Some Applications of the Laws of Loshon Hora

This article consists of two original shaylos that I wrote in Hebrew. These teshuvos are in the process of being edited for the next volume of Shu”t Nimla Tal. Both teshuvos are germane to atypical questions I have been asked about the laws of loshon hora. The two questions were:

  1. A therapist requesting guidance concerning what she should or should not say about a couple that she had counseled through a divorce.
  2. Is it loshon hora to tell over something that the person himself is not embarrassed about and does in public? For example, when these is no reason for the other person to know (no to’eles), is it loshon hora to say that someone has extreme political positions that he himself espouses in public? Or, is it loshon hora to say that a woman does not dress according to halacha, when she appears in public this way?

The first responsum is to a question asked by a psychiatric social worker. A couple had become divorced from a marriage in which both parties were unstable. The social worker asking the shaylah, who I happen to know is an excellent therapist, was their marriage therapist. She feels that, although the husband and wife were both at fault for the dissolution of the marriage, the ex-wife is not currently a candidate for future marriage, whereas the ex-husband could handle a future marriage, but only with professional involvement (that is, marital therapy) from the very beginning of the marriage and perhaps even earlier. What may the therapist answer someone who asks her about these individuals for a future marriage? Both members of the former couple have given her authorization to speak freely.

What follows is an approximate rendition of the teshuvah.

Firstly, I want to clarify the ex-husband’s obligations to tell about his marital history to a future prospective mate or to a shadchan.

Until he is dating someone very seriously, he is not obligated to forewarn any woman whom he is dating about his previous difficulties and his need for pre-marital therapy. I advise that he tell a prospective bride after a certain number of dates, say three or four, at a point when the woman can evaluate fairly whether she wants to proceed. However, technically speaking, as long as he notifies her at a time that she can back out without creating a publicly embarrassing situation, he has not violated any halacha. In other words, he is not required to tell her until they are ready to become engaged.

Furthermore, he is under no obligation to tell a shadchan about any shortcomings.

In general, I would not recommend setting him up for a shidduch when it is fairly certain that the other party will back out of the shidduch upon hearing about his shortcomings and the necessity for marriage therapy. However, this is only if the shadchan happens to know about the background; as mentioned above, he is not obligated to tell a shadchan.

If the therapist is asked about his first marriage, she should say that what happened does not concern a different, new marriage. Regarding her assessment that, in a future marriage, the ex-husband should have counseling in advance, it is the ex-husband’s obligation to tell the other party, not the counselor’s. If the counselor is confident that he will follow instructions, both in terms of having therapy early in the relationship and in terms of his notifying the other party that this is necessary, she need not say anything. She is obligated to reveal this information only if she is concerned that the man will not tell.

Regarding the ex-wife, in the situation that happened, she was not emotionally prepared to consider dating for marriage, and therefore there was no issue for the therapist. Had the question been asked, I would have told the therapist that if the young woman is not suitable for marriage, yet is pursuing shidduchin anyway, the therapist is responsible to tell those who call her what she professionally feels. It might be better if she can couch the information in a way that is potentially less damaging for the woman. For example, if she is asked about someone specific, she could say that, from her knowing the woman so intimately through therapy, she does not think that this shidduch should be pursued – that the woman needs a different type of man.

She is not required to reveal any information if she could lose her license or get into legal trouble as a result. Instead, she should say that she cannot discuss the matter for professional reasons or any other answer that is legally acceptable. She should not say something that is not true.

I want to share that the answer to this shaylah may vary significantly depending on the circumstances. There are certainly situations in which I would rule differently. This teshuvah is being discussed here only for general direction, and each particular case must be asked specifically.

The second question:

Is it forbidden to tell someone that a person does not observe certain halachos when the person about whom one is talking is not embarrassed or concerned about others finding out their level of observance? For example, may someone who is from an irreligious background tell someone else how far his family is from observing mitzvos when the person being told has no reason to know? Similarly, is it permitted to mention that a woman dresses immodestly in public when obviously she has no concerns that people know?

There is some interesting background to this question. I know a prominent posek who considers these conversations to be prohibited. I have challenged him on the subject, and believe that they are permitted — subject to certain conditions, such as when revealing the information is not harmful to a third party. An example where this would not be permitted might be a case where revealing the information could be harmful to a grandchild, such as if acceptance to a school or a shidduch might be pre-empted because of the now-public knowledge of a grandparent’s lack of observance. This would be prohibited because the Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 7:5) states that it is loshon hora to say something that may cause harm to a third party, even when it does not reflect badly on him. (I am not judging whether the school or the potential shidduch policy is correct, or even whether it is halachically acceptable. Indeed, such school policy may be highly reprehensible. I am simply presenting the reality that an innocent party could be harmed because certain information is revealed.)

I have observed prominent poskim following the approach that it is permitted to say this without concerns for the prohibition of loshon hora. Furthermore, I contend that, according to the approach of the rav who rules that this is prohibited and considered loshon hora, someone who is opposed to Chassidim may not say that a person is chassidish; someone opposed to any form of Zionism is prohibited to refer to someone as Zionistic, notwithstanding that the person about whom he is talking is quite proud to be chassidish or Zionistic. The rav who disagrees with me indeed contends that these conversations constitute loshon hora if either the speaker or the listener considers this to be negative. I respectfully disagree and do not consider any of these conversations to be loshon hora.

I want to point out that the dispute here may be getting to a basic definition of what is the nature of the prohibition of loshon hora. It is quite clear from the Rambam’s ruling that the prohibition includes sharing information that may harm someone, even if it is inherently not negative about them. Thus, it is fair to say that the prohibition of loshon hora is the harm it brings upon the person about whom it is said.

In the classic situations of loshon hora, when one shares negative information about a third party that the person being told has no need to know, the loshon hora is the negative feeling about this third party that the listening party now knows. Prior to hearing the loshon hora, he was unaware of this damaging information.

Thus, the dispute between myself and the other rav concerns the following: When the person himself is not at all concerned about people knowing that they have unusual beliefs, or that they believe in something that other people disdain, or that they do not consider certain activities to be within the framework of what they are required to do, can there still be loshon hora to inform someone about this activity or belief. The other rav holds that the person’s being unaware that his approach is mistaken does not change the fact that saying over the information constitutes loshon hora. I believe that I can demonstrate that, should the information not be harmful to a third party, it is not loshon hora when the person himself acts this way in public.

Here is the edited responsum that I sent him:

The Gemara (Arachin 16) states, “Rabbah bar Rav Huna said: Anything stated in the presence of three people is not a violation of loshon hora. This is because your friend has a friend, and his friend has a friend.” Rashi explains the Gemara to mean that, once someone revealed information about himself in the presence of three people, it is not loshon hora to repeat this information to others because the revealer assumes that it will become common knowledge. By revealing it before three people, he has demonstrated that he is not concerned that others will find out. The listeners can assume that they have permission to share this information with others, which, had he not told it in the presence of three people, they would not be able to assume.

From this discussion we see that, once someone declares information about himself in public, he assumes that people will find out, and there is no longer any prohibition of loshon hora. Certainly, it follows that telling what someone does in public cannot involve any loshon hora.

However, a superficial reading of a passage of Gemara (Bava Metzia 58b) might lead one to the opposite conclusion. There the Gemara states that everyone whose misdeeds land him in Gehenna will ultimately be released, with the exception of three categories of sinners. One is someone who embarrasses his fellowman in public; another is someone who calls his fellowman by a derogatory nickname. The Gemara asks why we need two such similar categories – isn’t someone who calls his fellowman by a derogatory nickname simply a subcategory of one who embarrasses his fellowman in public? The Gemara answers that the second category includes a situation in which the person is commonly called in public by the derogatory nickname. Rashi explains that, notwithstanding the fact that he is accustomed to the nickname and is no longer embarrassed by it, someone who intends to embarrass him by calling him by this nickname will not be released from Gehenna.

From this we see that, if one intends to embarrass someone, it is prohibited to say something even when it is well known. However, the Gemara passage implies that it is prohibited only when you speak in his presence and your intention is to embarrass him. In the instance of a woman who does not dress according to halachic standard, or someone who holds unconventional positions, when the person is not present, we have no evidence that informing a third party is prohibited. Furthermore, the discussion in Bava Metzia is not concerned about loshon hora, but of embarrassing someone. Therefore, calling someone by a derogatory nickname is forbidden because the person may be embarrassed. However, when someone is proud of what he is doing, even when the action is wrong according to halacha, there is no violation of loshon hora and presumably no violation of embarrassing them. This is even more so true when it is unclear whether the action is wrong.

Thus, we can reach the following conclusion: If one is trying to embarrass a woman who dresses improperly, it is forbidden to reprove her in public for her inappropriate attire. However, there is no prohibition in mentioning to a third party, when the woman is not present, that she dresses inappropriately, provided one does not exaggerate what she does wrong. Exaggerating would certainly be prohibited because one is spreading untruth about what she does.

Can we demonstrate from the story of Miriam that it is prohibited to say something truthful about a third party, regardless of their concern? After all, Miriam was punished for saying loshon hora about Moshe despite the fact that he was not concerned. She thought she was doing the correct thing, since she was convinced that Moshe was in error. The answer appears to be that what she did was loshon hora precisely because she was wrong. In other words, she thought she was planning an appropriate admonition of Moshe for his wrong activity, but since his actions were correct and she was wrong, this constituted loshon hora, even though her violation was beshogeig, inadvertent.

Thus, when the information qualifies as loshon hora, the prohibition is violated even if one did not realize that it is loshon hora. However, if the party himself acts or speaks in a way that the derogatory information is public knowledge, it is permitted to say it, provided one is not intending to embarrass anyone.

The rav who disputed with me feels that, if indeed the information is negative, even if the person himself does not consider it to be so, this may constitute loshon hora.

We are both in agreement that if the speaker said negative things about himself that might harm relatives or others, it is prohibited to repeat these negative things, as per the above-quoted Rambam.

 

 

Shidduchim and Lashon Hara

cell phone in handThis week’s parsha teaches about Miriam speaking loshon hora about her brother, thus providing an opportunity to discuss the questions about Shidduchim and Loshon Hora.

How should one ask and answer shidduch-related questions?

Question #1: “Someone called me inquiring about a neighbor for shidduchim purposes. From years of dealing with this boy, I know that his midos could use some polishing. What should I say?”

Question #2: Yaakov* calls to find out about a neighborhood girl, Rochel. She is one of the most wonderful people walking the face of the earth, and you would love to see her happily married; Yaakov sounds like a real mensch. However, her father, Mr. Weiss, is one of the most dishonest people you have ever met. Do you say anything to Yaakov about Rochel’s father?

* All stories in this article are actual situations, but the names have been changed.

Deciding what information to share about shidduchim often requires the wisdom of Solomon and the halachic prowess of Rav Moshe Feinstein. On the one hand, we want to assist people to find their proper zivug, while at the same time, we need to avoid transgressing any laws of speech, and imparting information that harms someone constitutes loshon hora (Rambam, Hilchos Dei’os 7:5). This is true, even if the information does not imply that he/she did anything wrong, such as mentioning that someone is in debt. While there is nothing evil about owing money, it is loshon hora to share this information, since the debtor may now find it difficult to borrow a necessary business loan, or have difficulty finding a partner for a commercial endeavor (Chofetz Chayim, end of Hilchos Rechilus, tziyur 2).

Similarly, telling people that one store tends to be expensive often involves the prohibition of loshon hora (Nesiv Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus, 9:8). A storekeeper is permitted to charge a little more than his competitor does, simply because his overhead costs are greater. Therefore, I may be affecting his halachically-permitted livelihood when I report to others that they can get a better deal elsewhere. Although my motivation to save someone money is noble, it is misplaced to do so at the expense of the other Jew, who needs to make a living. (There are circumstances when I may tell someone that he/she can get a better deal elsewhere, such as when the person I am advising is a family member or close friend, or the overcharge is unreasonable; I will need to discuss this subject at a different time.)

If someone asks me for advice, I am required to advise him/her to the best of my ability (Rambam, Hil. Rotzei’ach 12:14; Shaarei Teshuvah 3:54). Providing good advice fulfills two different mitzvahs: First, it is a positive implementation of the mitzvah of lifnei iveir, not to place a stumbling block before the blind. Just as the Torah prohibits giving bad advice and terms it misleading someone who is “blind” in this matter, providing good advice fulfills this mitzvah, since I am helping someone in a matter in which he lacks clarity (see Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #299). In addition, providing good advice fulfills the mitzvah of ve’ahavta le’rei’acha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.

Translating these issues as they relate to shidduchim, someone who shares information inappropriately and nixes a potentially good shidduch could violate the laws of loshon hora, because it causes someone harm. On the other hand, providing accurate and appropriate information about shidduchim fulfills the mitzvahs of giving good advice, and covering up negative information that one should tell may violate lo saamod al dam rei’echa, Do not stand by idly when your neighbor is endangered (Vayikra 19:16). Furthermore, not only is it permitted to investigate a potential shidduch, but one is required to research the background of the potential partner to ascertain that he/she has no issues that could disrupt married life (see Rabbeinu Yonah, Avos 1:7; Chofetz Chayim, Hil. Loshon Hora 4:11, based on Rashi to Shavuos 39b). Thus, I fulfill a third mitzvah by providing halachically appropriate information for a potential shidduch, since I am assisting someone to perform his or her necessary research.

So, when may I provide negative information, and when may I not? Answering shidduch inquiries is a difficult balancing act. One is responsible to see that someone entertaining making a shidduch has all the information that he or she needs, while, on the other hand, one must be careful not to provide superfluous negative information.

The answers to these questions vary according to circumstances and this article does not substitute for asking a rav a specific shaylah. Nevertheless, it will provide basic guidelines. As a starting point, we need to clarify several important details:

  1. Do you know the parties involved? Do you know whether this is an appropriate shidduch for this person?
  2. Would everyone consider the negative information to be important, or would it depend on the individual?

III. Do you know the caller? Do you know what his/her standards are?

Let us analyze these possibilities and see how the halacha applies in each situation. Again, the major rule is: Am I supplying information that they will use to decide whether to pursue this shidduch, or am I supplying negative information that has no purpose?

NO TACHLIS

Do you know whether this is an appropriate shidduch?

Consider the following case:

Leah’s parents, who are looking for a working man, ask you about Levi, who wants to study in kollel for several years. Before sharing any personal information, first find out whether this shidduch would be considered by both sides. Otherwise, one may be sharing loshon hora without any purpose, since the shidduch is, in any case, out of the question. Instead of giving information, simply point out that their life plans are very different. If the two sides want to consider the shidduch anyway, then proceed by providing important information, even if it is potentially negative, as I will explain.

The same is true if the two families would not be interested in a match because of radically different family backgrounds, styles of Yiddishkeit, or age.

Example: You are called to provide information about a neighbor, a fine family, but with some negatives. Before providing this information, first see if the shidduch makes sense: For example, if the caller is looking only for a litvisha family, and the neighbor is chassidish and would only entertain a chassidisha shidduch, then the shidduch would not be considered anyway, and you have told loshon hora without any purpose.

HIGHLY NEGATIVE FACTS

When the negative information will certainly cause the other party to reject this shidduch, it is better to simply convince the caller that the match is inappropriate, without being more specific. This is a situation in which one should perhaps be vague and say that you just do not think the shidduch will work. Many specific cases require further rabbinic guidance to clarify whether or not one is required to reveal the information.

If you cannot derail the shidduch without being specific, and you are aware of negative information that would concern most people, then you must reveal it, because of the halacha of lo saamod al dam rei’echa. Examples of such situations include: knowledge that someone cannot have children (Shu’t Tzitz Eliezer 16:4), of a medical condition that would concern most people, or of a history of violent behavior. This information can and should be shared. Similarly, one must reveal information about someone whose observance level is not what it is purported to be (see Sefer Chassidim #507; Shu’t Panim Meiros 1:35).

When the halacha requires or permits revealing negative information, several other factors must be kept in mind. One should share only information that one knows first-hand and not repeat what one has heard from others. (If one has strong evidence of a serious problem, one can suggest that they contact someone who has first-hand knowledge of the situation.) In addition, one must be careful not to exaggerate. Furthermore, one’s sole purpose in sharing the information must be out of motivation to advise the inquirers and not because one is angry or dislikes the person. In addition, one should only say the negatives if there is no other way to accomplish what one needs to (Chofetz Chayim, Hilchos Loshon Hora 10:2).

WHAT NOT TO TELL

Must one reveal every liability? No! The Chofetz Chayim distinguishes between someone who is ill and someone who is weak; the former being information one should reveal and the latter being information that one should not (Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:8). Contemporary authors discuss which medical conditions are concerned “illnesses” or merely “weaknesses.” For example, poskim consider diabetes to be an illness, whereas hay fever would usually qualify as a “weakness.”

In an article entitled May I Keep my Skeletons in the Closet (available on RabbiKaganoff.com) I noted that someone considering a shidduch is required to reveal his having a serious medical issue, but does not need to do so before the two parties have become well acquainted. He certainly has no requirement to tell a shadchan. A third party being asked may also be governed by the same rules and should discuss this question and its details with a halachic authority.

KNOW NOTHING

At this stage, let us examine the first question I raised above: “Someone called me inquiring about a neighbor for shidduchim purposes. From years of dealing with this boy, I know that his midos could use some polishing. What should I say?”

Let us assume you receive a cold call inquiring about a neighbor about whom you have both positive and negative information and observations. In most instances, the liabilities one knows about a neighbor are relative: Even if you know that he has a temper that makes you uncomfortable, or that he is not particularly reliable or punctual, you have no idea what the standards of the caller or the party for whom he is researching are concerning these issues. Before sharing information, you need to know the standards of the caller. If you do not know the person who is calling, and are unable to quickly ascertain their standards, you should say only positive things about the neighbor.

A neighbor’s unbecoming details may be detrimental to one person and advantageous to another. It might indeed be that the caller or the potential bashert would consider your neighbor to be very reliable or would not be concerned about the degree of anger that your neighbor possesses. You might be nixing what could have been a potentially good shidduch. Therefore, if the neighbor does not have an anger problem that would alarm anyone considering a shidduch with him, one should not reveal this information without knowing the calling party. After all, it may be that your neighbor is a very appropriate shidduch choice for the caller.

An example is in order: Zahavah follows an approach to tzniyus that is common in many frum circles, but does not conform to how Sheina thinks one should dress. If someone Sheina does not know asks her about Zahavah, she should refrain from commenting on Zahavah’s mode of dress. If the caller asks her directly whether Zahavah dresses tzniyusly, Sheina should answer that she does, since she has no idea what the caller means by that question.

I personally know of a proposed shidduch where the couple did not meet because someone did not know this halacha. Daniella told the caller that she felt her former classmate’s standard was not that of a model Beis Yaakov girl. Although the classmate’s dress code did not meet Daniella’s, it was probably adequate for the family and young man who asked. However, because of the answer they received, the family assumed that the girl’s standards were way below theirs and would not consider the shidduch, notwithstanding that the standards on both sides were the same. To the best of my knowledge, both parties are still single, and several people who know both of them feel that their personalities are unusually well suited. However, his family will not consider this girl for their yarei shamayim son, and no one can convince them otherwise. As the expression goes, you do not get a second chance to make a first impression.

In this instance, Daniella violated the laws of both loshon hora and of motzi shem ra, relating disparaging, false information. She violated loshon hora, because she supplied unnecessary information that is harmful to the other person, and motzi shem ra because they were left with a false, negative impression.

A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE

All of this changes if the caller clarifies what standard of tzniyus she meant in her question, and it is a standard that Zahavah or the classmate does not follow. In this instance, the question should be answered fully and correctly, since one now comprehends clearly what the caller meant.

DOES HE “KNOW HOW TO LEARN?”

Similarly, if someone you do not know asks whether a person you are acquainted with “knows how to learn,” you should answer affirmatively, unless the person has little or no learning background. The rule here is, does he have enough learning background that someone would say that he “knows how to learn”? As long as he meets this minimal standard, one should answer affirmatively, until one knows what the caller’s definition and frame of reference is.

SELF-DEPRECATING

There is one other situation where personal or potentially negative information can be told: one may relate any information that you have heard the person say about himself or herself in public (Rashi, Arachin 16a). Similarly, it is permitted to relate something about a person that he/she does publicly. Thus, one may tell whether someone dresses stylishly or not, or that someone does or does not wear a hat when walking through the street. In all of these instances, one’s motivation should be pure – that is, simply to clarify to the person whether this is an appropriate shidduch or not.

A very common case is someone who is not of an observant background. If the person freely says in public that he/she is a baal teshuvah or of a non-observant family, one may tell a potential shidduch this information. However, if the information is not readily known, in most situations, one should not reveal this information.

HOW TO ASK

At this point, it is appropriate to explain how to ask about shidduch information when you need to call someone that you do not know. First, tell the other person who you are and for what type of person you are inquiring, before asking them for specific information. This way, the other party has some background to understand the context of the questions. Usually, the more specific your questions, the more accurately the other person will understand your standards and thereby be able to provide the information you seek.

KABBALAS LOSHON HORA

It is important to realize that although one may ask whatever is needed  about a potential shidduch, and may decide to pass up a shidduch based on the information received, one should not assume that any negative information received is absolutely true. The halacha of kabbalas loshon hora, accepting loshon hora, requires one to assume that there may have been a misunderstanding, or to interpret some other justification for the person’s actions or attributes.

As mentioned earlier, answering shidduch inquiries is a difficult balancing act. We should all daven for Hashem’s help to fulfill this tremendous mitzvah correctly and to be able to assist those who need shidduchim to swiftly find their bashert.