This article is adapted from my sefer “What Can I Say… Today?” on the laws of Loshon Hora in contemporary times. 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.
Loshon Hora and Rechilus
The term Loshon Hora translates as “derogatory speech”. It refers to communicating negative information about another person. This is prohibited by the Torah.
In addition to the prohibition of Loshon Hora, there is a prohibition known as Rechilus. Rechilus refers to information related to a person that will cause him to feel anger or resentment towards another. Unlike Loshon Hora, this information is not necessarily negative. However, it still incurs the prohibition of Rechilus if it has the potential to cause resentment.
The details of the laws of Loshon Hora and Rechilus are almost identical. Therefore, virtually all of the laws that will be discussed in regard to Loshon Hora will be equally applicable to Rechilus. In a future article, we hope to discuss the few differences in halacha between Rechilus and Loshon Hora.
Elaboration upon the Definition
In defining the basic prohibition of Loshon Hora, the Rambam writes that Loshon Hora exists when one says something derogatory about another, even though it is true. He also writes that words which could ultimately cause (i.e. when the information gets passed on) physical or monetary damage, or even emotional pain or fear, are all included in the prohibition. For instance, if the information which is being related can cause damage because it will inevitably get passed on, one who conveys it violates the prohibition.
For instance, it is prohibited to convey an inappropriate action that one did in his youth. Similarly, one may not relate derogatory information about an individual’s parents (even if the parents are no longer alive). This is because relating this information will probably cause embarrassment to the person (or the child of the person) about whom the information was said. It may also damage his reputation, ruining his chances for shidduchim or certain jobs.
Example: Dovid tells his friend, “I remember when Yaakov and I were in middle-school together. He used to get sent to the principal’s office at least once a week.” Although Dovid is talking about an event that occurred many years ago, he has still violated the prohibition of Loshon Hora, as the information can cause embarrassment to Yaakov today.
Discussing Another’s Knowledge or Intelligence
Another example of this prohibition pertains to saying that one is not smart or knowledgeable. As we have noted before, this can hamper that individual’s ability to find a shidduch or job, and thus, constitutes Loshon Hora. Moreover, if the individual finds out what was said about him, it will certainly cause him pain. Whether the knowledge under discussion is Torah knowledge or worldly knowledge is irrelevant to this halacha.
Disparaging a Sermon
An unfortunately prevalent example of this prohibition is when people critique a speech or sermon. Even if one did not enjoy a speech or disagrees with what was said, criticizing the content or the delivery of the speech is genuine Loshon Hora and is strictly forbidden.
Example: A yeshiva student comments, “Why does the yeshiva always ask Rabbi Goldberg to speak? He talks in a monotone, and he never tells any good stories!” This statement constitutes Loshon Hora.
Causing Others to Lose Respect
Harming another’s image also a form of damage. Thus, information that will cause the listeners to lose respect for the subject is classified as Loshon Hora, and is forbidden. This is true even if the listeners will not act on the information.
It should be noted that in many cases the prohibition applies even if the listener will not personally lose respect for the subject. This is out of concern that the listener relate the information to someone else, who would indeed lose respect for the subject. The details of this are beyond the scope of this article.
No Intention to Denigrate
Even if one has no intention to degrade the subject, one may not say Loshon Hora. Therefore, even if one merely mentions negative information in passing, as part of a conversation, he still transgresses the prohibition of Loshon Hora.
Example: Levi says to Shmuel, “Mr. Cohen is a really good teacher. He is very interesting, and all of his students like him. Even though his handwriting is atrocious, that isn’t a problem because he teaches everything with PowerPoint.” Although Levi’s intention was to praise Mr. Cohen, and he only mentioned that he had poor handwriting in passing, he has still transgressed the prohibition of Loshon Hora.
No Intention to Speak to Others
Some authorities rule that one who speaks Loshon Hora in a way that is loud enough for others to overhear, even if he is talking to himself, still transgresses the prohibition of Loshon Hora if it is overheard. He has conveyed negative information by speaking audibly, even though he did not intend to transmit the information to others.
Furthermore, one who says hurtful words to an individual in front of others transgresses the prohibition of Loshon Hora according to some opinions. These embarrassing words constitute Loshon Hora if they lower the status of the subject in the eyes of the listener.
Example: Ephraim sang his first solo at the yeshiva banquet. Unfortunately, his singing was less than optimal. Afterwards, Doni mocked Ephraim’s performance in front of Yosef. Although Doni had no intention of speaking to Yosef, some poskim consider this Loshon Hora, as Doni was audible and Yosef was able to overhear him.
It is forbidden to speak Loshon Hora even if it is said in a joking manner. Based upon this, many authorities are opposed to the practice of gramin (poems) or Purim shpiels (skits) which poke fun at people. Others attest to the fact that such shpiels were practiced in illustrious yeshivos for generations. In light of this, some attempt to justify gramin and shpiels for a variety of halachic considerations.
In practice, one must consult a halachic authority before including any demeaning statements or a humorous portrayal of people as part of a gramin or shpiel. One must recognize that he is playing with fire, and extreme caution must be exercised even according to the lenient opinions. Indeed, it is common in many yeshivos that the students present the gramin or shpiel to one of their teachers beforehand, in order to receive his approval before presenting it in public.
Harmful Information which is not Negative
The information need not necessarily be negative in order to be classified as Loshon Hora. For instance, revealing private information about someone’s business which could harm him if publicized, even if it is not negative, constitutes Loshon Hora and is forbidden.
These are some of the basic guidelines for Shmiras Haloshon. In the next issue, we will focus on wordless and inexplicit Loshon Hora.