This article is adapted from Rabbi Dovid Jaffee’s newly released 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; one should not draw any practical conclusions without first consulting a rav.
One of the most important, but least understood, applications of the laws of Loshon Hora is the topic of shidduchim. It is accepted in the Orthodox community that when searching for a partner in marriage, one does research about the potential candidate before (and sometimes during) the dating process. This is most commonly done by speaking to teachers, friends, and colleagues of the candidate and asking personal questions regarding the potential candidate to better ascertain the suitability of the match.
Here, in particular, it is understood that every piece of information which is related can greatly affect the life of the individual under discussion. Therefore, one must exercise extreme caution before revealing anything negative. On the other hand, there are times when there is an obligation to relate certain information. One who withholds information which he is obligated to say is held responsible for the adverse effects of his silence. There are, unfortunately, too many stories of ruined marriages in which essential information about one of the parties only came to light after the marriage. Had this information been revealed prior to the marriage, the marriage never would have taken place, thus preventing much suffering. Revealing such information is known as speaking Loshon Hora for a to’eles (a constructive purpose), which is a permissible form of Loshon Hora.
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Thus, it is of utmost importance for one to familiarize himself with these halachos to know when to relate negative information in regard to shidduchim and when to refrain. It must be noted that these halachos are intricate and very subjective. Therefore, it is of the essence to consult with a qualified halachic authority before deciding whether or not to reveal certain information.
However, there are two reasons that it is necessary even for the layman to be familiar with the basic halachos. First of all, he needs to know when questions must be posed to a rav. For example, many people feel that one can just omit questionable information or even outright lie in order to conceal negative information. They might feel that they are doing a great deed by refraining from relating Loshon Hora. One who is familiar with the halachos will know that this is not necessarily true and that sometimes it is a terrible aveira (sin) to withhold information. He will realize that he must consult with a rav before proceeding. Furthermore, there are situations where one is put on the spot and he must respond immediately. He must be familiar enough with the halachos in order to make an educated decision as to how to respond.
In many instances, one may only disclose negative information about an individual after he was asked about these qualities in the individual. However, at times, one may divulge information even without being asked for his opinion. In this article we will discuss some of the guidelines for the latter situation – offering unsolicited negative information.
One may only offer information regarding a significant deficiency of which it can be assumed that the other side would never go through with the marriage if this deficiency was known to them. Examples of this can include serious diseases, hereditary diseases, severe psychological disorders, unusually flawed character traits, and significant deviations from the outlook on life or the halachic standards practiced by the community of which the other party is associated. One who is aware of an issue which will preclude one of the party’s abilities to have a successful marriage is not only permitted to inform the other side, but he is obligated to do so.
The Obligation of the Individual Himself
It should be noted that in such situations there is an obligation for the individual with the deficiency himself to disclose this information. Just as one may not sell an item to another based on false assumptions, so too in regard to marriage. The obligation of the individual himself goes above and beyond the obligation of others. Hence, there are situations in which others need not and may not reveal information about a certain individual, but the individual himself is indeed required to disclose such information to the other party.
Furthermore, sometimes it is prudent for one to disclose information before the other party discovers it from another source. Certainly, if the other party only becomes aware about it after the engagement or marriage, that party will likely feel that they have been deceived. If this were to happen, it could have adverse effects on the marital harmony of that couple.
Additionally, when a third party discloses negative information about an individual, it can be perceived as a more severe deficiency than if the individual disclosed the information himself.
Of course, one should always consult with a halachic authority regarding whether or not to reveal the information and how to do so. People can cause themselves undo harm by revealing information that does not need to be revealed.
When the Other Party has the Same Deficiency
An exception to the above is when a similar deficiency is found in the other party, as well. In general, in such a situation there is no reason to assume that the other party will be particular about such a deficiency. Similarly, if one of the parties is concealing information, one may not reveal it if the second party is also concealing information.
A Subjectively Severe Deficiency
Sometimes there is a deficiency which is not particularly serious from an objective point of view, but one knows that the other side is very sensitive to this deficiency and would never marry someone with this particular issue. Here, too, one is permitted and required to inform the side who has this sensitivity that this shidduch is not for them.
Example: The Schwartz family is a very refined family. They have sterling character traits and are always calm. When faced with someone who is angry, they become unsettled and cannot properly deal with the situation. Their daughter, Rivka, is considering dating a certain individual. This individual, although endowed with good middos, occasionally loses his temper. Knowing Rivka and her family, it is clear that such behavior would render a marriage with this individual untenable. In this situation, one may take the initiative (after consulting a rav) and tell Rivka not to go out with this individual. If necessary, it is even permitted to mention explicitly that the individual sometimes loses his temper.
All of these dispensations to speak Loshon Hora for a to’les, are subject to certain conditions enumerated by the Chofetz Chaim. Perhaps these will be discussed in a future article.