Question: Is it permitted to jokingly speak lashon ha’ra?

Short Answer: It is forbidden to jokingly speak lashon ha’ra, although the severity of the prohibition is debated by the poskim.



I. The Bean Man

The Yerushalmi (Peah 1:1), based on the interpretation of the P’nei Moshe, states a story about a platoon of flax merchants who were drafted to go to battle for the king. They notice that Bar Chovetz, one of their colleagues, seems to have evaded the draft and is not with them. In order to get the general’s attention that Bar Chovetz is missing, they jokingly remark to each other: “What are we going to eat today? Maybe we will have chovtzin (beans). Oh, let Bar Chovetz come so we can eat.” In other words, the flax merchants jokingly made a play on the word “chovetz” which not only was their missing colleague but the name of a type of bean. By mentioning his name, they hoped the general would go round him up and have him join the platoon. Rav Yochanan, upon hearing what the flax merchants did, declared that they spoke lashon ha’ra “b’hatznei’a” – in a secretive or hidden manner.

This story implies that lashon ha’ra is forbidden even when said in a joking manner.

II. Rambam’s Ruling

The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 7:4) writes that there are some forms of negative speech that constitute avak lashon ha’ra. After giving a few examples, the Rambam adds another example: someone who speaks lashon ha’ra “derech s’chok” or “derech kalus rosh” – in a joking manner – but not out of hatred for the person being spoken about. The Rambam references a pasuk in Mishlei (26:18-19), that states that a person who speaks deceivingly and harmfully to his friend and says “I am just joking” is the same as a person who shoots arrows and death at another person. The Kesef Mishneh (ibid) notes that the source of the Rambam is from the above Yerushalmi.

It appears from the simple read of the Rambam that the Rambam understands that someone who jokingly speaks lashon ha’ra only violates avak lashon ha’ra, which is an isur d’Rabbanan, as opposed to lashon ha’ra proper, which is an isur d’Oraisa.

III. The Chofetz Chaim’s Stringency

The Chofetz Chaim (Lashon HaRa 3:3), however, rules that this form of lashon ha’ra (i.e., saying a joke with lashon ha’ra) is forbidden even d’Oraisa. In the B’eir Mayim Chayim (2), the Chofetz Chaim elaborates that his ruling is based on the Yad HaKetanah, who understands the Rambam as likewise ruling that jokingly said lashon ha’ra is an isur d’Oraisa. The Chofetz Chaim thus explains that the Rambam, even though he is initially discussing avak lashon ha’ra (in Hilchos Dei’os 7:4), switches to discussing lashon ha’ra proper later in the same halachah. The language “v’chein” in the Rambam simply means “another example” of lashon ha’ra based on a pasuk in Mishlei (like earlier in the same halachah).

Indeed, the B’eir Mayim Chayim notes that this (that jokingly said lashon ha’ra is an isur d’Oraisa) is the opinion of Rabbeinu Yonah, as well as the Sifrei who learns that Miriam was punished for speaking lashon ha’ra about Moshe even though she meant well (because of the mitzvah of having children). See also Az Nidb’ru (14:63).

IV. Creative Understanding

Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita (Daas U’Machashavah, Hilchos Dei’os 7:4) has a novel approach to understanding the opinion of the Rambam. He suggests that it all depends on the listener. The Rambam, who appears to understand jokingly said lashon ha’ra as avak lashon ha’ra, is discussing a scenario where the listener knows that it is just a joke and therefore doesn’t give any credence to the negative speech, although the listener does wonder if perhaps there is some truth to the joke. On the other hand, jokingly said lashon ha’ra becomes actual d’Oraisa lashon ha’ra if the listener fully believes the joke as being truthful.

Further, the Eimek HaLashon (p. 119) suggests that perhaps it is permitted to jokingly speak lashon ha’ra if the person being spoken about does not mind the joke. In such a situation, your words are not even considered lashon ha’ra. Regardless, even if it is avak lashon ha’ra, there are large ramifications as to it only being d’Rabbanan, such as being lenient in cases of safeik.

V. What About Purim?

A final ramification of this topic is whether it is permitted to make negative jokes on Purim. The Y’chaveh Daas (5:50) distinguishes between jokes that are said to hurt, which are forbidden, and jokes that unintentionally hurt others, which are permitted on Purim. This is similar to the Rama (695:2) who rules that one is not obligated to pay damages on Purim if he accidentally damages someone.

Rabbi Ephraim Glatt, Esq. is Associate Rabbi at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills and a practicing litigation attorney. Questions? Comments? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.