the prohibition mentioned by the Chafetz Chayim stems from a concern that the story might lead to harm, despite the fact that the speaker had assessed that no damage will occur as a result of his comment. In other words, the sole defining factor regarding the prohibition of lashon ha-ra is the harm caused by such speech, with the added caveat that the Chafetz Chayim rules that even in a case where it is doubtful, and even remote, that harm will ensue, the speech is defined as lashon ha-ra and one is forbidden to speak it.


It is, however, possible to adopt a different approach.


Chazal spoke extensively about the severity of making derogatory comments. The Mishna in Arakhin 15a learns the prohibition of lashon ha-ra from the words of the spies who spoke evil about the land of Israel. It is difficult to speak about the harm caused to the land by the spies' words, and the Gemara there states:


Come and see how great is the power of lashon ha-ra! Whence do we know [its power]? From the spies: for if it happens thus [i.e., the punishment is so severe] to those who bring up an evil report against wood and stones, how much more will it happen to him who brings up an evil report against his neighbor!


            How can a comparison be drawn between speaking evil about trees and stones and speaking evil about people?


            The sin of the spies was also an act of defiance against God: "For they are stronger that He" (Bemidbar 13:31, as interpreted in Sota 35a)  If we see all of Israel as God's chosen people, then every word of lashon ha-ra spoken about a member of Israel involves also an offense against God, derogatory words directed at Him.


            Furthermore, every evil action performed by a Jew profanes the name of God. When one person goes about and publicizes another person's bad conduct he intensifies the profanation of God's name caused by that conduct.


            There are two elements at work here: 1) God's love for Israel, owing to which He does not want anything derogatory to be publicized about Israel; 2) the profanation of God's name.


            In our own time, it is clear that the publication of any piece of information bestows it with much greater power, and places it in the public domain. From this perspective, even if no additional harm is caused, just speaking ill of another person adds evil to the world and is therefore defined as lashon ha-ra.


(Translated by David Strauss)


* This is the first of three shiurim on the topic of lashon ha-ra delivered by Rav Shlomo Levy in 5754.