Rabbi Shimon Kessin

The definition of Loshon Hora

What precisely is Loshon Hora? It refers to any revelation of information that one can anticipate will possibly lead to hurting or damaging the well being of another Jew in any sense, physically, emotionally, socially or economically. This revelation usually takes the form of speech, but it can also be expressed through writing or even body gestures and facial expressions, since any of these methods can reveal information that can damage another. It does not matter if the information revealed is completely true or completely false. It is strictly forbidden to relate it in either case. Where the information, however, is false, it is considered much worse and is distinguished by its own term “motzei shem ra”. The truth or the falsity of the information revealed is not the issue in the prohibition. The central governing principle in determining Loshon Hora is whether the revelation can be anticipated to do damage.

The reason why Loshon Hora is prohibited

At this point you may argue the following. As long as a person sticks to the absolute truth, why should such a revelation be prohibited? In fact, the secular, gentile courts agree with this argument. If you slander someone and are sued in a secular court of law, then as long as you can prove your slanderous remarks to be true, you can be exonerated. Why is the Torah’s view different?

People are sensitive not to reveal information that can potentially damage a family member

The answer to this question is subtle and somewhat unexpected. If you knew a terrible secret about a family member, you would never reveal this to anyone in idle conversation because it might hurt this person. You would be sensitive to that hurt since it involves a loved one, a family member. In such a case, the potential damage to this person far outweighs the desire to reveal this truth in a conversation. Clearly, regarding your family, the truth does not matter, causing hurt and damage does. But if you knew a truth about another Jew, one who was not close to you at all, chances are that you would reveal it even if that revelation would hurt and damage that Jew. Why? Because that Jew in your eyes is like a stranger and in this case, the desire to reveal this truth of that person in a conversation outweighs any possible damage that could result from that revelation.

In the eyes of Hashem, so to speak, all Jews are related and considered as one family

In Hashem’s eyes, however, you would be damaging a brother or a sister, not a stranger57. In the eyes of Hashem, so to speak, all Jews are related and considered as a family since He is the creator and father of them all. There are no strangers amongst Jews in Hashem’s eyes no matter how distant they are from each other58. Your actual brother and sister remain such even if many oceans separate them from you. So too it is with all Jews they are forever one family. This, then, is the answer to our question. Truth doesn’t matter, family does and since all Jews are family, we cannot hurt them, even with the truth. Loshon Hora is therefore forbidden for all Jews in spite of the fact that it is completely true.

Possession of a truth is not its entitlement to reveal it

We all suffer from a common misconception. We think that just because we know certain things about fellow Jews, because they are true we have the right to reveal them. It is as if we were some kind of self appointed reporter for the local newspaper and that the possession of a truth is its own entitlement to reveal it. We must learn that this is very wrong. Just because we know something doesn’t mean we have the right to reveal it. We must consider its damage potential as well as its truth, since every conversation about a fellow Jew is always a conversation about a family member.

The criteria for Loshon Hora: potential damage, loss of respect and embarrassment

How do we know when we have spoken Loshon Hora? We must ask ourselves three questions before we reveal something about a fellow Jew:

  1. Damage. If I reveal this information, can I anticipate that it could in some way cause some kind of hurt or damage to a fellow Jew? If the answer is yes, it is considered Loshon Hora. This damage goes beyond simple slander or defamation of character. It applies to any type of damage. Moreover, someone can be hurt even if his name is not mentioned in a conversation. For example, if someone is told a business fact. In confidence and then he reveals it to a third party knowing that a possible hurt can ensue for the person who revealed it to him, it is considered Loshon Hora even where no name is mentioned at all.Most people mistakenly believe that Loshon Hora refers only to slanderous and defamatory remarks about someone. This is untrue. It refers to any revelation that has the potential to damage and where the revealer can anticipate this possibility. Even if the potential damage never actually occurs, the sin is nevertheless there because the prohibition of Loshon Hora applies even to the attempt and not only to the actual occurrence of damage.
  2. Loss of Respect. If I reveal this information, can I anticipate that the person listening to me will, as a result, begin to devalue and look down upon the person I am talking about? If the answer is yes, it is considered Loshon Hora64. This is true even where most people would not devalue someone based on this information. If my listener will, it is Loshon Hora. Even if the devaluation or loss of respect is minimal, it is Loshon Hora. If it is substantial, then the speaker is in big trouble, spiritually.
  3. Embarrassment. If I reveal this information about someone and were he able to overhear what I am about to say, would he feel embarrassed and humiliated? If the answer is yes, it is considered Loshon Hora.

If you’re in doubt about the possible outcome, it is better not to say anything

The answers to all of these questions are clearly based on the speaker’s judgment about his impending revelations. If he is concerned about his mazal, he must be very careful about his decisions. Should he make a mistake and reveal the information innocently thinking that it would not have a negative effect, he can be exonerated. But if he didn’t even think about these issues, that is another matter. If he is in doubt about the possible outcome, it is better not to say anything. Why risk the serious consequences of Loshon Hora for himself. The rule is, when in doubt, don’t. It is important to realize that not all the answers to these three questions need to be in the affirmative for a revelation to be Loshon Hora. Even if only one of these questions is answered in the affirmative and the others are not, it is still considered Loshon Hora. Thus, for example, where a revelation does not cause a listener to devalue the subject, nevertheless, if it can be anticipated that the subject would be embarrassed if he could overhear it, it is still Loshon Hora.

Circumstances where Loshon Hora is prohibited

It is clear that the central principle governing the Torah’s prohibition of Loshon Hora is the concept of damage, that is, a revelation’s ability to potentially damage a victim either in a general way or in regard to his reputation (slander). Because of this, it doesn’t make any difference whether the revelation:

  • was true or false (“veracity of information”).
  • was communicated through a verbal statement, written document or body sign (“mode of communication”).
  • was volunteered or said in response to a question (“manner of elicitation”)
  • explicitly contained the person’s name or not. If the listener can figure out who is being talked about on his own, it is Loshon Hora. (“Subject identification”).
  • was motivated through jealousy, revenge, the desire to gain approval and recognition or was simply said as a joke. (“Motivation”). The Torah does permit one motivation, however, as a valid reason to speak Loshon Hora. It is the need to protect someone. More on this protection motive later.
  • was communicated because of some pressure or incentive, such as to prevent a financial loss, to prevent a loss of honor, to gain a profit, or even to honor a parent or rabbi. Just as the laws of kashruth cannot be compromised because of these reasons, so too the laws of Loshon Hora. (“Incentive”).
  • was about someone’s religious behavior, personality, intelligence, abilities, health, property, finances or family. If it can potentially cause damage to this person, it is Loshon Hora. (“Content”).
  • was communicated to a spouse, relative, friend or stranger. Even one’s spouse can, by listening, devalue a person thereby causing damage to that person’s reputation. (“Recipient”).
  • was communicated to an adult or even to a child.
  • was about a child, adult, stranger, friend or even a spouse. Marriage does not create an entitlement to hurt your spouse by speaking Loshon Hora. (“Subject”).

Loshon Hora about non-Jews

A question that is often asked is whether Loshon Hora is permitted to be spoken against a non Jew. The answer to this is subtle. The Torah clearly prohibits Loshon Hora against another Jew from a halachic or legal standpoint. A non Jew, however, does not share this same status. Even so, it is unadvisable to speak Loshon Hora against a non Jew when it is unwarranted, for ethical and moral reasons. We are required as Jews, to treat a righteous gentile in an ethical way.

The reason why people speak Loshon Hora

Why do people speak Loshon Hora? What are the usual motives for doing so? There are three major reasons which cause people to indulge in Loshon Hora. They are jealousy, revenge and the desire for approval. Let us examine each one in turn.

  • Jealousy. Any society which sponsors material success as the main way to enhance self esteem is going to find that jealousy will be very prevalent. If money, possessions and position become the key symbols to success and social status, then people who have not acquired these things will be very jealous of people who have. Competition and self centeredness will become the rule, while sharing and charitable concerns will become the exception. A lack of material things will breed self doubt and threaten self esteem. This in turn will arouse jealousy which will then find expression as unwarranted hatred and Loshon Hora.
  • Revenge. A second major cause of Loshon Hora is revenge. People who feel slighted and hurt by another’s actions or words will harbor resentment and animosity towards that person. Eventually, these feelings will spill over and the injured person will satisfy himself with the expression of Loshon Hora..
  • Social Acceptance. The third cause is the need for approval, that is, to be liked and to be socially accepted. This will motivate a person to become a source of information and gossip about people so that other people will be attracted to him since most people enjoy hearing the “latest” about others.

In all of these motivations, Loshon Hora becomes a very useful instrument to raise a lowered sense of self esteem that a person unconsciously feels about himself. But look at the consequences! He may be feeling better about himself but at what cost. An accusing angel is suddenly empowered to attack him in front of the heavenly court of Justice, potentially causing serious damage to his mazal and fortune. Is it worth it!

The credit card analogy

Speaking Loshon Hora is in certain ways similar to using a credit card. You go into a store and see an item, say a piece of furniture that you wish to buy. You ask the salesperson how much it is and he says, “don’t worry, just give me your credit card.” You give him your credit card and feel relieved; it was so easy. You forget about the purchase until you receive the credit card bill a month later. You see the price of $500 for the furniture. You feel disturbed. It is so much money but it felt so easy when you used a credit card and now, when the bill arrives, it feels so painful.

Was it worth it?

Loshon Hora produces the same type of experience. It is so easy to speak it. Like a credit card, it appears as if nothing has happened. Words cannot be seen, so what did you do? Later on in time, difficulties begin to appear in your life that shouldn’t be, that make no sense. Your fortune begins to change and you can’t understand why. The truth is that the Loshon Hora bill has arrived and its time to pay. Now it feels very painful. Your accusing angels are now having their day. Was it worth it?

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