Question: Do you violate lashon ha’ra if you speak negatively about yourself?
Short Answer: There is a dispute between the poskim whether one violates lashon ha’ra (or another prohibition) when speaking negatively about oneself.
I. The Story
There is a famous story told about the Chofetz Chaim, with slight variations as to the exact details. See e.g., Aderes Tiferes (4:64) and L’Chafetz BaChayim (siman 24). The Chofetz Chaim was once traveling in a wagon back to Radin. In the same wagon was a wealthy man who was going to visit the Chofetz Chaim in Radin, but he did not recognize that the Chofetz Chaim was in his very wagon with him. When the Chofetz Chaim asked the man why he was going to Radin, the man explained that he was going to visit the great and saintly rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim responded that there really is no need to visit the Chofetz Chaim, as he is simply “just another Jew.” The wealthy man was very upset and kicked the Chofetz Chaim out of the wagon. Of course, when he reached Radin and saw that the man he kicked out of the wagon was actually the Chofetz Chaim, he was mortified and begged forgiveness from the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim responded that he was of course mochel and appreciates that the man taught him an important lesson: that it is forbidden to speak lashon ha’ra about oneself.
It appears from this story that the Chofetz Chaim originally held that it was permitted to speak negatively about oneself but subsequently switched his opinion based on this story. Many Acharonim, however, don’t think anything should be learned from this story. First, if lashon ha’ra about oneself is forbidden, why did the Chofetz Chaim originally think otherwise. Second, stories are often not accurate. Third, there are many different versions of this story, suggesting it is not accurate.
II. The Sefer Chofetz Chaim
The Chofetz Chaim in his sefer never expressly addresses whether it is permitted to speak lashon ha’ra about oneself. Based on the above story, it is perplexing why the Chofetz Chaim did not clearly write that it is forbidden to speak lashon ha’ra about oneself.
The sefer Gam Ani Odecha (Rav Boruch Dadon, 1:48) explains that either (i) the sefer Chofetz Chaim was written before the story (and thus the Chofetz Chaim didn’t need to list that it was permitted, as this was the default), or (ii) this is an example where the Chofetz Chaim believed it was better not to write that it was forbidden, as it is very common for people to talk negatively about themselves and therefore the Chofetz Chaim did not want to attack people (similar to a story brought therein where the Chofetz Chaim explained that he refrained from listing the halachah that baalei machlokes have no olam ha’ba for the same reason).
However, the Meir Oz (Orach Chayim 156) notes that there are a few veiled references that imply that the Chofetz Chaim held that it was permitted. For example, the Chofetz Chaim (klal 7:6) writes that if a person comes over to you and speaks lashon ha’ra about himself and a third party, you are allowed to believe the information about the third party but not the information about the person himself.
Similarly, the Chofetz Chaim (1:9) explains that a person violates lashon ha’ra when speaking negatively about others, even if he also speaks negatively about himself. In his footnote (B’eir Mayim Chayim 15), the Chofetz Chayim cites the source of this stringency. The pasuk in Yeshayahu (6:5) describes how Yeshayahu 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. In fact, Hashem said that “you may talk that way about yourself, but not about the B’nei Yisrael.”
III. Another Proof
The Gemara (Arachin 16a) states the opinion of Rabbah bar Rav Huna that there is no prohibition of lashon ha’ra on any negative speech that is recited in front of three people. Rashi explains that since the person who spoke negatively about himself knows that “people talk” and that the negative information would be spread to other people, he obviously doesn’t care about it being spread.
The sefer Shut L’Chafetz BaChayim (siman 24) proves from here that Rashi holds that there is no prohibition for a person to speak negatively about himself. A person is the “owner” of his persona and therefore if he chooses to spread negativity about himself, it is not prohibited. The L’Chafetz BaChayim notes that the Chofetz Chaim interprets Rash similarly, as in B’eir Mayim Chayim (2:3) he cites this Rashi and limits the leniency to only talking about oneself. In other words, Rashi does not allow, as other Rishonim do, a person to repeat negativity about ANOTHER person that was repeated in front of three people.
However, the L’Chafetz BaChayim limits this leniency only to cases where the listeners know (and recognize) the speaker. If the listeners are unaware that the speaker is talking about himself – as in the story above about the Chofetz Chaim, there is a separate prohibition to speak negatively, as it will cause the listeners to learn the bad trait of speaking lashon ha’ra (as they think the speaker is talking about another person).
IV. The Aderes Tiferes
The sefer Aderes Tiferes (4:64) cites an interesting proof that it is forbidden to speak lashon ha’ra about oneself. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 607:2) holds that a person may, on Yom Kippur, recite his sins out loud during davening as part of his t’shuvah. The Rama (ibid) appears to disagree, that a person should not recite his sins out loud. The Mishnah B’rurah (6) explains that the Shulchan Aruch and Rama actually agree. The Shulchan Aruch is referring to sins of a person that are already known to the public (i.e., it is permitted to recite them out loud), while the Rama is referring to sins that are not public (i.e., and thus they may not be recited out loud).
The Shaar HaTziyon (3) cites additional opinions on this topic, including the opinion of the Vilna Gaon that even public sins may not be recited out loud, and the opinion of the Rambam, that even public “bein adam laMakom” sins may be recited out loud. The Shaar HaTziyon also cites the reason why (at least certain) sins should not be publicized, as the pasuk (T’hilim 32) states “ashrei n’sui pesha k’sui chata’ah,” that praiseworthy is one who hides his sins.
The Aderes Tiferes explains that the above sources are clear that one may not publicize private sins because of the pasuk “ashrei n’sui...” Even if not actually a violation of lashon ha’ra, one should not talk negatively about himself based on this pasuk. The Aderes Tiferes adds that perhaps this explains the story of the Chofetz Chaim, who originally thought lashon ha’ra was permitted about oneself but subsequently realized that is in fact forbidden from this pasuk.
V. The Ateres Paz
The sefer Ateres Paz (cited in MeiRei’ach Nicho’ach, 5770, Gilyon 7) suggests that the same machlokes that exists whether a person is permitted to embarrass himself, exists by speaking negatively about oneself. We pasken that one may not embarrass himself, thus he may also not speak negatively about himself. The Ateres Paz cites a fascinating Baal HaTurim (B’reishis 9:5) on the pasuk “v’ach es dimchem,” that the Torah writes the word “v’ach” three times. They teach us that one may not commit suicide, one may not curse oneself, and one may not speak negatively about oneself.
The Ateres Paz notes that the words of the Chofetz Chaim (klal 10:17) are not a contradiction to the above. The Chofetz Chaim quotes Sefer Chasidim (22), which details a scenario where a person is standing amongst a group of people and one of them is accused of doing a wrongdoing but the accuser does not know which person is the perpetrator. The Sefer Chasidim writes that the person should confess rather than having someone else reveal the culprit. This implies that one is permitted to speak negatively (even falsely!) about himself.
The Ateres Paz answers that the case of the Chofetz Chaim and Sefer Chasidim is only where there is no other good option, e.g., if the person does not speak up, others will speak lashon ha’ra.
VI. The Final Word
The sefer Marpei Lashon (p. 154) explains the reasoning behind the opinion that it is forbidden to speak negatively about oneself. Speaking negatively about oneself reveals a lack of respect for k’dushas Yisrael, as we are all created in the image of Hashem. If one recognizes how special he is, and thus controls his speech about himself, he will appreciate the importance of his friends, as well, and will thus refrain from speaking negatively about them. Indeed, a proof of this is from Moshe Rabbeinu who spoke negatively (“v’hein lo yaaminu li”) about the B’nei Yisrael, and therefore Hashem made his hand have tzaraas (as one of the signs for Pharaoh) as a punishment for this lashon ha’ra. Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin (the P’ri Tzadik) elaborates that Moshe’s sin was that he believed that the B’nei Yisrael would not believe in him, as he himself did not believe in himself. Had Moshe been more confident in his own abilities (i.e., and not thought/spoken negatively about himself), he would never have spoken negatively about B’nei Yisrael.