Question: What is the nature of the prohibition not to speak lashon ha’ra?

 Short Answer: The numerous prohibitions not to speak lashon ha’ra are to prevent you from hurting your friend and also to teach you to use your mouth properly.



I. R’chilus vs. Lashon HaRa

The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 7:1), as well as the Chofetz Chaim (P’sichah, Lavin 1), set forth the difference between r’chilus and lashon ha’ra. R’chilus is when a person conveys something that one person said about another individual to that individual. In other words, Reuven tells Shimon something that Levi said about Shimon. R’chilus is violated even where the information is not necessarily negative. Lashon ha’ra, which is worse than r’chilus, is when a person speaks negatively about another individual. In other words, Reuven tells Shimon something negative about Levi.

The Rambam (ibid 7:3) writes that if one speaks lashon ha’ra, it is as if he has been “kofeir ba’ikar” – heretical.

II. Violations of Negative Commandments

The Chofetz Chaim (P’sichah, Lavin) lists numerous aveiros that are violated when someone speaks lashon ha’ra. (The listener of the lashon ha’ra likewise violates many of these aveiros, albeit with a few exceptions).

First, the speaker has violated the pasuk (Vayikra 19:16) of “lo seileich rachil,” which applies to lashon ha’ra in addition to r’chilus. Second, the speaker violates “lo sisa sheima shav” (Sh’mos 23:1), the prohibition to speak vainly. Third, the speaker violates “Hishameir b’nega tzaraas” (D’varim 24:8), which the Sifra understands as a warning not to speak words that will cause tzaraas, i.e., lashon ha’ra. Fourth, the speaker violates “lifnei iveir” (Vayikra 19:14), as he causes the listener to sin. Fifth, the speaker violates “Hishameir l’cha pen tishkach” (D’varim 8:11), which is a prohibition for haughtiness, because if the speaker was humble and didn’t think so highly of himself, he would not speak negatively about another person. Sixth, the speaker violates “Lo sichalelu” (Vayikra 22:32), because the speaker gets no tangible benefit from his words, and thus speaks simply to rebel against Hashem.

Additionally, more aveiros are sometimes violated, depending on the circumstances. Seventh, the speaker sometimes violates “Lo sisna” (Vayikra 19:17) when he outwardly is nice to a person but speaks negatively about him behind his back (and in his heart). Eighth and ninth, a speaker sometimes violates “Lo sikom v’lo sitor” (Vayikra 19:18) when the speaker was harmed by the person whom he is speaking about, such as the person did not lend him money, and thus now harbors hatred to the person (“lo sitor”) and acts upon such hatred by speaking negatively (“Lo sikom”) against the person. Tenth, if the speaker testifies as the sole witness in court against someone, he violates (Devarim 19:15) the prohibition of “lo yakum eid echad.” Eleventh, attaching yourself to a group that consistently speaks lashon ha’ra violates “Lo sihyeh acharei rabim” (Sh’mos 23:2) because you are following a large group for bad purposes. Twelfth, if the speaker’s words are part of an argument, he violates “Lo yihyeh k’Korach” (BaMidbar 17:5). Thirteenth, if the speaker causes pain by discussing prior bad acts of a person, he violates “Lo sonu ish” (Vayikra 25:17). Fourteenth, if the embarrassment causes the person to turn white, the speaker likewise violates “Lo sisa alav cheit” (Vayikra 19:17). Fifteenth, if the person being spoken about is an orphan or widow, the speaker violates “kol almanah” (Sh’mos 22:21). Sixteenth, if the speaker intends to flatter the listener (who dislikes the person being spoken about), the speaker violates “Lo sachanifu” (BaMidbar 35:33). Seventeenth, if the speaker is angry and curses the subject of his lashon ha’ra while speaking the lashon ha’ra, which the Chofetz Chaim says is a common occurrence, he likewise violates “Lo s’kaleil cheireish” (Vayikra 19:14).

III. Violation of Positive Commandments

The Chofetz Chaim (P’sichah, Asei) similarly lists numerous positive commandments that are violated when someone speaks lashon ha’ra. (The listener of the lashon ha’ra likewise violates many of these commandments, albeit with a few exceptions).

First, the speaker violates “Zachor eis asher asah” (D’varim 24:9), as he forsakes this commandment to remember the severity of Miriam’s punishment for speaking lashon ha’ra. Second, the speaker obviously violates “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” (Vayikra 19:18). Third, he sometimes violates “b’tzedek tishpot” (Vayikra 19:15) when he assumes the person did something wrong and fails to judge him favorably. Fourth, if the speaker causes the person to lose livelihood based on the lashon ha’ra, the speaker violates “va’chai imach” and “v’chei achicha imach” (Vayikra 25:25-36). [Fifth, the listener also violates “Hochei’ach tochi’ach” (Vayikra 19:17) if he could prevent the lashon ha’ra by rebuking the speaker.] Sixth, the speaker violates “u’vo sidbak” (D’varim 10:20) if he attaches himself to a group of evil speakers. Seventh, if he speaks lashon ha’ra in the beis midrash, he violates “u’mikdashi tira’u” (Vayikra 19:30). Eighth, if the speaker talks lashon ha’ra about an elderly person, he also violates “v’hadarta p’nei zakein” (Vayikra 19:32). Ninth, if he speaks about a kohen, he violates “v’kidashto” (Vayikra 21:8). Tenth, if he speaks about his older brother or his father’s wife, he violates “v’es imecha” (Sh’mos 20:12), as this pasuk obligates you to respect these individuals. Of course, if he speaks about his parents, he violates this pasuk, as well. Eleventh, the speaker always violates “Es Hashem Elokecha tira” (D’varim 6:13) because he is not fearing Hashem by ignoring his commandment not to speak lashon ha’ra. Twelfth, the speaker violates the mitzvah (or mitzvos) to learn Torah (and not to speak lashon ha’ra). Thirteenth, if the speaker adds falsehoods, he violates “midvar sheker” (Sh’mos 23:7). Fourteenth, the speaker violates “V’halachta bi’drachav” (D’varim 28:9) by not emulating Hashem.

IV. Reasons for Lashon HaRa

The sefer Eimek HaLashon (siman 1) discusses the nature of the prohibition not to speak lashon ha’ra. He queries (i) whether lashon ha’ra is akin to the prohibition not to hurt your friend, i.e., don’t cause damage, either physical or verbal, to your friend, or (ii) whether lashon ha’ra is a prohibition on the speaker, to ensure that he uses his mouth properly. He notes that Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei T’shuvah, 216) appears to provide both reasons.

The Eimek HaLashon also suggests that the Rambam, by placing the laws of lashon ha’ra in Hilchos Dei’os, the laws of midos and how a person should act, implies that the Rambam understands that lashon ha’ra is more akin to the latter explanation above, that it is to teach a person to use his mouth properly. However, the Eimek HaLashon subsequently rejects this interpretation, as the Rambam in the seventh perek of Hilchos Dei’os (the perek that includes lashon ha’ra) shifts focus from the previous p’rakim solely discussing midos and discusses other interpersonal mitzvos such as V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha.

Moreover, the Eimek HaLashon writes that the Chofetz Chaim understands that lashon ha’ra is more akin to the latter explanation above, that it is to teach a person to use his mouth properly. The Chofetz Chaim (in the P’sichah) wonders why lashon ha’ra has its own prohibition (one of the 613 mitzvos) while other midos, such as anger or levity, do not. He answers that speaking lashon ha’ra is an especially disgusting midah and, regardless, it encompasses many other bad midos. Clearly, the Chofetz Chaim is focused on lashon ha’ra as a negative midah, and not a tort.

Nevertheless, the Eimek HaLashon cites the Chavatzeles HaSharon (BaMidbar, p. 439) who cites the Sifrei Zuta, which includes lashon ha’ra among aveiros bein adam l’chaveiro that you must perform vidui to Hashem on Yom Kippur, and thus interprets lashon ha’ra with the former explanation above, that it is akin to a tort against your friend.

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.