Casual Remarks

SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIMLaws of Loshon Hora 7:9

       The concept in halachah of Mesiach L’fi Tumo accords a casual remark made in conversation the status of testimony in beis din (rabbinical court). The classic case where this rule is applied is when a man goes overseas and does not return and someone casually mentions that he saw the man’s dead body. In certain specific situations, such remarks may be used to allow the missing man’s wife to remarry. The reasoning is that since the speaker apparently had no motive in mind when making the remark, we therefore assume that it is true.

       However, in reference to accepting loshon hora, the Chofetz Chaim states that this halachic principle carries no weight. If in the course of conversation someone innocently mentions some negative information, we are not permitted to believe it. If the speaker mentions a situation in which someone is seen in an unfavorable light, we are required to seek a different understanding of what may have happened, thereby judging the person favorably. In general, whenever we glean negative information from someone’s innocent comments, we are required to disregard it.

       The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) tells us that it is worse to insult someone than to hurt him financially. The Talmud explains: “This (hurtful words) affects his very self, whereas this (monetary wrongdoing) affects only his money”; “with this (monetary wrongdoing) restitution is possible, but with this (hurtful words), restitution is not possible.”

       The halachah does not use the principle of Mesiach L’fi Tumo to award someone a monetary claim based on a casual remark. It follows, then, that using such comments as the grounds for insulting someone would be all the more forbidden.


The Trustworthy Witness

SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIMLaws of Loshon Hora 7:7-8

       In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim begins discussing three situations where seemingly there is reason to allow the listener to accept loshon hora as fact. These situations are:

       1. Where the speaker’s integrity is, to your mind, beyond reproach, to the point where his word alone is equivalent (in your eyes) to that of two men testifying in court.

       2. Where the derogatory information is inferred from an innocent remark which was not spoken with the intent of conveying negative information.

       3. Where there is strong evidence indicating that the derogatory information is true.

       The Chofetz Chaim devotes the remainder of this segment to a discussion of the first of these situations. Earlier, we discussed a case where a person witnessed an act of sin, but knew that the sinner would ignore his words of rebuke. In this case, if it is likely the person will repeat the offense, then the witness would be allowed to relate the information to the sinner’s rav or someone else who is in a position to offer rebuke. One of the three conditions which make this permissible is that the rav or parent knows the witness and trusts his word as he would the testimony of two witnesses.

       Here, the Chofetz Chaim points out that for the witness to be permitted to relate what he has seen, it would have to have been an act which was an intentional violation of a well-known halacha. However, in a situation where the perpetrator may have acted out of ignorance or unwittingly, the witness would be required to give him the benefit of the doubt. He would not be allowed to report the incident in a derogatory way to the person’s rav; if he did report it, the rav would not be permitted to accept the witness’s interpretation. The same applies in any situation where it is not clear that the subject has intentionally violated a mitzvah.

       For instance, a local charity is seeking a donation from a successful young businessman in the community. The young man refuses to contribute. While giving charity is certainly required by the Torah, refusing a particular request is not a violation of that law. Perhaps the young man has given his share elsewhere, or has less to give than others think. In this example, even if the fundraiser feels that the young man is being stingy, he is not allowed to approach the young man’s rav and ask that he rebuke his congregant for his stinginess.

       Similarly, even when the speaker is a person whom the listener trusts implicitly, he would not be permitted to accept any sort of report which the speaker is forbidden to discuss; for example, that the subject lacks intelligence, that he has a shameful family history, etc.

       The Chofetz Chaim states that in cases where the information does pertain to an obvious sin, the listener cannot accept the report (from someone whom he trusts like two witnesses) for the purpose of rebuking unless the speaker himself witnessed the incident. Furthermore, the listener, may not repeat the information to others unless there is a constructive purpose (and all 7 conditions are met). Obviously, the listener may not cause the perpetrator physical or monetary harm as a result of the report.

       It is important to bear in mind that when one approaches a rav or parent to exercise their positive influence on someone, a potentially volatile situation has been created. This is especially true regarding parents; many parents resent hearing negative reports about their children and when they are approached with such reports their defense mechanisms shift into high gear. In such cases, extreme care and caution should be exercised so that the negative words which are spoken can achieve their intended purpose.


Split Personalities

SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIMLaws of Loshon Hora 7:5-6

       The famed R’ Yisrael Salanter once said that the “eleventh commandment” is “Don’t be a fool,” which means that the Torah obligates us to use our intelligence and life experience to navigate our lives. So, when someone known to be dishonest attempts to swindle your life’s savings, you are under no obligation to judge him favorably and give him the benefit of the doubt.

       The Chofetz Chaim tells us that if someone is a confirmed rasha (wicked person), meaning that he openly and consistently transgresses Torah prohibitions, then one is allowed to accept loshon hora about him. The exact guidelines for classifying someone as a rasha are complex and are beyond the scope of this work. However, one point which has been mentioned earlier bears repeating. Nowadays, most non-observant Jews are people who have never been introduced to the beauty and truth of Torah Judaism. Rambam likens such a person to a “tinok shenishba,” a child who was captured by gentiles and who grew up ignorant of his heritage. Such a person is surely no rasha; we should treat him with love and compassion and surely we should not speak badly of him.

       The Chofetz Chaim then discusses the case of a person who recounts a story which reflects poorly on himself and on someone else as well. For example, you are at your twenty-fifth high school reunion and a former classmate is amusing everyone with a story about the time he and a friend — who could not attend the reunion — put maple syrup on the teacher’s chair. While the speaker may find the story funny, his friend might not want to be remembered for such things. And most people would not want their children to discover such stories about them.

       The halachah prohibits the listeners from accepting the loshon hora about the second person even though the speaker is incriminating himself as well. At first glance, this halachah seems difficult to observe. How am I to take a story which I heard firsthand and split it into two, believing it only regarding the speaker? The key here is to see halachah as a reality. As the Chofetz Chaim states, I cannot believe the story as far as it concerns the second person, because a Jew has a chezkas kashrus, a presumed status of one who is faithful to Torah and mitzvos — including the Torah’s requirements regarding proper behavior. Therefore, I have no right to believe that the second person has acted improperly unless I know this information firsthand.

       A story about the great Torah leader Rabbi Moshe Feinstein bears mentioning. Halachah prohibits a person from walking in front of someone who is praying Shemoneh Esrei. Once, R’ Moshe was on his way to an important meeting when he noticed someone near the doorway praying Shemoneh Esrei. He stopped in his tracks and would go no further. “There is a wall blocking my path,” R’ Moshe explained. The wall, of course, was the strength of the halachah which prohibited him from walking any further. By seeing halachah as a powerful reality, following its requirements becomes relatively easy.


Double Trouble

SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIMLaws of Loshon Hora 7:3-4

The Chofetz Chaim offers another reason why we should not believe loshon hora which is said in our presence.

When a person speaks loshon hora, he transgresses the negative commandment of “You should not go as a peddler of gossip” (Vayikra 19:16), thereby putting himself in the category of a rasha (evil person). As a rasha his words certainly have no credibility, and we may suspect him of lying, exaggerating, and distorting the truth. Furthermore, this wicked individual is telling us negative information about someone who is assumed to be an upstanding, observant Jew! Certainly we should not accept his wicked words as fact.

If we hear the same negative information from two or more people, we may be more inclined to believe it. This is incorrect, says the Chofetz Chaim, because when wicked people speak wicked words, numbers are meaningless. Even if a dozen people are offering the same derogatory information, it should not be accepted.

The Chofetz Chaim adds that this halachah (law) applies even when the two speakers are not deemed reshaim (wicked people). For example, suppose two people approach Levi in the street and inform him that Yehuda is planning to ruin his business. If they are telling the truth, then they are actually doing a mitzvah by warning Levi. Nevertheless, Levi can only protect himself on the chance that the report is true; he cannot accept it as fact.

This is because the testimony of two people has validity only in beis din (rabbinical court). When two people report negative information about someone outside of beis din, they are not restrained by the possibility of being branded as false witnesses, for there can be no such designation outside of beis din. Therefore, their report cannot be accepted as fact.

If a rumor circulates in a city that a Jew committed a crime, one is not allowed to believe it. This applies also to reports in newspapers or other media sources. In this case, too, if the information is relevant for constructive purposes, one should proceed with appropriate caution.

However, there are instances in which one may believe negative reports. When an abundance of reports regarding a certain person circulate over a period of time, telling of various sinful acts which he committed, to the point where he is no longer viewed as an observant Jew, then it would be permissible to believe the reports. As the Chofetz Chaim puts it, we are not required to think that the community has made a mistake again and again regarding the same individual.


Jumping to Conclusions

SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIMLaws of Loshon Hora 7:1-2

   We have learned that if someone says, “This isn’t loshon hora. I would say it right in front of him!” the Torah still classifies the statement as loshon hora and we are not permitted to believe it.

   Now the Chofetz Chaim takes the case one step further. What if the speaker actually does say the loshon hora in front of the other person? For example, Reuven says in Shimon’s presence, “I saw with my own eyes how Shimon cheated on yesterday’s exam.” Shimon responds with silence. Can we interpret his silence as admission of guilt?

   The Chofetz Chaim says that we cannot surmise that the information is true, because there can be a host of reasons why Shimon would stay quiet in such a situation, even if the information were not true. For example, Shimon might reason that people are more likely to believe Reuven’s words which were said about him in his presence, than to believe his denial. Or, he might be silent simply because he wants to avoid conflict.

   The Chofetz Chaim suggests that the person may have chosen to be counted among the “those who suffer insult.” He is alluding to an important Talmudic teaching (Shabbos 88b):

   “Those who suffer insult but do not insult (in response), who hear their disgrace but do not reply, who perform (G-d’s will) out of love and are happy in suffering, regarding them the verse states ‘But they who love Him (G-d) shall be as the sun going forth in its might’ ” (Shoftim 5:31). As the commentators explain, this means that those who bear insult in silence will not be diminished because of this1, while their antagonists will be humbled in the end.

   The Torah demands that we never jump to conclusions, even when matters seem as clear as day. The case of one who is silent in the face of insult is an excellent illustration of this truth.

       1. As the Talmud relates (Chullin 60b), at the time of Creation the moon was as large as the sun but was diminished when it complained that it was not fitting for two luminaries to reign together. The sun, which did not respond to the moon’s complaint, remained unchanged.


A Proper Mindset

SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIMLaws of Loshon Hora 6:11-12

The Chofetz Chaim begins this segment by stressing that many people react incorrectly in cases of negative reports, where the listener needs to reckon with the report and protect himself. While the rules of such cases are complex, the Chofetz Chaim reiterates the basic rule: The Torah allows us only to protect ourselves on the possibility that the information is accurate. Never does the Torah give a person the right to use such information to act against the subject or to cause him a monetary loss. And because the information cannot be accepted as fact (without personal verification), it is absolutely forbidden to harbor any hatred toward that person. Finally, one cannot use the report as an excuse to cancel any obligations toward that person.

The Chofetz Chaim illustrates this last point: A person with an established reputation of being poor is circulating in shul (synagogue) collecting tzedakah (charity) for himself. Your neighbor turns to you and says, “This fellow’s a faker; I hear that he makes more money than we do.” The Chofetz Chaim says that if you decide not to give this man money (without investigation), or to give him less than you normally would, then you are in the category of one who believes loshon hora. For until the man is proven to be a fraud, you have to accord him his original status — that of a poor, upstanding Jew — and treat him as such.

This is just one small example, says the Chofetz Chaim, of the consequences of accepting loshon hora.

The Chofetz Chaim also deals with a situation where the listener has transgressed by accepting the loshon hora as fact. Now, he regrets his sin. What should he do to rectify it?

The Chofetz Chaim offers a three-point plan:

       1. He should strengthen himself and uproot this information from his mind to the point where he no longer believes it.

       2. He should accept upon himself to be careful in the future not to accept loshon hora.

       3. He should confess his sin (viduy) before Hashem.

The last two of these steps are common to the teshuvah process for any sin. But the requirement that we actually uproot information which we already believe to be true — this seems difficult to navigate.

Rabbi Avraham Pam, z”l, explained how it can be done. He says we must immerse our hearts in the mitzvah of judging people favorably. If you heard that the subject caused hurt to your friend, tell yourself, “I’m sure it didn’t happen exactly as it was reported.” Or, “Perhaps he is going through some personal difficulties. Who knows what I would do in the same situation?” Keep your mind focused like a laser beam on these favorable interpretations and review them again and again. If you flood your thoughts with favorable judgments, you will be amazed to find a gradual change in your thinking take place, as anger gives way to love for your fellow Jew.


Action without Judgment

SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIMLaws of Loshon Hora 6:9-10

We have been learning about kaballas loshon hora, the prohibition against believing loshon hora which is related in one’s presence. The Chofetz Chaim states that this prohibition applies not only to a report of current improper behavior, but to any information which we are forbidden to repeat. For example, if we were to hear that the father of a respected community member had a controversial past, we would not be permitted to believe it. We are also forbidden to believe a negative assessment of someone’s intelligence or physical abilities.

The Chofetz Chaim returns to the subject of listening to negative information l’toeles, for a constructive purpose. If someone is considering taking a partner into his business and then receives derogatory information concerning him, he is permitted to suspect that the information is true and to act on that suspicion. However, he is not permitted to believe it (without further investigation) or to take aggressive action against the person in question. Similarly, if one hears that a storekeeper cheats people, he can protect himself, but he may not attempt to harm the person’s reputation based on this information.

(Whether he can warn others is a complex issue which needs additional study. For further details see Sefer Chofetz Chaim, hilchos rechilus, klal tes.)

Furthermore, he must act toward the person with the same friendliness and kindness that he showed before hearing the report.

To take action upon hearing information but not to believe it may seem a very difficult challenge. However, as the Chofetz Chaim himself is reported to have said, “If it were impossible to keep the laws of loshon hora, Hashem would never have written them in His Torah.” We are, in fact, quite capable of acting based on mere suspicion or remote possibility. We engage in such action every time we enter a car and buckle the seat belt. The chances of a crash or even a short stop are remote, yet we safeguard ourselves.

In a similar way, when hearing loshon hora which may affect us if proven true, we must train ourselves to believe that in all probability the information is false. Nevertheless, we “buckle up for safety,” and take all necessary precautions.