Lashon Hara

By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © August 20,2014 (updated July 10, 2019)

Lashon hara may be the most serious sin most people have never heard of!
What is Lashon hara?

One of our greatest authorities on the subject is the Chofetz Chaim (i.e. Rabbi Israel Meir haKohen Kagan -- 1838 - 1933). In his monumental work Sefer Chofetz Chaim (for which he is named) he defines lashon hara this way (emphasis mine):
Lashon hara (lit., evil talk) is defined as information which is either derogatory or potentially harmful to another individual. A derogatory statement about someone is lashon hara, even if will definitively not cause that person any harm. To focus on the shortcomings of another person is in itself wrong.
A statement that could potentially bring harm to someone -- be it financial, physical, psychological or otherwise -- is lashon hara, even if the information is not negative.
(It should be noted that the term lashon hara refers even to true statements which are derogatory or harmful. Negative statements that are untrue or inaccurate are properly termed hotzaas shem ra [i.e. slander] -- Sefer Chofetz Chaim page 50.
Lashon hara (Ashkenazi: Lashon hora) then is 'negative talk'. All 'negativity' arises from the yetzer hara, the negative or selfish impulse. One whose consciousness is negative will inevitably commit lashon hara on a regular basis. Conversely, one whose consciousness abides within the yetzer tov, the positive or selfless impulse is protected from committing this dire sin. One who is wise shuns the yetzer hara and clings to the yetzer tov. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov offers the following insight on avoiding lashon hara:
Never let a word of wickedness leave your mouth. Don't ever say you will be wicked or commit a sin, even if you mean it as a joke and have no intention of carrying out your words.
The words themselves can be very damaging. They can compel you to fulfill them even though you did not mean them seriously.
This was what caused King Jehu's downfall, because he said, "Ahab served Baal a little, but Jehu will serve him very much" (II Kings 10:18). When King Jehu said these words, he had no intention of committing idolatry. He said them only to trick the Baal worshipers, as explained in the following verse. Yet these words were his downfall, because he later came to commit idolatry.
From this the Talmud learns that "a covenant is made with the lips" (Sanhedrin 102a). You should therefore be very careful about what you say -- Sichot Haran #237
Lashon hara begins within the heart but it takes birth through the lips.

The application of this wisdom is discussed in depth in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch in chapter 30. There we come to understand the consciousness behind lashon hara. The sin begins within the consciousness when it gives way to the yetzer hara: to greed, self doubt, a judgemental spirit. As explained by the Chofetz Chaim, lashon hara arises from the yetzer hara. From this source comes gossip, slander, revenge, the holding of grudges and so many other negative sins. These actions, and the consciousness behind them, are destructive both to oneself and to others. Carefully avoiding this consciousness, as Rebbe Nachman encourages, is the purpose of the various prohibitions on negative speech. With emunah one percieves th Light within each seemingly negative The consciousness of the tzadikim (saintly persons) are always bathed in the qualities of goodness. This is the quality our sages encourage us to develop.

Some people take this law to unhealthy extremes and fear being open in their communications.

Balance is so important! In human relationships there are bound to be differences of opinion, differences in the level and interpretation of Torah observance. HaShem established immense diversity throughout the creation. We are all created as unique individuals with diverse strengths, weaknesses, and viewpoints. Rather than being critical of others who differ in their views and practices, which arises from the yetzer hara and leads to lashon hara, one does well to embrace diversity within the confines of Torah and personal humility. As Rav Kook of blessed memory said:

"Since there are enough people practicing rejection, I prefer to fill the role of one who embraces"

Let us embrace people! Love everyone! Seek to understand them as unique individuals despite the areas where we differ. In doing so you will find far more unity that you expect!

Live your life fully! Question, debate, have opinions and share them with others openly and always with respect. Listen to other people just as openly. Each person has truth to share.

Know that HaShem has not made anyone else in all of creation quite like you! Find your goodness and Be YOU!

You must search for the good in yourself.

When you start looking deep within yourself, you may think there is no good in you at all. You may feel you are full of evil: a negative voice inside you may try to drive you into depression. But you must not allow yourself to fall into depression. Search until you find some little good in you. For how could it be that you never did anything good in your whole life?...
You must search and search until you find some good point within you to give you new life and happiness. When you discover the good that is still inside you, you literally swing the scales from guilt to merit. This will enable you to return to God. The good you find inside you will give you new life and bring joy to your soul.

Having found one good point, you must continue searching until you find another. Even if you think this good point is also full of flaws, you must still search for some good in it. In the same way, you must continue finding more and more good points...

But finding your good points can give you new life. Even if you know you have done wrong and caused damage and that you are far from God, you must search until you find the good that is still inside you. This will give you new life and make you truly happy. You are certainly entitled to feel the greatest joy over every good point you find in yourself, because each good point comes from the holy soul within you. The new life and joy you will gain from this path will enable you to pray, sing and give thanks to God.
        -- Likutey Moharan I, 282

This wisdom is part of our heritage! Rabbi Hillel said:

"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."
        —Talmud, Shabbat 31a
Find the good in yourself and find the good in others. Then you wont commit this grievous offense.

Avoid talk that stems from the negative impulse within you. Seek the good and never defame another person, even if they are at fault. At the same time, speak openly with them with respect and candor. Lashon hara arises from a negative consciousness. That's the point. That's the thing to avoid. As Rebbe Nachman teaches us:

Man's mind is his very essence. Wherever your thoughts are, that is where you are - all of you.
This is why it is so important to avoid all evil thoughts, because otherwise that is where your place will be.
You must force yourself to think good thoughts in order to be worthy of knowing God. Then your place will be with Him and you will be merged with Him. The greater your perception of God, the more fully merged with Him you will become, and then you will attain eternal life -- Likutey Moharan I, 21

"You are not Jewish!" "Prove you are Jewish!"

This is a very common form of lashon hara today! It is also a very problematic one. Who is and is not a Jew is a very important question for the survival of our people! In my study "Who is a Jew" I go into some of the details however these details must be balanced. Yes, there are long established rules, for example Jews are either born through a maternally Jewish lineage or else they formally convert through a recognized halachichally charged court (known as a beit din).

The potential for lashon hara comes when a Jew seeks to affirm or reject the Jewishness of another person. The question, "Are you Jewish," is different from the charge, "Prove you are Jewish!" For example, some Jews go into the public for keruv or Jewish outreach purposes. They approach people with the question "Are you Jewish?" If the answer is no they are wished a nice day. If the answer is yes they are asked, "Have you laid tefillin (phylacteries) today?" If not, they are invited to do so. This is a holy outreach, a righteous action. But those who challenge others are a problem. Should the outreach person ask the question, receive an affirmative, "yes, I am Jewish," and proceed to question the answer, that would border on lashon hara.

Who has the Halachic right and need to ask for confirmation of ones Jewishness? In most cases no one has this right. If someone comes to a rabbi or other Torah teacher for instruction, especially in areas that are reserved for the Jews ("Will you teach me how to lay tefillin?," "Will you teach how to make aliyah to the Torah," and so on) the rabbi may feel the need to confirm the person's Jewishness for his/her own protection and spiritual well being. In cases of joining a synagogue, marriage, attending High Holy Days and so on a rabbi definitely needs to confirm the person's Jewishness. What is not to be done is use this question as a means of discrimination. One must be very careful about questioning another persons Judaism. Hence we read:

Leviticus 19: 33, 34: When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him.
The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.
Of this Rashi notes:
you shall not taunt him: Heb. לֹא תוֹנוּ. [This refers to] tormenting with words [as opposed to torment through other means, e.g., financially (see Rashi Lev. 25:14)]. [For instance,] do not say to him, “Only yesterday you were an idol worshipper, and now you come to learn Torah, which was given over by the Almighty God Himself! ”. — [Torath Kohanim 19:82] for you were strangers: Do not accuse your fellow man with your own defect. - [B.M. 59b]
I am the Lord, your God: [Here, the word for “your,” אלֹהֵיכֶם, is in the plural; thus, regarding the stranger, Scripture reminds you:] I am Your God and his God!
From Talmud, Tractate Bava Mezia, Folio 59b:
§ The Sages taught: One who verbally mistreats the convert violates three prohibitions, and one who oppresses him in other ways violates two.
The Gemara asks: What is different with regard to verbal mistreatment, that three prohibitions are written concerning it: “And you shall neither mistreat a convert” (Exodus 22:20); “And when a convert lives in your land, you shall not mistreat him” (Leviticus 19:33); “And you shall not mistreat, each man his colleague” (Leviticus 25:17), and a convert is included in the category of colleague? With regard to one who also oppresses a convert as well, three prohibitions are written: “And you shall neither mistreat a convert, nor oppress him” (Exodus 22:20); “And you shall not oppress a convert (Exodus 23:9); “And you shall not be to him like a creditor” (Exodus 22:24). This last prohibition is a general prohibition, in which converts are included. Consequently, it is not correct that one who oppresses a convert violates only two prohibitions. Rather, both this one, who verbally mistreats a convert, and that one, who oppresses him, violate three prohibitions.
It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: For what reason did the Torah issue warnings in thirty-six places, and some say in forty-six places, with regard to causing any distress to a convert? It is due to the fact that a convert’s inclination is evil, i.e., he is prone to return to his previous way of living.
What is the meaning of that which is written: “And you shall not mistreat a convert nor oppress him, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20)? We learned in a baraita that Rabbi Natan says: A defect that is in you, do not mention it in another. Since the Jewish people were themselves strangers, they are not in a position to demean a convert because he is a stranger in their midst. And this explains the adage that people say: One who has a person hanged in his family [bidyotkei], does not say to another member of his household: Hang a fish for me, as the mention of hanging is demeaning for that family.
And from Sefer HaChinuch 63,
[Mitzvah 63] is not to oppress converts verbally. We have been prevented from oppressing converts, even verbally, as it says: "and you shall not oppress a convert." The Torah added an additional warning as it says: "do not oppress" another time. Because the issue of oppression is more relevant to a convert than it is to other Jews, as most other Jews have (Jewish) relatives who will redress their grievances. And there is another reason, [that is] because there is a concern that [the convert] might leave the fold out of anger over abuse. And they said in the (Midrash) Sifra that one shouldn't say, "Yesterday you were an idolater and today you are entering under the wings of the Divine Presence?" Among the roots of the mitzvah, aside from what we've already written, in order to permanently train our negative inclination not to do whatever evil is in our power to do. Therefore we are warned regarding this person who is among us without [a full support system] and whom everyone can exert some power over, that we not exclude him from the general [sensitivity that we show to everyone among us]. And through boundaries such as these we will acquire a soul of higher worth, raised-up and crowned with (positive) characteristics, worthy of receiving good. And we will perfect in ourselves the desire of the Blessed One who desires to give benefit... ...[This law] applies in all places and at all times, to men and to women. [translation by AJWS]
Halachichally we are clearly prohibited to burden the convert (just as we forbidden to burden the Jew) with accusations and challenges such as "Prove you are are Jewish!" Why? Aside from common decency, which is not as common now as it used to be, doing so may make the convert decide, "Here I have converted and become a Jew but they, my own people, are rejecting me! I give up! I'll go back to worshiping idols. At least they considered me one of them!" WOE to any Jew who sends another to the house of idolatry! This particular for of idolatry is rampant with this negative potential! in Exile

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