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?

Some might argue that since you do not know for a fact that the negative details you have heard are true, you should say nothing. Others, myself included, feel that saying nothing does not seem morally right. After all, does your lack of definitive knowledge require you to stand by and wait for your friend to lose money, or to become a victim of malpractice?

There is an intermediate moral position, one that neither permits the random spreading of rumors nor categorically forbids passing on rumors you don’t definitively know to be true: to warn your friend of what you have heard, but not claim that what you are telling him or her is established fact. For example, in the case of the money manager, say to your friend something like this: “Before you invest money with so-and-so, make sure that you check with several others who’ve invested with him. I’ve heard his track record is spotty. I don’t know this for a fact, but it would be naïve to dismiss out of hand what one has heard people say.”

By emphasizing that what you have heard is hearsay, and that your friend should first investigate the matter, you protect the potential investor while avoiding, to the extent possible, damaging the reputation of the person being discussed.

Professor Michael Berger, who is also an ordained rabbi, is not fully comfortable with the solution I’ve proposed: “In my view, making the sort of comment you suggest is appropriate only if the other person will do due diligence and check out the person. But if your friend’s reaction to your ‘warning’ is ‘I don’t need this headache,’ and just dumps the person, then, if you have heard these rumors from a possible slanderer, [to choose one example] you become complicit in ruining the financial manager’s livelihood. It seems to me that the right thing to do is to insist that your friend check the person out because it’s the prudent thing to do--and not because of something you have heard.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that even when it comes to passing on a rumor, there is an ethical--and an unethical--way to act.

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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.