Shmiras HaLashon: Relating That Someone Committed a Sin

By BJLife/Rabbi Dovid Jaffee

Posted on 11/01/18

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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.


It is forbidden to relate that someone committed an aveirah (sin), as this is an inherently derogatory act and is classified as loshon hora.  This even applies to sins about which many people are not careful. (However, regarding sins that are well known to be committed by a certain group, a rav should be consulted.)

One Who Sins Constantly

The above is true regarding one who sins occasionally. It also applies to someone who regularly commits a sin but does not realize that it is forbidden. However, regarding a person who is constantly sinning and who shows clearly that he has no fear of Hashem, the halachah changes. In this case, not only is it permitted to publicize his aveirah, it is even commendable to denigrate him and to reveal his sins to the public. This dispensation is in order to discourage others from committing aveiros, and to distance them from sinners.

It must be noted that there are many limitations and conditions necessary in order to allow one to degrade a sinner. In essence, degrading a sinner to prevent others from learning from his ways is a form of to’eles (constructive purpose). In a future article we will present a full discussion of the conditions that are necessary in order to speak loshon hora for a to’eles. If those conditions are not met, it is generally forbidden to denigrate a sinner. A full discussion of these details is beyond the scope of this article.

Apikores and Mumar

There is no prohibition of loshon hora when speaking about an apikores or a mumar, as defined by Chazal. These are Jews who have rejected the Jewish religion, either through their beliefs or their actions.

Tinok SheNishba

There are numerous details involved when classifying the exact parameters of an apikores or mumar. However, as a matter of practical halachah, the application of this halachah is severely limited. This is based on the concept of Tinok SheNishba. This title refers to one who is not at fault for his neglect of the Torah, as he never had the proper exposure to the beauty of a religious lifestyle. A Tinok SheNishba is not faulted for his beliefs and actions, and therefore, does not fall under the category of apikores or mumar. According to many Poskim, the vast majority of nonreligious Jews today fall into the category of Tinok SheNishba. Therefore, all halachos of loshon hora apply until determined otherwise by a Rav.

When speaking about a Tinok SheNishba, one leniency does apply. Contemporary Poskim allow one to say loshon hora about someone in this category provided that the focus is not on degrading the individual, but rather, the way of life that he follows (i.e., one may point out to others that the lifestyle that such a person follows is damaging and unhealthy, unlike a Torah-true lifestyle). A rav should be consulted regarding whether the other conditions of loshon hora for a to’eles are also necessary in this situation.

Relating Sins in Other Situations

It may even be permissible to tell someone about an aveirah that a religious Jew has committed so that others will not emulate him (in error or otherwise), or (regarding actions such as theft) to help the victim recover his loss. The details of this dispensation will be discussed at length in a future article.

For the Sake of the Truth

It is common that one observes another person committing a sin or another injustice, and he wants to tell others because of kinas ha’emes (his zeal for the true path). In other words, one may feel disturbed by what has occurred, and in order to regain his equilibrium, he feels a need to publicize that it is wrong and should not be done. Being bothered in principle that an aveirah or injustice was committed is not a sufficient basis to permit one to say loshon hora.

To illustrate: Gershon says to his friend, “I can’t stand it that some people waste away a significant part of their learning seder (set time for learning) schmoozing. I saw Aharon talking to his chavrusa (study partner) for an hour before he finally opened his Gemara.” Gershon has transgressed the prohibition of speaking loshon hora, despite the fact that his criticism was valid and he was disturbed by Aharon’s bittul Torah (wasted time).

Pointing Out a Sin in Order to Learn from It

Some authorities assert that there are situations when it is permissible to point out someone’s misdeeds for the purpose of learning how not to act. This is based on the dispensation of to’eles – conveying negative information for a constructive purpose. Indeed, the Torah is full of critiques of the greatest of men. These critiques teach us how to act and what Hashem expects of us. Similarly, the Gemara is full of critiques of the various Sages discussed therein. (Note that the critiques mentioned in the Torah are not to be understood at face value. The personalities in the Torah and the Sages of the Gemara were spiritual giants. The Torah magnifies their misdeeds in order to teach us lessons on our level.)

The Torah even gives us a specific commandment to remember what occurred to Miriam when she spoke against Moshe Rabbeinu. The Ramban writes that it would have been proper to conceal the aveirah of this great woman, but the Torah revealed it — and commanded us to discuss it — so that the sin of loshon hora will constantly be on our minds. This is because loshon hora is a terrible sin which people commit on a regular basis.

The Necessary Conditions

However, this dispensation has its limitations. Many of the conditions that allow loshon hora for a to’eles apply here as well. In a future article, we will present a full discussion of the conditions that are necessary. Here, we will highlight the conditions that are the most relevant to our present discussion.

  • The speaker must intend to speak for a to’eles (to accomplish a constructive purpose).

  • He must ensure that no undue harm will befall the person he is speaking about.

  • He must be exceedingly careful to ascertain that there will actually be a to’eles from what he says. In such a case, the added advantage that allows for to’eles is only when this particular incident enhances the impact of the lesson. If omitting this specific incident will not detract from the power and effect of the lesson, there is no to’eles in relating it.

  • Moreover, even if relating the specific incident will add to the power of the lesson, if he is capable of conveying the same message without talking about this particular person, the dispensation does not apply.

  • Last, if the listener is not mature or sophisticated enough, he will have lost more from hearing the information than he will have gained from it — thus, negating the to’eles.

By now, it should be clear that this leniency is very limited, and requires much contemplation before it is applied.  In practice, one must consult with a Rav for guidance before relying on this leniency in any given situation.

An Application: A Story with Rav Pam

The following story is an illustration of how to use a real situation to teach a lesson. Rav Avraham Pam once went to a certain shul with his son, Reb Dovid, to daven Minchah and Maariv. In between Minchah and Maariv, someone got up to teach a mishnah or two, as is common in many shuls. The person was clearly unprepared and did an inadequate job explaining the mishnah. When they left the shul, Rav Pam commented to his son, “Do you see what it looks like when one doesn’t prepare?”

At first, Reb Dovid was taken aback to hear this from his father, who was known to be very careful about his speech. It seemed to be blatant loshon hora. However, he later realized that his father must have felt that his words were for a to’eles, as the situation served as a powerful example of the ineffectiveness of an unprepared speech. An unprepared teacher causes students to go away confused and having wasted their time. Rav Pam was teaching his son that one must prepare if he wants his students to properly understand and appreciate the shiur.