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

  • Rav Shlomo Levy



In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v' Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.







            The Rambam in Hilkhot Sanhedrin 21:7 writes:


It is forbidden for a judge to hear the words of one of the litigants before the other comes or outside the other's presence. Even hearing one word is forbidden, as it is stated: "Listen among your brethren" (Devarim 1:16). A judge who listens to only one litigant violates a negative commandment, as it is stated: "Do not bear a false report" (Shemot 23:1).


            A judge is forbidden to hear the arguments of one of the litigants when the other litigant is not present. The Rambam continues:


Included in this prohibition is a warning to a person who listens to malicious gossip, one who speaks malicious gossip, and one who bears false testimony.


            This is the biblical source for the prohibition to accept lashon ha-ra, "Do not bear a false report." This is also brought in the Gemara at the end of tractate Pesachim and in the Mekhilta. When we speak of "accepting," we refer not to mere hearing, but to believing the words that one heard – this is called accepting lashon ha-ra.


            It is interesting that the Rambam derives the prohibition to accept lashon ha-ra, and the prohibition for a judge to hear the arguments of one litigant absent the other, from the very same verse.


            But the main question evoked by this source is: what is the great severity of accepting lashon ha-ra? After all, the listener is passive and has done nothing. It should be noted that we are dealing here with a prohibition that goes beyond the prohibition of "lifnei iver," setting a stumbling block before a blind person (namely, the speaker). What is more, Chazal have said: "Greater is the punishment of him who accepts lashon ha-ra than of him who speaks it." Why? What is so bad about accepting lashon ha-ra?


            If we understand, as we saw in the first shiur, that the essence of the prohibition of lashon ha-ra lies in the damage caused to the subject (the person about whom the lashon ha-ra is spoken), the moment that the listener accepts and believes what was said, that is when the damage is done, for it is only then that the listener's attitude toward the subject of the lashon ha-ra changes. According to this, the receiver is, in a certain sense, the one who actually causes the damage, for had he not accepted the lashon ha-ra, no damage would have been done.


            The question, however, remains: What happens if the person who heard the malicious gossip does not want to violate the transgression of lashon ha-ra, but unfortunately he believes the one who spoke disparagingly about the third party?


            The answer is that this too should not happen: If the person who heard the gossip has no intention of acting upon the story, since there is no clear proof, why should he believe what he heard? Of what benefit is the thought that he believes it? Rather, the proper response is for him to convince himself that he does not believe it, because it cannot help him anyway.


            Let us return to the Rambam, whose ruling, cited above, likened this law to the law governing a judge who heard the arguments of one litigant absent the other. How are these comparable?


            The Gemara in Shevu'ot (31a), and also the Rambam at the end of that halakha, connect this law to the more general principle of, "Keep distant from words of falsehood" (Shemot 23:7). Why is there a problem of falsehood here? Surely in the end the judge hears the arguments of both litigants!


            Two answer this question, two points must be made: When a judge hears one litigant without the other, the second litigant is given no opportunity to defend himself and explain things from his perspective. One factor is that the first litigant becomes more self-confident, a factor which can impact the judge's perspective. Secondly, the judge himself may become convinced of the veracity of the first litigant's arguments, because he does not hear the other side. For this reason, the case is included in a warning to remain distant from falsehood, for such a scenario raises the likelihood of a false judgment.


            The Chafetz Chayyim proves from this comparison that one is forbidden not only to accept lashon ha-ra, but even to hear it without believing, for the prohibition on the judge is to hear the arguments of one of the litigants, and not merely to accept his version of the events.


            The Chafetz Chayyim questions whether this is a biblical prohibition or only a rabbinic one, and he concludes that it is indeed a biblical prohibition. The rationale seems to be that hearing leads to believing, or that even hearing without believing leaves a certain impression, and therefore it is forbidden by Torah law.


            What then should a person do when he hears negative information spoken about another person?


The Gemara in tractate Nidda 61a states:


Rabba said: As to slander, though one should not believe it one should nevertheless take note of it.


            The Gemara here allows a person to take note of disparaging remarks made about another person. What does it mean to “take note” of a remark? The Gemara continues with the following anecdote:


There were certain Galileans about whom a rumor was spread that they killed a person. They came to Rabbi Tarfon and said to him: Will the Master hide us? How, he replied, should I act? Should I not hide you, they would see you. Should I hide you, I would be acting contrary to the statement of the Rabbis: As to slander, though one should not believe  it, one should take note of it. Go you and hide yourselves.


            Rashi and the She'iltot disagree about Rabbi Tarfon's concern: Rashi explains that he was in fact concerned that they had killed somebody, and therefore Rabbi Tarfon was unwilling to hide them. The author of the She'iltot disagrees and explains that he was concerned that the authorities would apprehend them while they were hiding in Rabbi Tarfon’s domain and then punish him as well. It turns out then that according to Rashi he was permitted to believe that they were might be killers, based on the rumor that was making its rounds, whereas according to the author of the She'iltot, he was forbidden to suspect that this was the case, and the permit here was based on the concern of their being caught rather than their guilt.


            Another source that may shed light on this question is an incident recounted in the Gemara in Gittin 47a:


A certain man sold himself to the Lydians and then appealed to Rabbi Ammi saying: Redeem me. So he said: We have learned: "If a man sells himself and his children to a heathen he is not to be redeemed, but his children are to be redeemed after the death of their father," to prevent their going astray.  All the more so then here, where there is a danger of their being killed. The Rabbis said to Rabbi Assi: This man is a non-observant Israelite, who has been seen eating non-Jewish meat. He said to them: Possibly he did so to gratify his appetite? They said: There have been times when he had the choice of permitted and forbidden meat and he left the former and took the latter. He thereupon said to the man: Be off; they will not let me ransom you.


            Rashi there explains that the witnesses testified about the person that he ate the prohibited food when he could have eaten permitted food. The implication is that had there been no witnesses, it would have been necessary to save him even though there was reason to believe that he was non-observant for the sake of defiance. This explanation slightly contradicts what Rashi says in Nidda, even though it is possible to distinguish that there they could find another solution, whereas here Rabbi Ami was his last chance.


            According to this, what is the definition of "concern"?


            This is a difficult and delicate issue, because, on the one hand, one is forbidden to believe, but on the other hand, one is permitted to be careful. If people say that a certain person is a swindler, one is forbidden to believe them, but on the other hand one is permitted to refrain from entering into business dealings with him. Where does the boundary pass between what is forbidden and what is permitted?


            Here we must distinguish between a general appraisal of the person and a concrete assessment of a particular situation.


            The Maharik was asked about a person who was suspected of marital infidelity, and various sanctions were imposed upon him, e.g., not calling him to the Torah, and the like. The Maharik writes that above all else, it is forbidden to hate him, just as it is forbidden to hate any other Jew, since it is impossible to prove that he was guilty of wrongdoing. Moreover, argues the Maharik, the allowance of "concern" does not mean that it is permitted to take actions against the person, and therefore it is forbidden to impose sanctions upon him.      


            It is important to distinguish in this regard between two realms of interaction. On one hand, there is the general attitude that is manifest in the ordinary relationships between fellow Jews, e.g., giving charity, returning lost property, calling up to the Torah, and the like, and regarding these things the disparaging words spoken about a person must have no impact. On the other hand, there is the matter of individual relationships, that is to say, if a person had intended to do business with him, he is permitted to take his business elsewhere. While it is true that the subject of the disparaging remarks will suffer certain damage, it is indirect damage. He will lose the opportunity to make a profit, and this is not ordinary damage. Direct damage, however, is certainly forbidden.


            Here the question may be raised: May one who heard disparaging remarks about a certain person report what he had heard to other people so that they too will take precautions?


            In his commentary on the Rosh in Nidda, the Ma'adanei Yom Tov says as follows (9:6):


It follows that just as one should be “concerned” if damage could result for himself, so too one should be “concerned” in cases where damage could result for others.  For why should there be a difference? Certainly a person should be concerned about damage caused to others just as he should be concerned about damage caused to himself.


            A person is permitted, and even obligated, to tell others so that they too will take precautions and guard themselves against damage. The Chafetz Chayyim implies that he disagrees with this conclusion. The rationale is that the person faces a situation in which one of two people will suffer damage: either his friend or the subject of the disparaging remarks. Since he is uncertain about the truth of the allegations, he may not decide the matter who will suffer damage, and who will not.


            What is the law in a case where the person knows with certainty that the allegations are true?


            When a person knows something unfavorable about another person with absolute certainty, and he wishes to warn a third party, he is permitted to share that information with him and the third party is permitted to believe it. The law of "concern" was only stated in a case where the matter is not certain.


            The Chafetz Chayyim lists several conditions for this allowance. I will mention two of them:


1) Only if the speaker's intention is for the sake of heaven, and he has no interest in causing the other person any harm.


2) Despite the certainty, it is still forbidden to go and cause damage to the other person based on the information, but only to act in accordance with the law of "concern."


            The dividing line is, then, exceedingly fine. Nevertheless, we have no alternative but to "walk between the drops." Here too we are faced with the problem of two conflicting values, and we must decide which value takes precedence, and therefore intention plays an exceedingly important role.


In addition to everything that was said above, there is also the problem of "lifnei iver," "putting a stumbling block before the blind." One is forbidden to help another person commit a sin. In the case of lashon ha-ra, the hearer helps the speaker and the speaker helps the hearer, and therefore they both transgress the prohibition of "lifnei iver," and therefore one should avoid listening to any type of lashon ha-ra.


The Chafetz Chayyim is very stringent on this matter. But then the question arises: If it is always forbidden to listen to lashon ha-ra, how can we know when to be concerned? The Chafetz Chayyim explains that when a person hears another person beginning to speak lashon ha-ra, he must stop him and ask him whether there is any benefit for him to hear what he is about to say, and only if he answers in the affirmative is he permitted to listen.


One must be careful not to see this as a general allowance and think that it is always preferable to know about the people in one's environment, for one day he might want to do business with them, and therefore he will listen to all the stories being told about them. This is certainly forbidden. Only in a concrete case is one permitted to listen and take precautions in accordance with the laws cited above.


(Translated by David Strauss)



* This is the third of three shiurim on the topic of lashon ha-ra delivered by Rav Shlomo Levy in 5754. It was not reviewed by Rav Levi.