Regarding Parshas Balak and the attempts to discredit the Jewish people, we present:
May I Dangle the Receiver?
Hearing is Not Believing, and other Loshon Hora Questions.
Question #1: “Two of my neighbors are in a tiff, and I have a good relationship with both of them. Should I get involved to try to make peace, knowing that both sides will tell me their version of the story?”
Question #2: “Someone told me that one who believes loshon hora (disparaging things about people) does more harm to himself than does the one who spoke the loshon hora! How can this be?”
Question #3: Leora* asked me the following question:
(*All names in this article have been changed.)
“Some of my contacts are not so careful about saying loshon hora. Is it sufficient that I hold the receiver at a distance when they begin to tell me things that I do not want to hear?”
I asked Leora if she could think of other options, and she explained, “It is uncomfortable to tell people that they are violating halacha or to ask them not to gossip. I can create an excuse to end the conversation, such as, ‘the baby is crying’ or some similar emergency. But I would rather not do this, unless I must.”
Leora’s method of being careful to avoid hearing loshon hora, as a halachically observant person must be, is indeed accomplishing its purpose. The question is whether she must do more than this, since the speaker thinks that Leora is still listening. Later, I will explain why this may be problematic, and whether it is sufficient for Leora to simply “dangle the receiver.”
We all know that telling or receiving disparaging information about members of Klal Yisrael is a Torah violation. “We are commanded not to accept loshon hora as true and not to look negatively upon the person about whom the story was told” (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:213). We should bear in mind that loshon hora is prohibited, even if it is absolutely true.
Exactly what is the prohibition of believing or accepting loshon hora? Before we answer this question, we need to define loshon hora. Two types of derogatory information are included in loshon hora:
I. Loshon hora is information that reflects poorly on someone, creating an unjustified bad impression of him or her. For example, relating that someone once violated certain commandments of committed sins disparages his reputation and constitutes loshon hora (Chofeitz Chayim 4:1).
II. Another category of loshon hora is relating information that might harm someone, even though it is not at all derogatory (Rambam, Hilchos Dei’os 7:5). For example, although it is not offensive to say that someone is in debt, there are many situations where this information could cause harm. Similarly, informing a person that someone has a wayward aunt is loshon hora, if this might result in disqualifying the person for a shidduch as a consequence (see Taz, Even Ha’ezer, 50:8).
DEFINING KABBALAS LOSHON HORA
What should you do if you hear a story that reflects badly on someone?
Before I explain what to do in this situation, we should explain the two types of ill-doing involved when receiving derogatory information.
I. Believing (kabbalas) loshon hora.
II. Hearing loshon hora.
I. BELIEVING LOSHON HORA
The first prohibition against accepting loshon hora is that it results in one’s now having a less favorable impression of a fellow Jew. The fact that the information may be true and he may have transgressed does not allow me to think less of him, and therefore, I may not accept the report of his having sinned as fact (Zera Chayim pg 361, in explanation of opinion of Yad Ha’ketanah). For this reason, if I deny that the story is true, I have not accepted loshon hora, and I did not violate kabbalas loshon hora.
HEARING JUICY GOSSIP
What do I do if I hear some juicy chitchat?
If you hear some gossip, just completely disavow your accepting that the story is true. Remember that most stories that one hears are distorted, so it should take no great effort to simply deny the story’s accuracy.
If you find it difficult to doubt the story completely, re-interpret it in a way that it casts the person in a favorable light. For example, perhaps he/she thought that the act committed was halachically acceptable, or perhaps the reported event was misunderstood or only partially observed (see Be’er Mayim Chayim 6:1). For example, if you heard that someone grabbed a child, perhaps he was pulling the child away from danger. If you heard that someone argued with his father, perhaps he was trying to convince him to take needed medication.
REINTERPRETING THE STORY
Here is an example of how to reinterpret a story: Sharon tells you that Michal treated her rudely. You know that Michal is a quiet person; on top of that, perhaps Michal was distracted or under stress and was therefore even less exuberant than usual. Sharon, whom you know is sensitive, may have misinterpreted Michal’s lack of cheerfulness as rudeness. This interpretation of events will add no negative understanding to what you already know firsthand about both of them. The result is that the reinterpreted story does not place either person in a bad light and is therefore not loshon hora.
In this example, convincing Sharon that Michal was not being rude would be a big mitzvah.
By the way, one may listen to each side of a dispute relate his/her negative impressions of the disputant in order to calm down the quarrel (Chofeitz Chayim, 6:4). Here, too, one may not accept either story as accurate, but one should, in one’s own mind, reinterpret the events, so that they do not reflect badly on the parties involved.
For example, you are aware of a situation in which siblings are in a dispute concerning how to allocate resources to care for their elderly mother. While resolving this conflict, your goal is to appreciate the merit of each side’s approach and convince the other side that, although they might disagree, no one bears any ill will. Even if you cannot convince them of this, you should certainly not accept that either side means any wrong, unless you have solid evidence to the contrary (Shabbos 56a; Hagahos Maimoniyos, Dei’os 7:4).
CALMING A FIGHT
Two of your neighbors are in a big tiff. According to Reuven and Rochel, the upstairs kids are totally undisciplined and boisterous, making a racket that ruins Rochel’s life. Levi and Leah upstairs, however, have a different story. Their kids are extremely well disciplined and obedient, but Rochel is excessively sensitive to noise and cannot tolerate even the normal sliding of a chair under the dinner table. Since you have a good relationship with both parties and may be able to resolve the squabble, you may listen to each side’s complaints about the other, being careful not to believe them. It may, indeed, be true that Rochel is highly sensitive, and it may also be true that Levi and Leah do not control their kids as much as they should. Your job is to make shalom between them, not to accept whichever interpretation of events is true.
One violates the prohibition against accepting loshon hora when one’s impression of any party is disparaged without adequate evidence. In all the above instances, if one’s positive impression of the people involved remains intact, despite all that one heard, one has successfully avoided accepting loshon hora. (There are exceptions when one may accept what one heard as true, but these are beyond the scope of this article.)
With this background, we can now answer Question #1 above:
“Two of my neighbors are in a tiff, and I have a good relationship with both of them. Should I get involved to try to make peace, knowing that both sides will tell me their version of the story?” The answer is that you should get involved, but be careful not to accept anyone’s account as an accurate portrayal of the misdeeds of his/her neighbor.
LOSHON HORA ABOUT A CHILD
There is an interesting halachic difference between these two categories of loshon hora. The first category, relating that someone did something improper, does not apply to the transgressions or faults of a child. Since a minor’s immaturity exempts him from responsibility, it is usually not loshon hora to discuss his misdeeds or capers. Therefore, it is permitted to mention that a child did something mischievous, since this action does not reflect negatively on him (see Chofeitz Chayim 8:3 and Be’er Mayim Chayim ad loc.). [Some poskim contend that, if the child would be embarrassed by someone reporting what he did, or his activity was not considered age-appropriate, then repeating this information is prohibited as loshon hora (Shevilei Chayim 8:4; Shu’t Lechafeitz Bachayim #29). On the other hand, I once read a psak of Rav Chayim Kanievsky shlit’a contending that, as long as the story is not harmful to the child’s interests, there is no loshon hora about his antics since he is not yet required to observe mitzvos.]
However, when the information could ultimately prove harmful to the child, one may not share it (Chofeitz Chayim 8:3). For example, if a school might refuse to accept a child based on his family background, it is loshon hora to provide the school with this information. Similarly, people smile when told that a young man drew on the wall when he was three years old, but they might assume that he is psychologically unhealthy if they hear that he had violent fits of rage at age 12½.
II. HEARING LOSHON HORA
Until now, we discussed some basic halachos of accepting loshon hora. In addition to the prohibition of believing loshon hora, it is also prohibited to hear negative things about someone when there is no need. It is insufficient to simply not believe what one heard; one must avoid hearing it.
WHAT DO I DO IF SOMEONE BEGINS TO GOSSIP?
How far must one go to avoid hearing loshon hora?
The Gemara (Kesubos 5b) homiletically interprets a verse as saying, “there should be pegs [i.e., your fingers, which are shaped like pegs] inside your ears,” meaning, if you sense that someone is about to tell you something inappropriate, you should place your fingers on your ears to avoid hearing it. In other words, one must not only be careful to avoid loshon hora but must even do something unusual if that is the only way to avoid hearing it. Thus if you are among a group of people and one of them begins to say loshon hora, you should leave immediately. If you are on the phone, and the other party begins saying loshon hora, you should quickly say, “An emergency just came up; I’ll have to call you back later,” and abruptly hang up the receiver. Of course, in this last case, you told the whole truth: an emergency did indeed come up, since the other party began saying loshon hora!
What if one is unable to leave and avoid hearing gossip? The Gemara states that one must even place one’s hands over one’s ears to shun loshon hora! Nevertheless, the Chofeitz Chayim (6:5) notes that, although this is the proper thing to do, many people may find it too embarrassing to sit this way and have people mock them. Under these circumstances, the Chofeitz Chayim rules that one should be careful not to believe the stories being told, and be careful not to want to hear them. It is preferable that one demonstrate his disapproval, at least with his facial expression (Chofeitz Chayim, 6:5).
Rabbeinu Yonah implies that one should demonstrate to the speaker that he does not want to hear the loshon hora. Showing a total lack of interest in the conversation discourages the speaker from saying loshon hora.
We now understand Leora’s original question. She does not want to listen to the gossip she is being told. The question is: to what extent must she demonstrate that she does not want to hear loshon hora? Although dangling the receiver prevents Leora from hearing the gossip, it does not demonstrate disapproval to the speaker. Whereas listeners who are visible to the speaker can actually show disinterest, the speaker here may think that she has an avid listener; thus, perhaps Leora should put an active end to the conversation. Even though the speaker is not saying loshon hora to anyone, as there is no listener, the speaker nevertheless thinks that he or she is sinning. Someone who thought he was doing something forbidden but ended up doing something permitted needs forgiveness and atonement (Kiddushin 81b; Nazir 23a). The Gemara’s example of this is someone who wanted to eat something non-kosher, but inadvertently ate kosher. The unsuccessful intent to violate the halacha is itself a Torah prohibition.
As a result, although by dangling the receiver Leora is not hearing loshon hora, she has not prevented the person from thinking that loshon hora has been spoken, either, a sin for which she will require atonement. Therefore I told Leora that it would be better to terminate the conversation by saying, for example, “something just came up, I’ll call you back later!” This prevents the talker from violating any prohibition.
WHO IS WORSE?
After all we have discussed here, I can now explain the Rambam’s statement (Hilchos Dei’os 7:3) that one who believes loshon hora inflicts more self-harm than the speaker! Why should this be?
The reason is that the basic purpose of forbidding loshon hora is to avoid harming a Jew’s reputation. Who is the greater maligner, one who spreads information that he knows to be true, or one who believes an unsubstantiated story? Certainly, the one who accepts an unsubstantiated report that degrades someone denigrates kedushas Yisrael to a greater degree (see Nesiv Chayim 6:3).
Rav Chayim Pinchas Scheinberg zt”l noted that when people repeat the pasuk, mi ha’ish he’chafeitz chayim oheiv yamim lir’os tov, “Who is the man who wants life, loves his days to see only good,” they often pay little attention to the concluding words, liros tov, “to see good,” even though these words are the key to success in this mitzvah. If you view everyone with a good eye, you will be unable to believe derogatory information about them. As Rav Pam once said, “My mother was incapable of saying or accepting loshon hora; not simply because of her yiras shamayim, but because of her appreciation of what Jews are!” May we all reach the level of seeing the good and really appreciating our fellow Jews!