(Selected Laws of Slander or Evil Tongue)
From "Guard Your Tongue" ... by the Chofetz Chayim.
As the old British wartime adage goes, 'careless talk costs lives'. The Talmud relates in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani "Why is the evil tongue called a thrice-slaying tongue? Because it kills three people: the person speaking, the person spoken to, and the person being spoken about." It may not kill them physically, but it is character assassination.
The Rambam, Maimonides, adds a further dimension - sometimes a person may say something that is not quite lashon hara. Yet, as his statement passes from person to person, it eventually does cause harm or trouble, fright or hurt to the other party being spoken about.
The Orchos Tzadikim (Ways of the Righteous) comments that "Before you speak, you are the master of your words. After you speak, your words master you." How often we feel imprisoned by our own words after we have said something that we wish we hadn't or know we shouldn't have.There are times when a person is obligated to speak out, even though the information is disparaging. Specifically, if a person's intent in sharing the negative information is for a to'elet, a positive, constructive, and beneficial purpose, the prohibition against lashon hara does not apply. Motzi shem ra, spouting lies and spreading disinformation, is always prohibited. And if the lashon hara serves as a warning against the possibility of future harm, such communication is not only permissible, but, under certain conditions, compulsory.
Loshon Hora (the evil tongue ... or slander) is considered among the Jewish people as one of the worst sins imaginable ... one almost tantamount to murder in that the good name, livelihood, reputation, etc. can all be destroyed by a single word, look, expression. Therefore, we have laws in great detail explaining all the ramifications of slander ... all its appearances and some ways of rectifying the results ... knowing that full restitution is not always possible ... the results are then left between the perpetrator, the victim, and G-d.
The laws might appear to be complicated ... but just give them some serious thought, and the many ramifications of law will become apparent ... and most interesting ... Jewish law truly is a sea of wisdom.
SPEAKING LOSHON HORA TO A GROUP OF PEOPLE
You are forbidden to relate loshon hora to a single individual or to a group. The larger the group that hears your loshon hora the graver your sin, since the victim will be degraded in the eyes of more people ... Furthermore, a larger number of people have sinned by hearing your loshon hora.
LOSHON HORA THAT IS COMMON KNOWLEDGE
Many people mistakenly think that repeating well-known derogatory information is not considered loshon hora. Quite the contrary, it should be made clear that many halachic (legal) authorities do not differentiate between loshon hora that is well known from loshon hora that is not well known. However, there is a lenient opinion which holds that if someone speaks loshon hora in the presence of three of more people and they subsequently repeat this information, these people are not guilty of speaking loshon hora. The original speaker has of course sinned.
LOSHON HORA THAT THE SPEAKER WOULD RELATE
EVEN IN THE PRESENCE OF THE SUBJECT
If you feel that you would relate loshon hora even if the subject were present, it is still forbidden. Even if you have criticized the subject right to his face, you are still forbidden to repeat the derogatory information to others.
LOSHON HORA STATED IN THE PRESENCE OF THE SUBJECT
Speaking loshon hora about someone in his presence is very serious ... even if your sole intention in mentioning his faults is to criticize him constructively ... Corrective comments should be delivered privately. Offending someone publicly is loshon hora and constitutes a grave sin ... You may also be guilty of causing him humiliation and mortification.
GIVING PEOPLE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT
If at all feasible you should give people the benefit of the doubt. If you relate an incident, not giving the benefit of the doubt in circumstances which obligate you to do so, you would be guilty of speaking loshon hora, and thus failing to perform the commandment b'tzedek tishpot amisecho ... "Judge your neighbor with righteousness."
LAW REGARDING A PIOUS G-D FEARING PERSON
Now we are always obligated to give a pious, G-d fearing person the benefit of the doubt. This is true not only when the chances of zchus (a favorable judgment) and chov (an unfavorable judgment) seem equal, but even when it appears most likely that his action was improper.
LAW REGARDING AN AVERAGE PERSON
The rules concerning giving the benefit of the doubt to an average person are as follows:
If the probability of zchus and chov seem equal, we are obligated to give the person the benefit of the doubt.
If the possibility of chov seems more likely than the possibility of zchus, it is then proper to leave the matter undecided in your mind. According to the letter of the law, however, you are permitted to assume the side of chov.
Even when the side of chov appears most likely, it is meritorious for you to give the person the benefit of the doubt.
Keep in mind what our Sages have said: "Whoever gives other the benefit of the doubt, Hashem Yisborach (G-d) will deal likewise with him" (Shabbos 127b)
"KINAAS HA'EMES" (PASSION FOR TRUTH)
You are forbidden to say that a person did something improper, even if you are motivated by kinaas ha'emes ... that is, you are agitated about the transgression and insistent that the truth be known. Although your words might be meant totally without malice, they still constitute loshon hora. You are allowed to relate details of an improper action only if it is constructive.
RELATING THAT SOMEONE VIOLATES MITZVOS
WHEN IT IS POSSIBLE TO JUDGE HIM FAVORABLY
The average mitzvah (commandment) observer is someone who is normally careful not to violate any mitzvos, but sometimes fails. If you see such a person repeatedly sin, yet somehow fine it possible to exonerate him, you are obligated to judge him favorably, and are forbidden to tell others that he has sinned. Perhaps he did not know that the action was prohibited and therefore he repeated it many times. Or perhaps he did not realize the severity of his transgression.
You are obligated to give such a mitzvah observer the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. Furthermore, you must even refrain from disliking such a person because of his misdeeds.
TSHUVAH FOR SPEAKING LOSHON HORA
If you have spoken loshon hora and want to do tshuvah (repent), the necessary procedure depends on the effects of that loshon hora:
A. If the listeners did not believe what you have told them, and their esteem for the person spoken about was not lessened, the sin is considered one between man and G-d (bain odom laMakom) you have violated G-d's commandments but have not harmed your fellow man. The procedure for doing tshuvah in such instances is the same as in all other violations of mitzvos "bain adom laMakom" ... between man and G-d ... You might notice the very fine distinctions and subtleties in our laws.
You must sincerely regret what you have done. (that's charata)
You must sincerely confess to Hashem Yisborach, G-d. (that's viduy)
You must be resolved never to repeat your sin. (kaholo al l'haboh)
B. However, if the listeners believed the loshon hora, and the person spoken about was lowered in their esteem and he thereby suffered ... physical damage, financial loss, or mental anguish ... the sin is considered as between man and his fellow-man (bain odom la chavairo) sinning against a fellow man. And in such instances you are obligated to request forgiveness from the person who suffered because of your loshon hora. Afterwards you have to again follow the above-mentioned steps for tshuvah ... Are you beginning to understand why we have so many lawyers?
Even if the victim is not aware of the loshon hora you spoke, you are still obligated to inform him about what you have said and ask for forgiveness. Normally you are obligated to specify the wrongdoing when you ask someone to forgive you ... but if this ill cause the person embarrassment, you should not be specific.
It is preferable for the person who has spoken the loshon hora to personally ask for forgiveness. If this is difficult for him, he is permitted to have someone else request it for him.
LISTENING TO LOSHON HORA
The Torah forbids you to listen to loshon hora, even if you do not intend to believe what is spoken.
EXONERATING THE SUBJECT OF LOSHON HORA
When you are able to exonerate the person spoken about, you perform a mitzvah (commandment) by listening to someone belittling another person. By hearing the entire story you will be able to disprove what has been said and find some zechus (merit) for the subject of loshon hora.
CALMING DOWN THE SPEAKER
There is another instance when it is a mitzvah (commandment) to listen to loshon hora ... If you feel that the speaker is merely momentarily agitated and that by presently telling you the loshon hora he will calm down and not repeat it to others who might believe it, you should listen. Even though you are permitted to listen to the loshon hora, you mist keep in mind that it is forbidden to believe what you hear.
REBUKING THE SPEAKER OF LOSHON HORA
If you are in the company of people who are speaking loshon hora, you are obligated to rebuke them. If you remain silent, you will be held responsible for their sins.
WHEN THE REBUKE WILL GO UNHEEDED
And even if you feel certain that the people speaking loshon hora will not heed your rebuke, you are nonetheless obligated to admonish them ... Silence on your part will be mistakenly misconstrued as approval ... Therefore, you must try to defend the victim of loshon hora even if you feel that your effort will prove fruitless.
If a person who begins to relate loshon hora in your presence will be goaded on by your rebuke to increase the flow of his derogatory words, you should certainly not reprimand him. But how are you to save yourself from transgressing the prohibition against hearing loshon hora? ... You should place your fingers in your ears, or better yet, simply walk away.
BELIEVING THAT SOMEONE IS YATZAH MICHLAL AMISECHO
If you hear that someone has completely forsaken Torah observance (yatzah miclal amisecho), you are forbidden to believe the statement, and until you actually verify the information you must continue to render him all services that you are obligated to do for a human being.
NOTE: In the following three sections, the laws specifically mention Jewish groups. I am certain this was due to extreme hardships put upon Jewish people throughout history, requiring us to make special effort to protect our own, especially from our own. Today I would say the injunctions would address all scholars, and all "groups" of people.
LOSHON HORA ABOUT A TALMID CHOCHOM
Speaking loshon hora about a Talmid Chochom (learned Jew), in his presence or absence, is an extremely grave sin. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) ... states that disgracing a Talmid Chochom is punishable by the loss of olam haboh (eternity).
DEFAMING THE DEAD
You are forbidden to defame someone who is dead ... (one who in no way can defend him/herself) ... If the subject was a Talmid Chochom (learned Jew), the offense is even more severe. Btw, any mitzvah (meaning "service" here) done for the dead, is considered the greatest good deserving the greatest merit, in that the benefactor in no way can make repayment for your service ... an interesting concept.
LOSHON HORA ABOUT A GROUP
You are forbidden to speak loshon hora about an entire group, even when you do not specify the names of any individuals ... It is considered loshon hora to speak disparagingly about national or religious groups of Jews, for instance, Chassidim, Misnagdim, Ashkanizim, Sfardim, American Jews.