Loshon Hora That Is Not About Jewish People

By BJLife/Rabbi Dovid Jaffee

Posted on 10/03/18

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This article is adapted from my upcoming sefer,“Shmiras Haloshon in Today’s World”. 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.

Relating Loshon Hora to an Akum

It is forbidden to tell loshon hora about a Jew to an Akum. The Chofetz Chaim writes that this prohibition is even more severe than telling the information to a Jew, as it also causes a chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s Name), among other reasons. (It should be noted that reporting someone to the authorities without first consulting a leading Rav is a severe sin. A discussion of the complexities involved is beyond the scope of this work.)

Relating Loshon Hora About an Akum

There is room for discussion regarding a Jew speaking loshon hora about an Akum.  In a future article we will mention that the prohibition of loshon hora is relaxed when speaking about a Jew who commits certain sins. This is because the prohibition of loshon hora only applies when speaking about an individual who follows the Torah and keeps the mitzvos. It follows that it should also be permitted to speak loshon hora about an Akum, as he, too, does not adhere to the Torah and mitzvos.

Nevertheless, the Medrash states that one who speaks against someone who is not part of his nation will come to speak about those who are part of his nation.

From this Medrash, some authorities derive that it is forbidden to speak loshon hora about an Akum.   However, others rule that the above statement is only a guideline to proper behavior, and there is no prohibition according to the strict letter of the law.  In practice, one may rely on these lenient opinions.  Still, it must be mentioned that we can see the truth of the words of the Medrash with our own eyes — those who speak loshon hora about Akum are the same ones who speak loshon hora about Jews. Therefore, whenever possible, one should certainly distance himself from this negative character trait.

Listening to Loshon Hora About an Akum

The above discussion applies only to speaking loshon hora about Akum. However, all agree that there is no prohibition of listening to or believing loshon hora about them. This dispensation is based on the fact that there are no indications in any primary sources that there is any problem with accepting loshon hora about non-Jews.

The Sin of the Meraglim

Chazal refer to the sin of the Meraglim (Spies) as loshon hora. As is recorded in the Torah, the Meraglim spoke negatively about Eretz Yisrael (Israel), and they died a terrible death as a consequence. Chazal comment that if the punishment of one who gives a negative report about sticks and stones (referring to Eretz Yisrael) is so severe, there will certainly be serious consequences awaiting one who slanders his friend.

Loshon Hora About Someone’s Possessions

From the description of our Sages, it is clear that the Meraglim sinned by speaking negatively about the Land. The Sefer Yerei’im derives from this that one may not say derogatory information about another person’s possessions. Therefore, if one is giving a present to another, it is forbidden for someone else to speak critically about the gift. The Chofetz Chaim presents a different example of this prohibition: writing that a storekeeper may not degrade the merchandise of his competitor.

This form of loshon hora, speaking about possessions, is really just another application of the standard prohibition of loshon hora about another person. In truth, by speaking negatively about a person’s possessions, one is saying loshon hora about the person himself. In the case of the Sefer Yerei’im, the receiver of the present will now be less appreciative of the one who gave him the present. In the case of the Chofetz Chaim, the first storekeeper can negatively affect the business of the second storekeeper. The only novelty in this law is that it is forbidden even though the information is not aimed at the person, but rather at the item.  (However, if negative speech about an item were to have no impact on a person, the prohibition of loshon hora would not apply.)

Based on this, we can identify a common case of forbidden loshon hora. Suppose someone is eating at a wedding or another catered event, and he makes a derogatory comment about the food. In most situations, this comment reflects negatively on the caterer, and has the potential to adversely affect his business. Moreover, he may be lowering the esteem of the host in the eyes of any listeners, as he is implying that the host was unable to find (or afford) a skilled caterer who makes tasty food. Thus, this statement is forbidden because of the ramifications that it has, even though the focus of the comment was on the food.

Story with the Chofetz Chaim

A man once came to the house of the Chofetz Chaim and was served black bread. The man made a derogatory comment about black bread in general. Subsequently, the Chofetz Chaim made a point to mention three positive aspects of black bread, and then he told the man that his derogatory remarks constituted loshon hora.

We have already established that there is no prohibition to speak negatively about an object when it does not harm a person. In light of this, it would seem difficult to understand why this should be loshon hora. The Chofetz Chaim may have meant that it was loshon hora about the Chofetz Chaim’s wife, who had chosen to serve the bread. Alternatively, he may not have meant that it is deemed loshon hora according to the letter of the law, yet it is not within the spirit of the law to make any derogatory comments whatsoever.

It is worthwhile to mention another story, as quoted in the Chovos HaLevavos, which is along the same lines. The author writes that a certain pious individual was traveling with his students when they came upon a putrid, rotting carcass. When the students commented about the foul odor emanating from the carcass, the teacher praised the whiteness of its teeth. This pious man was trying to distance himself from any form of derogatory speech even though there is no halachah that forbids speaking negatively about the (ownerless) carcass of an animal.

Negative Speech about Eretz Yisrael

We have seen that Chazal deemed the sin of the Meraglim to be loshon hora about Eretz Yisrael.  Based on this, we delved into the parameters of loshon hora about non-humans in our previous discussion. We concluded that there is no technical prohibition in this case, although it is generally to be discouraged. In our present discussion, we will explore whether or not there is a specific prohibition against speaking negatively about Eretz Yisrael.

Chazal say that it was a merit for Sancheiriv (the wicked king of Assyria who eventually exiled the Ten Tribes at the end of the era of the first Beis HaMikdash) that he did not speak negatively about Eretz Yisrael.  They then give a negative representation of the Jews at that time, who did speak in a derogatory fashion about Eretz Yisrael.

Chazal also relate that certain Sages of the times of the Gemara would go from the shade to the sun when it was too cold, and vice versa when it was too hot, when in Eretz Yisrael. This was so that they would have no complaints about Eretz Yisrael. The Ben Yehoyada, one of the classic commentators on the Aggadic sections of the Gemara, writes that we can learn from here that one should be careful never to say a single critical word about Eretz Yisrael.  He says that this includes the land, the climate, the temperature, the fruits, the buildings, and any other aspects that pertain to Eretz Yisrael.

However, the prohibition to speak negatively about Eretz Yisrael is not mentioned in the Poskim. We must conclude that although such speech is improper, it does not fall under a full-fledged prohibition.

It should be noted that this entire discussion pertains to negative information that relates exclusively to the Land (for example, the climate). However, any derogatory information about the Land that reflects negatively on the people who live there is full-fledged loshon hora, and is forbidden.