Rumors: When and How Is It Appropriate to Pass One On?

The Jewish tradition sets a very high bar for considering a rumor worthy of being transmitted.

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

While all moral people would agree that spreading a malicious and untrue story about another person is vile, almost every [one of us], including me, has done so—most, many times. When? When we routinely pass on rumors. 

Most rumors are not positive and complimentary. (“Hey, did you hear that so-and-so is really a wonderful person?”). Rather, many, if not most, rumors are negative and often untrue as well. If you pass on a rumor that turns out to be both (“I heard that Michael was fired from his last job because he was caught embezzling”), you have helped cause serious damage to another person’s reputation, and inflicted possibly irrevocable damage. Jewish law categorizes such behavior as motzi shem ra (giving another [literally “spreading”] a bad name), and regards it as a particularly vicious offense.

People who transmit reputation-destroying rumors often defend themselves by claiming, “But I didn’t do it on purpose. When I spread the rumor, I thought it was true.” Such a defense is analogous to a drunk driver who has caused a fatal accident saying, “But I didn’t intend to kill anyone.” Of course he or she didn’t, but so what? That a person was killed because of negligence, and not on purpose, is scant consolation to the victim’s family. Similarly, the fact that the person who passes on an ugly rumor thinks that it is true in no way minimizes the harm inflicted on the rumor’s object.

Therefore, how careful should we be to verify a rumor’s truthfulness before we transmit it as fact? The Talmud suggests the following guideline: “If the information is as clear to you as the fact that your sister is forbidden to you as a sexual mate, [only] then say it” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 145b).

How hard is it to comply with such a standard? Very; the one consolation is that offered by the sage Ben Sira: “Have you heard something? Let it die with you. Be strong; it will not burst you” (Apocrypha, Ben Sira 19:10).

gossiping teenagers

But is such a standard too restrictive? For example, what if a friend tells you that he is going to invest money with someone whom you have heard  has a poor track record as a financial manager? Or if you have heard that your friend’s job is at risk? Or if you learn that an acquaintance is consulting a physician whom you have heard is incompetent?

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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.