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Beit Midrash Jewish Laws and Thoughts Additional Lessons

Hearing is Not Believing, and other Loshon Hora Question

May I Dangle the Receiver?

Various Halachot of Lashon Hara. Is the one who believes loshon horaworse than the one who told does! How can this be? Can I calm a fight if it will include hearing Lashon hara? And more...
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Question #1: Two of my neighbors are in a tiff, and I have a good relationship with both of them. Should I get involved to try to make peace, knowing that both sides will tell me their version of the story?

Question #2: Someone told me that one who believes loshon hora (disparaging things about people) does more harm to himself than the one who told does! How can this be?

Question #3: Leora* asked me the following question:
(*All names in this article have been changed.)
"Some of my contacts are not so careful about saying loshon hora. Is it sufficient that I hold the receiver at a distance when they begin to tell me things that I do not want to hear?"

I asked Leora if she could think of other options, and she explained, "It is uncomfortable to tell people that they are violating Halacha or to ask them not to gossip. I can create an excuse to end the conversation, such as, ‘the baby is crying’ or some similar emergency. But I would rather not do this unless I must."

Leora's method of being careful to avoid hearing loshon hora, as a halachically observant person must be, is indeed accomplishing its purpose. The question is whether she must do more than this, since the speaker thinks that Leora is still listening? Later I will explain why this may be problematic, and why it may not suffice for Leora to simply "dangle the receiver."

INTRODUCTION

We all know that telling or receiving disparaging information about members of Klal Yisroel violates the Torah. "We are commanded to not accept loshon hora as true and not to look negatively upon the person of whom the story was told" (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:213). Particularly during the period of the Three Weeks, one should be careful not to say or listen to loshon hora.

Exactly what is the prohibition of believing or accepting loshon hora? Before we answer this question, we need to define loshon hora. Two types of derogatory information are included in loshon hora:

I. Loshon hora is information that reflects poorly on someone, creating an unjustified bad impression of him or her. For example, relating that someone once violated certain sins, but has since performed teshuvah and ceased these activities, disparages his reputation and constitutes loshon hora (Chofeitz Chayim 4:1). Bear in mind that loshon hora is prohibited even though it is absolutely true.

II. Another category of loshon hora is relating information that might harm someone even though it is not at all derogatory (Rambam, Hilchos Dei’os 7:5). For example, although it is not offensive to say that someone is in debt, there are many situations where this information could cause him or her harm. Similarly, informing that someone has a wayward aunt is loshon hora if this might disqualify him for a shidduch as a consequence (see Taz, Even HaEzer, 50:8).

DEFINING KABBALAS LOSHON HORA

What should you do if you hear a story that reflects badly on someone?

Before I explain what to do in this situation, we should explain the two types of ill-doing involved when receiving derogatory information.

I. Believing (kabbalas) loshon hora.
II. Hearing loshon hora.

I. BELIEVING LOSHON HORA

The first prohibition against accepting loshon hora is that one now has a lesser impression of a fellow Jew. The fact that the information may be true and he indeed transgressed does not allow me to think less of him, and therefore, I may not accept his sin as definitely true (Zera Chayim pg 361, in explanation of opinion of Yad HaKetanah). For this reason, if I deny that the story is true, I have not accepted loshon hora and I did not violate kabbalas loshon hora.

HEARING JUICY GOSSIP

What do I do if I hear some juicy chitchat?

If you hear some gossip, simply deny that the story is true. My own experience is that most stories are distorted in any case; so it is no great effort to simply deny the story's accuracy.

If one finds it difficult to totally doubt the story, one should re-interpret the story so that it casts the person in a favorable light. For example, perhaps he/she thought that the act committed was halachically acceptable, or perhaps the reported event was misunderstood or only partially observed (see Be’er Mayim Chayim 6:1). For example, if you heard that someone grabbed a child, perhaps he was pulling the child away from something dangerous. If you heard that someone argues with his father, perhaps he was trying to convince him to take medicine.

REINTERPRET THE STORY

Here is an example of how to reinterpret a story: Sharon tells you that Michal was rude to her. You know that Michal is a quiet person; on top of that, perhaps she was distracted or under stress and even less enthusiastic than usual. Sharon, whom you know is sensitive, may have interpreted Michal’s lack of exuberance as rudeness. This interpretation of events will add no negative understanding to what you already know firsthand about both of them. The result is that the reinterpreted story does not place either person in a bad light and is therefore not loshon hora.

In this example, convincing Sharon that Michal was not being rude would be a big mitzvah.

By the way, one may listen to each side of a dispute relate his/her negative impressions of the disputant in order to calm down the quarrel (Chofeitz Chayim, 6:4). Here too, one may not accept either story as absolutely true but reinterpret the events so that they do not reflect badly on the parties involved.

Here is an example: family members are in a dispute concerning how to allocate resources to care for an elderly mother. While resolving this conflict, your goal is to appreciate the merit of each side’s approach and convince the other side that, although they might disagree, no one intends any ill will. Even if you cannot convince them of this, you should certainly not accept that either side means any wrong unless you have convincing evidence to the contrary (Gemara Shabbos 56a; Hagahos Maimoniyos, Dei’os 7:4).

CALMING A FIGHT

Two of your neighbors are in a big tiff. According to Reuven and Rochel, the upstairs kids are totally undisciplined and boisterous, making a racket that ruins Rochel's life. Levi and Leah upstairs, however, have a different story. Their kids are extremely well disciplined and obedient, but Rochel is excessively sensitive to noise and cannot tolerate even the normal sliding of a chair under the dinner table. Since you have a good relationship with both parties and may be able to resolve the squabble, you may listen to each side's complaints about the other but be careful not to believe. It indeed may be true that Rochel is highly sensitive and also true that Levi and Leah do not control their kids. Your job is to make shalom between them, not to accept which interpretation of events as true.

One violates the prohibition against accepting loshon hora when one’s impression of any party is disparaged without adequate evidence. In all the above instances, if one’s positive impression of the people involved remains intact, despite all that one heard, one has successfully avoided accepting loshon hora. (There are exceptions when one may accept what one heard as true, but this is beyond the scope of this article.)

With this background, we can now answer Question #1 above:

Two of my neighbors are in a tiff, and I have a good relationship with both of them. Should I get involved to try to make peace, knowing that both sides will tell me their version of the story? The answer is that I should, but be careful not to accept anyone’s version as accurate.

LOSHON HORA ABOUT A CHILD

There is an interesting halachic difference between these two categories of loshon hora. The first category, that someone did something derogatory, does not apply to the transgressions or faults of a child. Since a minor’s immaturity exempts him from responsibility, it is usually not loshon hora to discuss his misdeeds or capers. One may mention that a child did something mischievous since this action does not reflect negatively on him (see Chofeitz Chayim 8:3 and Be’er Mayim Chayim ad loc.). [Some poskim contend that if the child would be embarrassed by someone reporting what he did, or his activity was not considered age-appropriate, then there is a loshon hora prohibition (Shvilei Chayim 8:4; Shu"t LiChafeitz BaChayim #29). I once read a psak of Rav Chayim Kanievsky shlit"a contending that as long as the story is not harmful to the child's interests, there is no loshon hora about his antics since he is not yet required to observe mitzvos.]

However, when the information could ultimately prove harmful to the child, one may not share it (Chofeitz Chayim 8:3). For example, if a school might refuse to accept a child based on his family background, it is loshon hora to provide the school with this information. Similarly, people smile when told that a young man drew on the wall when he was three years old, but they might assume that he is psychologically unhealthy if they hear that he had violent fits of rage at age 12½.

II. HEARING LOSHON HORA

Until now, we discussed some basic halachos of accepting loshon hora. In addition to the prohibition of believing loshon hora, there is also a prohibition to hear negative things about someone when there is no need for this. It is insufficient to simply not believe what one heard; one must avoid hearing it.

WHAT DO I DO IF SOMEONE BEGINS TO GOSSIP?

How far must one go to avoid hearing loshon hora?

The Gemara (Kesubos 5b) homiletically interprets a verse as saying, "there should be pegs [i.e., your fingers, which are shaped like pegs] inside your ears," meaning, if you sense that someone is about to tell you something inappropriate, you should place your fingers on your ears to avoid hearing it. In other words, one must not only be careful to avoid loshon hora, he must even do something unusual if that is the only way to avoid hearing it. Thus if you are among a group of people and one of them begins to say loshon hora, you should leave immediately. If one is on the phone, and the other party begins saying loshon hora, one should quickly say, "An emergency just came up; I’ll have to call you back later," and abruptly hang up the receiver. Of course, in this last case, one told the whole truth: an emergency did indeed come up, since the other party began saying loshon hora!

What if one is unable to leave and avoid hearing gossip? The Gemara stated that one must even place one’s hands over one’s ears to shun the loshon hora! Nevertheless, the Chofeitz Chayim (6:5) notes that although this is the proper thing to do, many people may find it too embarrassing to sit this way and have people mock them. Under these circumstances, the Chofeitz Chayim rules that one should be careful not to believe the stories being told, and be careful not to want to hear them. It is preferable that one demonstrate his disapproval, at least with his facial expression (Chofeitz Chayim, 6:5).

Rabbeinu Yonah implies that one should demonstrate to the speaker that one does not want to hear the loshon hora. Showing a total lack of interest in the conversation discourages him from saying loshon hora.

We now understand Leora’s original question. She does not want to listen to the gossip she is being told. The question is: to what extent must she demonstrate that she does not want to hear loshon hora. Although dangling the receiver prevents her hearing the gossip, it does not demonstrate disapproval to the speaker. Whereas visible listeners can actually show disinterest, the speaker here may think that she has an avid listener; thus perhaps Leora should put an active end to the conversation. Even though the speaker is not saying loshon hora and there is no listener, the speaker nevertheless thinks that he or she is sinning. Someone who thought he was doing something forbidden, but ended up doing something permitted, needs forgiveness and atonement (Kiddushin 81b; Nazir 23a). The Gemara’s example of this is someone who wanted to eat something non-kosher, but inadvertently ate kosher. The unsuccessful intent to violate the halacha is itself a Torah prohibition.

As a result, although Leora has does nothing wrong, she has also not prevented the person from thinking that she said loshon hora, a sin for which she will require atonement. Therefore I told Leora that it would be better to terminate the conversation, such as saying, "something just came up, I’ll call you back later!" This prevents the talker from violating the prohibition.

WHO IS WORSE?

After all we have discussed here, I can now explain the Rambam’s statement (Hilchos Dei’os 7:3) that one who believes loshon hora inflicts more harm to himself than the speaker does to himself! Why should this be?

The reason is that the requirement of loshon hora is to avoid harming a Jew’s reputation. Who is the greater maligner; One who spreads information that he knows to be true, or one who believes an unsubstantiated story? Certainly, the one who accepts an unsubstantiated report degrading someone denigrates kedushas yisroel to a greater degree (see Nesiv Chayim 6:3).

Rav Chayim Pinchas Scheinberg, shlit"a, notes that when people repeat the pasuk, mi ha’ish he’chafeitz chayim oheiv yamim liros tov, Who is the man who wants life, loves his days to see only good, they often pay little attention to the concluding words liros tov, to see good, even though these words are the key to success in this mitzvah. If you view everyone with a good eye, you will be unable to believe derogatory information about them. As Rav Pam, zt"l, once said, "My mother was incapable of saying or accepting loshon hora; not simply because of her yiras shamayim, but because of her appreciation of what Jews are!" May we all reach the level of seeing the good and really appreciating our fellow Jews.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
Was the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Greater Buffalo, the Congregation Darchei Tzedek and also served as a dayan on the Beis Din of Baltimore. Now is a Rabbi in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem. His Shiurim and Q&A can be found on his site: www.rabbikaganoff.com
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