Question: Do you violate lashon ha’ra by speaking negatively about a group of Jews (i.e., Sefardim, Ashkenazim, chareidim, Zionists) without mentioning a specific individual?

Short Answer: Yes, the prohibition of Lashon HaRa is even worse when spoken about a group of people.


I. The Source

The Midrash (Shir HaShirim 1:2) recounts a story where Rabbi Avahu and Reish Lakish were traveling and passed through a certain country/city called Kisrin. Rabbi Avahu asked Reish Lakish why they were walking through such a disgusting and horrible place. Reish Lakish, upon hearing Rabbi Avahu’s words, got down from his donkey, picked up some sand, and shoved the sand into Rabbi Avahu’s mouth. When Rabbi Avahu questioned Reish Lakish why he did that, Reish Lakish responded that Hashem does not want people to speak negatively about the B’nei Yisrael.

Indeed, the Sefer Chareidim (Rav Elazar Azriki, d. 1600), cited in Meir Oz (Orach Chayim 156), cites a source from Tanach that one is forbidden to speak lashon ha’ra about a group. The pasuk in M’lachim (Beis 7:19) tells of the Jewish officer who, during an intense famine for the B’nei Yisrael, doubted Elisha’s n’vuah that Hashem was going to provide an abundance of food. The Midrash explains that the officer was not doubting Hashem’s ability, but was rather mocking the B’nei Yisrael, stating that they were an evil nation not worthy of a miracle.

Similarly, Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu (cited in Meir Oz ibid) explains that the B’nei Yisrael are compared to a vineyard (based on a pasuk in Yeshayahu 5:7), that it is forbidden to “look” at B’nei Yisrael negatively, and certainly not to “enter,” “eat,” or “benefit” from the vines. The Meir Oz understands this to be another reference of the prohibition to speak negatively about the B’nei Yisrael as a whole.

II. The Chofetz Chaim’s View

The Chofetz Chaim (Lashon HaRa 10:12) likewise agrees that there is a prohibition of lashon ha’ra to speak negatively about a group of people. He even writes that it is worse to speak lashon ha’ra about a tzibur, a group, than to speak lashon ha’ra about an individual.

Furthermore, in sefer Sh’miras HaLashon (HaT’vunah 7), the Chofetz Chaim cites the Gemara in P’sachim (87b), which discusses two p’sukim in Mishlei (30:10-11). The p’sukim state that you should not speak negatively (“malshin”) about a servant to his master, and that “a generation that curses its father and does not bless its mother.” The Gemara explains that these p’sukim are read together, and the servant refers to the B’nei Yisrael, with Hashem as the master. In other words, a person should not speak negatively about the B’nei Yisrael, even if the nation is acting improperly.

The Chofetz Chaim continues that we likewise find a similar warning by Yeshayahu (Yeshayahu 6:5), who called the B’nei Yisrael a nation that is “t’mei s’fasayim” (a pejorative description). Even though Yeshayahu also called himself the same moniker and meant simply that the B’nei Yisrael were not worthy to receive Hashem’s holy presence, Yeshayahu was punished for his words.

III. The Problem and the Solution

The problem is that there are many examples in the Gemara where Tana’im or Amora’im (or the Gemara itself) spoke negatively about a group of people. For example, the Gemara in Shabbos (32b and 109a), that the wives of b’nei M’chuzah eat a lot and therefore their husbands steal food. The Gemara (Shabbos 139a), that the b’nei Bischar were not talmidei chachamim. The Gemara (Eiruvin 61a), that the people of Geder were killers. The Gemara (P’sachim 34b), that Babylonian Jews are fools. The Gemara (Chulin 127a), that the b’nei Narsh are thieves.

The sefer Pele Yo’eitz (R’ Eliezer Papo, d. 1828) addresses this question. First, he states that there certainly is a prohibition to talk lashon ha’ra about a group. Indeed, no group, whether they are Sefardi or Ashkenazi, is perfect, as only Hashem is perfect and “complete.” He then asks why many sources in the Gemara disparage various neighborhoods and Jewish groups. He answers that either the evilness of these neighborhoods was known by all, thus permitting lashon ha’ra, or they were so evil that there is a mitzvah (and purpose) to publicize their evil. However, the Pele Yo’eitz concludes that, nevertheless, it is smart not to speak negatively about any group, as even if there is a small chance that it is lashon ha’ra, it is better to refrain from risking this horrible sin.

The Chofetz Chaim (B’eir Mayim Chayim on Lashon HaRa 10:12) appears to agree with the Pele Yo’eitz. The Chofetz Chaim writes that the only time it is permitted to speak negatively about a group is when the listener has the power to rebuke the group. In other words, there will be a beneficial purpose to the negative speech.

IV. Practically Speaking

The sefer Rosh HaM’dabrim (R’ Michael Peretz, siman 26) suggests that perhaps “people” nowadays speak to others about negative traits of particular groups, such as chasidim, Litvaks, Ashkenazim or Sefardim, because they don’t intend to “badmouth” these groups but are simply discussing publicly known facts about these groups. They rely on the leniency that lashon ha’ra is permitted when the negative traits are publicly known to all. The Rosh HaM’dabrim concludes, however, that even if such speech is not actually lashon ha’ra, it certainly does not display a good midah and should not be recited.

As an aside, the questioner to the Az Nidb’ru (13:27) asked the Az Nidb’ru whether it is permitted to discuss negative traits of certain groups, as this is commonly done and hard to avoid. While the Az Nidb’ru answered the other questions posed to him by this questioner, he does not address this particular question.

Moreover, Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein (Vavei HaAmudim V’Chashukeihem 41, p. 50) cites the Chazon Ish as holding that one should not call a German Jew a “yekke” as this is a negative nickname and falls under the category of Lashon HaRa.

V. The Mishneh Halachos

There is a pretty amazing t’shuvah by the Mishneh Halachos (17:190) on this topic. The Mishneh Halachos is discussing the proper attitude that a person should have when interacting with r’sha’im. However, in the middle of the t’shuvah, the Mishneh Halachos wonders how, based on the above sources, the Minchas Eliezer was permitted to engage in fiery rhetoric, including giving “curses,” in “every” speech against Zionists, the Agudah, and other groups he disagreed with. This is especially troubling, as the Mishneh Halachos notes many great leaders, including the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Aharon Kotler, and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, who were associated with – and at the helm of – the Agudah. The Mishneh Halachos suggests that perhaps the Minchas Eliezer really was davening for these organizations even though it appeared as “cursing” them. Also, perhaps the Minchas Eliezer was simply attacking a “concept,” and not a specific group of people. Regardless, he emphasizes that we cannot challenge the actions of such a great gadol.

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.