The Hafetz Hayyim

One of the most influential Jewish religious figures of the twentieth century established his reputation first and foremost as an opponent of lashon hara, evil speech.

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As noted, the Hafetz Hayyim’s first work on the laws of slander and malicious gossip has the title by which he became subsequently known. He was, it seems, led to compile the work because he had witnessed fierce quarrels in Lithuanian Jewry that caused communities to be torn apart. The novelty in the work consists in an attempt to provide detailed rules on when and where not to speak, a subject that had hitherto been confined to the moralistic literature. Critics of the work argued that it was a mistake to apply the rigidities of the halakhah [Jewish law] to a subject that should really be treated under the heading of aggadah [thinking and writing in a non-legal, even imaginative mode] with its more flexible approach. There is substance in the criticism yet the work proved to be a very useful guide in this sphere. A critic from the ranks of the Haskalah, on the other hand, protested that the work seemed to be saying that the only thing for a Jew to do was never to speak at all. Such a criticism in grossly unfair, though it must be admitted that the Hafetz Hayyim comes down strongly even against the pleasure of harmless gossip. All gossip is harmful, the sage maintains. For all that, the work demonstrates from the rabbinic sources that it is permitted to speak ill of persons when to remain silent will result in harm to others. For instance, if it is notices that a naïve person is about to enter into partnership with a man one knows to be a rogue, it is one’s duty to tell the truth to avoid advantage being taken of the innocent. Presumably, the Hafetz Hayyim would not have disapproved of investigative journalism of the right kind.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.