This week’s parsha teaches the prohibition against having one witness testify against someone, which is a violation of loshon hora.
What constitutes talebearing?
Question #1: Talebearing — Rechilus
“What is the legal definition of rechilus?”
Question #2: Loshon hora
“May I listen to someone say inappropriate things about a second person, in order to calm the speaker down?”
Question #3: Motzi shem ra
“I found out that a smear campaign is being planned against someone I know. Whom may I tell about it?”
In parshas Kedoshim, the Torah teaches lo seileich rachil be’amecha (Vayikra 19:16), which Rashi and most authorities translate as:“You shall not go as a talebearer among your people.” Rashi explains that the three-letter root of the word rachil, the letters reish, kof, lamid,is related to the root reish, gimel, lamid, which is the root of the word meaning “spy,” since the kof and the gimel sounds are created by the same parts of the mouth. They are both palatals, meaning that both are pronounced by pressing the back of the tongue against the soft part of the palate. Thus, the pasuk means someone who seeks gossip. This mitzvah is counted as one of the 365 lo sa’aseh prohibitions of the Torah. We will soon clarify what is included in this prohibition.
Several other prohibitions are also included under the general heading of lo seileich rachil be’amecha. According to many authorities, this also includes the lo sa’aseh not to say loshon hora. According to the Gemara and other rishonim, this lo sa’aseh also applies to a judge who does not treat the two parties before him in an equal way, but acts harshly to one and softly to the other. The latter prohibition is derived from a different translation of the word rachil, explaining that its root is related to the word rach, soft.
Let us examine the passage of Gemara (Kesubos 46a) that derives both of these prohibitions from this pasuk: “Which source teaches that spreading falsehood about someone else violates a lo sa’aseh of the Torah? Rabbi Elazar says ‘lo seileich rachil,’ whereas Rabbi Nosson says that he violates a different pasuk, in parshas Ki Seitzei (Devorim 23:10) ‘and you should guard yourself from any evil matter.’ Why did Rabbi Nosson not use Rabbi Elazar’s verse? Because he considers this verse (lo seileich rachil) to teach us a lo sa’aseh that applies only to beis din – that they should not be soft to one of the two litigants and harsh to the other. Rashi explains that this is derived in the following way: lo seileich rachil means, ‘you shall not be soft to me’ when you dealt more harshly with the other litigant. This latter law is mentioned by both the Semag (Lo Sa’aseh 9) and the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah #236).
Hurting feelings, Betraying a secret
There are other prohibitions that are included under the heading of lo seileich rachil. According to the Sefer Hachinuch, the mitzvah of lo seileich rachil also includes saying something that might hurt someone’s feelings.
The prohibition of lo seileich rachil be’amecha also includes revealing information that someone wants kept confidential (Semag). This ruling is codified by later halachic authorities on the topic (Orach Meisharim 8:2). If the information is negative, the teller also violates speaking loshon hora.
Ask your Rabbi
Rav Naftali Amsterdam, one of the primary disciples of Rav Yisroel Salanter, was famous for saying that he found it quite astonishing that people spend so much time and money to effect a heter mei’ah rabbonim, a program which releases someone from a prohibition that has the status of only a cherem established by Rabbeinu Gershom, and yet they freely violate a prohibition to speak loshon hora or to spread gossip, both of which involve violations of Torah laws, without asking any rabbonim what they are permitted to say (retold in Torah Lada’as, Volume V, page 56).
What is talebearing?
At this point, we are ready to discuss our first question: “What is the legal definition of rechilus?”
Thanks to the Chofetz Chayim’s efforts, the laws of loshon hora are much better known and more carefully observed today than they were in earlier days. Nevertheless, there is still much confusion regarding what is considered spreading gossip, and therefore prohibited, and what is not.
To begin our elucidation of the mitzvah, let us quote the words of the Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 7:1-2) on the topic:
“Someone who tells tales about his fellow violates the proscription of lo seileich rachil be’amecha, ‘You shall not go as a talebearer among your people.’Even though the violator of this prohibition does not receive lashes for this, it is a major sin and has caused much loss of life among the people of Israel. For this reason, the continuation of the pasuk reads, lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa ‘Do not stand aside, ignoring the blood of another.’ Go see what happened to Do’eig the Edomite.
“Who is a talebearer? Someone who carries stories and goes from one person to another, saying, ‘This is what so-and-so said; I heard such-and-such about someone.’ Even if what he says is true, he destroys the world.
“There is a greater sin than this, which is included in this lo sa’aseh, and that is loshon hora, which means that he tells over embarrassing things about his fellow, notwithstanding that it is the truth.”
It is quite clear from the Rambam that, whereas loshon hora is saying over something that is embarrassing about someone else, the prohibition of lo seileich rachil be’amecha is violated even if the story is not embarrassing. Does this mean that the Torah has prohibited saying nice things about your fellowman?
We can prove from later comments of the Rambam that he cannot possibly mean this, since he writes as follows: “Someone who talks about another person’s qualities in front of that person’s enemies is engaging in avak loshon hora (literally, the ‘dust’ of loshon hora, meaning a rabbinic violation of this prohibition) since it causes them to begin to talk disparagingly about him. In this context, Shelomoh said, Mevoreich rei’eihu bekol gadol baboker hashkeim, kelalah teichasheiv lo, ‘He who blesses his neighbor in a loud voice early in the morning, is considered that he cursed him (Mishlei 27, 14), because a result of the good that he (the talker) did caused him (his neighbor) harm” (Hilchos Dei’os 7:4).
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with talking about another person’s qualities, if it is not in front of that person’s enemies or will not cause him any harm. So, what then is the Torah prohibition of lo seileich rachil be’amecha?
Two excellent works on the topic of the laws of loshon hora discuss this question and reach the same conclusion. The Orach Meisharim (8:2 in biurim), authored by Rav Menachem Troish, who was the rav of Salzburg, a village in the Austrian Alps, in the late nineteenth century, and the Nesiv Chayim (Hilchos Rechilus 1:1), authored by Rav Moshe Kaufman, a contemporary author in Bnei Braq, both explain that the prohibition of lo seileich rachil be’amecha applies when the information will ultimately cause harm to the person about whom it is said or when it will lead to some type of machlokes. The person who recounts the “tale” intends to spread gossip, to harm someone, or to create machlokes. This is prohibited even when the person who did the act is not embarrassed by what he did or said; the gossiper is in violation since his goal is to create harm, he violates lo seileich rachil be’amecha.
For example, if the decision of a beis din was not unanimous, the ruling should not be recorded as a split decision, since this may easily create ill feeling between the losing party and those dayanim who sided against him (see Sanhedrin 30a). Instead, you simply write the halachic conclusion. Furthermore, the dayan who disagreed is prohibited from telling this to others (Sanhedrin 31a) since this may cause that those who lost will be upset or angry at the other dayanim.
Another example is when Reuven said something non-complimentary to Shimon about Levi, and Shimon tells Levi what was said. Since this certainly leads to ill feeling among people, it violates lo seileich rachil be’amecha.
Among the types of harm that are included under lo seileich rachil be’amecha is to inform a person that someone helped his enemy. The person who did the act may be unaware that this individual is an enemy of the person he helped, but the rochil is aware of this and wants to spread the machlokes.
Let us for a moment review the story of Do’eig to understand this prohibition better. David he sought refuge in Nov, a city of kohanim, in his flight from Shaul. The residents of Nov were unaware that David was a wanted man, and they provided him with food and a sword. Do’eig told Shaul that the city of Nov had provided for David. Although Shaul was told that the people of Nov were completely unaware that Shaul was pursuing David, Shaul ordered the entire city wiped out.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:2) mentions Do’eig as one of the individuals who forfeited his right to olam haba.
At this point, we can discuss the third of our opening questions: “I found out that a smear campaign is being planned against someone I know. Whom may I tell about it?”
When talker (T) plans something that may harm V (the victim), listener (L) is required to tell victim (V), so that V can protect himself. This is an example of lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa and is true even if the threat is not life-threatening, but concerns only V’s reputation or his finances. The Torah teaches that there are instances in which telling over what you know is not only permitted, but required.
However, if L (listener) knows that the T (talker) is halachically correct — “person V” is not a victim but actually did harm the talker, and talker is justified to respond — lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa does not apply. In this latter situation, it is prohibited for L to tell over T’s plans, and, if L does so, he violateslo seileich rachil (Be’eir Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 1:3).
More on lo seileich rachil, which includes loshon hora
To continue the quotation of the Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 7:3): “Chazal said, ‘Three sins are punished in this world and deprive a person of the next world — idolatry, adultery, and murder — and loshon hora is equivalent to all three of them. Furthermore, Chazal (Arachin 15b) said that speaking loshon hora is tantamount to denying that there is a G-d, as the pasuk says, Asher amru lil’shoneinu nagbir sefaseinu itanu mi adon lanu, ‘Those who say: “We will make our tongue powerful! Our lips are ours! Who is lord over us?”’ Tehillim 12:5). In addition, Chazal said, ‘Loshon hora kills three people: The one who said it, the one who believes it, and the person about whom it is said. And the one who is hurt most is he who believed it.’”
To quote the Gemara (Arachin 15a), “Rav Elazar ben Parta said, ‘Come and see how serious is the power of loshon hora. How do we see this? From the meraglim, where we see that someone saying loshon hora only about wood and stones could cause such a calamity — how much worse is someone who says loshon hora about another person!’” The Mishnah (Arachin 15a) states that the decree on our forefathers in the desert was sealed because of the loshon hora that they reported.
Continuing the Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 7:2, 4, 5): “The person who says loshon hora sits around, saying, ‘So-and-so did this,’ ‘His parents were no better and did this,’ ‘I heard these stories about him,’ and repeats embarrassing things. About this, the pasuk says, yachreis Hashem kol sifsei chalokus loshon medaberes gedolos,‘Hashem will cut off all smooth-talking lips, the tongue that talks boastfully’ (Tehillim 12:4).
“There are things that are prohibited as avak loshon hora the ‘dust’ of loshon hora. For example, ‘Who would have believed that so-and-so would end up where he is now,’ or someone who says, ‘Don’t talk about so-and-so, I don’t want to tell you what he did,’ or anything similar. Someone who talks about another person’s qualities in front of that person’s enemies is engaging in avak loshon hora, since it causes them to begin to talk disparagingly about him. In this context, Shelomoh said, Mevoreich rei’eihu bekol gadol baboker hashkeim, kelalah teichasheiv lo, ‘Someone who praises another loudly from early in the morning, is considered a curse to him’ (Mishlei, 27:14), because a result of the good that he did caused him harmbad. Similarly, someone who says loshon hora as a joke or with levity, as if he is not speaking out of hatred, is also engaging in avak loshon hora. This is what Shelomoh intended when he said, in his wisdom, kemislah’lei’ah hayoreh zikim chitzim vamaves, kein ish rimah es rei’eihu ve’amar halo mesacheik ani, ‘Just as a person who exhausts himself by throwing burning wood, arrows and death, so is someone who tricks his fellow, saying, “I was only joking” (Mishlei, 26:18-19). A similar prohibition is violated by someone who says loshon hora, pretending that he does not realize that what he said is negative.
“Something qualifies as loshon hora whether it is said in front of the aggrieved party or not. Furthermore, something that is not inherently negative about the person, but, if spread, will cause him harm either to his body or to his financial situation, it is loshon hora.” An example of the latter might be that a potential investor may decide not to assist someone who is a good risk to start a business because, based on the information he has received, the investor is led to believe that the business will not succeed.
Calming someone down
At this point, let us discuss the second of our opening questions: “May I listen to someone say inappropriate things about a second person, in order to calm the speaker down?”
Accepting loshon hora violates the lo sa’aseh of lo sisa sheima shav, “Do not listen to a purposeless rumor” (Shemos 23:1). However, the Sefer Hasidim rules that if someone comes to you very upset and angry, and you realize that by hearing him out you may be able to calm him down so that he does not tell anyone else, it is a mitzvah to listen to him and then convince him that the person he is upset about really cares about him. Either way, you are not to believe the story, and you are not to share it with others, because of concern that they will share it with the person about whom it is said and it will create a machlokes (Sefer Hasidim #64).
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Peah 1:1) relates the following: In the days of the evil king Achav, the Jews were victorious in their wars, notwithstanding that both idol worship and murder were, unfortunately, prevalent. The Gemara attributes this to the fact that they were extremely meticulous about avoiding loshon hora, as can be demonstrated from the fact that Ovadyah was a member of Achav’s household at the very same time that he was sustaining a hundred prophets who were hiding from Achav (Melachim I 18:13). Obviously, Ovadyah could not hide this information without many people knowing about it, yet Achav never found out. On the other hand, in the days of Shaul, when they were meticulous about refraining from idol worship, they lost the battle with the Pelishtim, because there was loshon hora among the Jews.
It has been said that one time, a yeshivah bochur came to the Chofetz Chayim, complaining that many times he had given long sermons in different communities, and he had as yet not noticed that he had achieved any success in drawing these people closer to the level of observance of mitzvos for which he was striving. The Chofetz Chayim answered that he disagrees with the bchur’s attitude. The midrash states that for every moment that someone keeps his mouth closed and is careful not to say anything that is prohibited, he merits a heavenly light in the next world that no angel or any other creature can even imagine what it accomplishes. This, noted the Chofetz Chayim, is the reward for being quiet for a few seconds, and perhaps even less. How much reward have you gained for yourself and for the people who are listening to you that for all the hours you have spoken, they have not said anything inappropriate? Do you have any idea how much reward you have brought to them and to yourself? (This story is quoted in the biography of the Chofetz Chayim – chayav upoalo, Volume I, page 77).