The aveira (sin) of lashon hara refers to the prohibition of speaking negatively or derogatorily about someone, even if the information is accurate. This prohibition, literally meaning ‘evil tongue’ is based on various verses from the Tanakh and is further elaborated in the Talmud and other Jewish sources.
The Torah sources that address the prohibition of lashon hara include:
- Leviticus (Vayikra) 19:16: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people.”
- Psalms (Tehillim) 34:14: “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
- Psalms (Tehillim) 141:3: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.”
- Proverbs (Mishlei) 11:9: “With his mouth, a hypocrite destroys his fellow.”
- Proverbs (Mishlei) 16:28: “A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.”
The Talmud in tractate Arachin (15b) emphasizes the severity of lashon hara, stating that it is akin to three cardinal sins: idolatry, illicit relations, and murder. This comparison underscores the magnitude of the prohibition and the damage it can cause to individuals and the community.
The Shulchan Aruch, a central code of Jewish law, delves into various facets and levels of lashon hara. It provides guidelines and examples to help individuals understand the scope of this prohibition and its practical implications. The primary source in the Shulchan Aruch that deals with lashon hara is in Choshen Mishpat, Chapter 228.
Here are some key points and facets of lashon hara, as outlined in the Shulchan Aruch:
- Lashon Hara vs. Rechilut: Lashon hara refers to speaking ill of someone in their presence, while rechilut refers to spreading negative information about someone in their absence. Both are prohibited, and there are specific rules and exceptions for each. Lashon hara can even be done for oneself, detailing things one’s done wrong or mentioning negative qualities in a self deprecating way. Ultimately, reputation and dignity are protected by the Torah.
- Truth vs. Falsehood: Speaking lashon hara, even if the information is true, is still forbidden. Only in exceptional cases, where there is a legitimate need for disclosing negative information, may it be allowed, but even then, there are strict conditions. However, complaining, gossiping, sharing another person’s weaknesses and so on are all a problem of lashon hara. Not only about events or past information, but anything that causes negative thoughts, like saying “I would never eat at his house”, no matter if he’s a bad cook or doesn’t keep a high level of kosher would be prohibited if it serves no purpose but to hurt someone’s reputation. As you probably heard as a child: if you don’t have anything nice to say, probably best to say nothing at all.
- Motive Matters: The intent behind speaking negatively about someone also plays a role. If the intention is to help, prevent harm, or protect others, there might be room for leniency. However, the Shulchan Aruch warns against self-justification to speak lashon hara under the guise of good intentions. On the other end of the spectrum, bringing up numerous good qualities of a person in front of those who are known to have deep hatred is its own problem, as it will invite those people to counter with lashon hara. Inviting others to gossip or speak harshly about someone is still a problem even if you don’t say anything negative yourself.
- Exceptions: The Shulchan Aruch lists several exceptions when speaking negatively about someone is permitted, such as in situations where potential harm can be prevented, or when seeking advice or guidance from a qualified authority to address a specific issue. For specific examples, helping someone avoid getting into a potentially unhealthy relationship, warning about low (or no) kosher standards where one is about to eat, talking about an active politician whose election might do harm, or speaking to a rabbi or therapist about specific problems.
Regarding how lashon hara relates to people who are alive or dead:
- Living Individuals: The prohibition of lashon hara applies to speaking negatively about person regardless of their religious affiliation or background. Jewish law urges individuals to be extremely cautious about what they say and to avoid causing harm to others through their speech.
- Deceased Individuals: The prohibition of lashon hara still applies to the deceased, which makes it even harder to atone and demands even greater care. There is still a requirement to speak respectfully about those who have passed away and to avoid derogatory speech even after their death, no matter if those points are truthful. This can be a difficult matter when learning details of someone’s past sins and failures may have educational dimensions, like safety against criminals, but it’s not impossible to do even without mentioning names or other such specifics.
Atoning for lashon hara:
The process of atoning for lashon hara depends on the harm caused and the severity of the sin. Generally, it involves sincere regret and remorse for one’s actions, actively seeking forgiveness from the person who was harmed, and making efforts to rectify the damage done. Teshuvah (repentance) and the commitment to refrain from engaging in lashon hara in the future are essential elements of the atonement process.
When it comes to remarks made about the deceased, this may require making a public apology at the burial site, perhaps even in front of 10 witnesses. It also requires the same level of sincere remorse.
The extreme level of problems lashon hara can cause:
Lashon hara can have devastating consequences both for the individual speaking it and the subject of the negative speech. It can damage relationships, create animosity within communities, and lead to mistrust and isolation. Moreover, lashon hara has far-reaching ripple effects, as it can spread and cause harm to countless others, leading to a breakdown of trust and unity within society. This is primarily a sin from person to person, but as with any aveira it will also harm one’s relationship with God.
The prohibition of lashon hara is rooted in various Torah sources and is considered a severe transgression in Jewish law. The Shulchan Aruch provides detailed guidelines regarding the different facets and levels of lashon hara, highlighting the importance of guarding one’s speech and being mindful of the potential harm caused by negative talk, and this article is still only scratching the surface. The prohibition applies to both living and deceased individuals, and atonement for lashon hara involves genuine repentance, seeking forgiveness, and committing to refrain from engaging in such behavior in the future. Lashon hara’s destructive potential underscores the need for vigilance and responsibility in our speech to promote a harmonious and ethical society.