This article is adapted from my upcoming sefer, “What Can I Say... Today?” All halachos mentioned herein are complex and part of a larger framework. The purpose of the article is to raise awareness of these essential halachos. Hence, one should not draw any practical conclusions without first consulting a Rav.
Without Incriminating Others
Let us discuss a scenario in which a question of loshon hora arises. Suppose something improper was done, and Reuven asks Shimon, “Who did this?” May Shimon tell Reuven that it was Levi (who did, in fact, do it) in order to deflect the blame from himself?
The halachah is that it is considered loshon hora to incriminate Levi. Therefore, Shimon should merely deflect the blame from himself (by saying, “It wasn’t me!”), without placing the blame on Levi.
Only Two Candidates
What is the halachah when there are only two possibilities? The problem is that if Shimon deflects the blame from himself, he will be placing the blame on Levi by default. May Shimon vindicate himself even in this instance?
The Chofetz Chaim rules that deflecting the blame is permissible even in this case, as it is considered a to’eles to avoid being blamed falsely. However, he should still not place the blame directly on Levi. Rather, he should merely deflect the blame from himself, thus only implicitly blaming Levi. Nevertheless, if it is not possible to vindicate himself without explicitly blaming Levi, it is permitted to directly attribute the misdeed to Levi.
It is important to note that the dispensation to deflect the blame when there are only two candidates applies only when the act committed was objectively wrong. However, consider a case in which there was nothing inherently wrong or derogatory about the act (except that Reuven dislikes it for some reason). In such a case, the Chofetz Chaim remains in doubt regarding the permissibility of deflecting the blame if doing so will place the blame on Levi by default. In practice, a Rav should be consulted.
Furthermore, the dispensation to place the blame on the other candidate only applies when the speaker is deflecting the blame from himself. However, the Chofetz Chaim does not state that a third party may cast aspersions upon a guilty individual in order to remove suspicion from an innocent party. A Rav must be consulted.
Beyond the Letter of the Law
In any case, there is a middas chassidus (an act of piety) to go beyond the letter of the law and not deflect blame from oneself if it will implicitly transfer it to someone else. Indeed, some Tanna’im (Mishnah-era Sages) took this level of piety one step further and went out of their way to accept blame so that the true culprit would not be discovered and embarrassed.
Note that one should not take the blame falsely if there is a concern that doing so would cause a chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s Name). For instance, if a Torah scholar would admit to committing an unscrupulous act (that he did not commit), this could give the false impression that Torah scholars are dishonest. Thus, he should certainly not accept the blame upon himself in such a situation.