Lashon Hara: Gossip and Talking about Others

Jewish law goes well beyond secular law in this arena, and forbids the telling of a negative statement about another person, even if it is true.

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Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Values, published by Bell Tower.

While libel and slander, which involve the transmission of untrue statements, are universally regarded as immoral and generally illegal, most people regard a negative but true statement made about another as morally permissible.

Jewish law opposes this view. The fact that something is true doesn't mean it is anybody else's business. The Hebrew term for forbidden speech about others, lashon hara (literally, "bad tongue"), refers to any statement that is true but that lowers the status of the person about whom it is said. Thus, sharing with your friends the news that so-and-so eats like a pig, is sexually promiscuous, or is regarded by her co-workers as lazy, is forbidden, even if true.

lashon haraAdmittedly, this standard is sometimes difficult to observe: The Talmud itself concedes that virtually everyone will violate the laws of ethical speech at least once a day (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 64b-65a). Nonetheless, those who make an effort to practice these regulations will find that they soon start speaking about others in a far fairer manner.

When it comes to gossip, most of us routinely violate the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." For example, if you were about to enter a room and heard the people inside talking about you, what you probably would least like to hear them talking about are your character flaws or the intimate details of your social life. Yet, when we speak of others, these are the things we generally find most interesting to discuss.

There are times when it is permitted to relate detrimental information about another, but they are relatively rare. While the fact that something negative is true might serve as a defense against a chance of libel or slander in a court of law, it is an invalid defense against the charge that you have violated an important Jewish ethical law.

Why Refraining from Lashon Hara is an Important Challenge

I know a woman who loved shrimp. When she married a religiously observant Jew, she gave up eating this biblically forbidden shellfish, and became an observant Jew. Several years later she commented to her husband that she felt irreligious because she still craved shrimp. "On the contrary," he told her, "the fact that you want to eat shrimp, but refrain from doing do because it's prohibited, is proof of your religiosity. The rabbis teach that one should not say, 'I loathe eating pig,' but rather 'I do desire it, yet what can I do, since my Father in heaven has forbidden it?'" (Sifre Bemidbar, 20:26).

talk and gossip quizRabbi Abraham Twerski, a psychiatrist, wisely observes that this rabbinic dictum no longer applies to Jews who were raised in ritually observant households. For example, the woman's husband never expressed a desire to eat shrimp. Had he done so, he would probably have become nauseous. The prohibition against eating forbidden foods has become so internalized among observant Jews that refraining from such foods no longer requires any self-sacrifice.

But there is one commandment that almost all observant—and non-observant—Jews are tempted to violate: the ban against speaking lashon hara. Many otherwise observant Jews frequently violate this biblical prohibition. They would do well to update the rabbinic quote to read, "One should not say, 'I do not like to gossip,' but rather, 'I really enjoy talking about and listening to the intimate details of other people's lives, and discussing other people's character flaws, but what can I do, since my Heavenly Father has forbidden it?'"

Adopting this attitude will not only lead to a diminution in gossiping, it will also, as Twerski argues, offer a powerful lesson of true religiosity to one's children. He advocates cutting short a discussion at the dinner table because it is becoming gossipy, and explaining to your children that you are tempted to continue the discussion, but that such conversations are forbidden by God. By doing that, you can demonstrate to your children "by living example the negation of [your] will to that of a higher Authority. It may well be one of the few lessons they'll never forget."

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.