Numerous prohibitions throughout the Torah address the sin of lashon hara (slanderous speech). One of the most famous appears in Parashas Kedoshim (19:16), “Do not walk about bearing tales among your people.”
God created man and made him into a “living being,” which Targum Onkelos translates (Genesis 2:7) as a ruach mimalela, a spirit that speaks. Speech is the interface between the physical and the intellectual. Man’s ability to speak defines him. From a psychological perspective, speech can reveal the deepest, most carefully concealed attitudes of the speaker. Often, a person vents and gives satisfaction to his inner feelings through words. When a person speaks lashon hara, his malicious words allow him to gain a feeling of superiority. All the while, he tells himself he has committed no aggressive acts, that he is not a mean-spirited person. But this is self-delusion. Our Sages say that “the tongue holds the power of life and death”; lashon hara can destroy lives and often does. Ironically, perhaps no one suffers more than the frequent slanderer himself, who becomes steeped in his most primitive drives.
At the same time, there is a great opportunity in the internal battle against lashon hara. It brings a person face to face with his underlying pettiness or baser desires as he restrains his inclination to speak. A person who resists the lashon hara impulse delivers a powerful impetus to his own spiritual growth and development.
Because of their deep understanding of the dangers of lashon hara and the benefits of the struggle against it, our Sages shunned idle conversation and any type of utterance that may stem from underlying aggressiveness or other base instincts.
The Talmud discusses (Pesachim 3b) the lengths to which we must go in order to avoid bad speech. For instance, our Sages counseled against being a bearer of bad news. Several base emotions are satisfied by bearing bad tidings. Informing others about a death, for example, may give the speaker, at some level, a sense of control over death. He may also unconsciously be satisfying aggressive feelings toward the one who will be bereaved.
The Talmud tells an anecdote (ibid.) about Yochanan Chakukah, who had just arrived from the country. The Rabbis asked him if the wheat crop had been good. Careful to avoid being the direct bearer of bad news, Yochanan responded indirectly that the barley crop had been good. The Rabbis did not find this response about barley, which is used primarily for animal feed, subtle enough. “Go tell the horses and donkeys,” they said sarcastically. What should he have said? The Talmud offers two suggestions. He could have said, “Last year’s crop was good.” Or else, “The lentil crop [usually eaten by humans] was good.” These preferred responses not only avoided conveying bad news directly, they were also associated with something pleasant. This subtle but significant improvement reflects the Sages’ understanding that speech is a window to the soul. Man gains tremendous advantage in the micromanagement of his speech.
Let us take a further look at the verse prohibiting lashon hara (19:16), “Do not walk about bearing tales among your people; do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor; I am God.”
What is the meaning of “standing on the blood of your neighbor”? Our Sages derive (Sanhedrin 73a; Toras Kohanim) from this statement the obligation to rescue an endangered person and the prohibition against suppressing evidence in a court case. Both these laws, which prohibit causing harm through inaction, subtly connect to the first half of the verse. Yet the verse invites a further connection by its contrasting metaphors of “walking” and “standing.”
Perhaps this language is also the source of our Sages’ admonition that the crime of listening to slander is worse than the crime of speaking it. One of the more insidious features of lashon hara is that the speaker easily avoids facing up to the destructiveness of his aggressive act; he tells himself he bears no responsibility, that it was only words. Yet at some level, he knows he is acting out his aggressive feelings, albeit in a lesser way; he is a “walker.” The one who listens to slander, however, has done nothing premeditated or deliberate. He usually has only a moment’s notice before the slander starts to flow, and it is exceedingly easy for him to shrug off all responsibility for what was no more than passive acquiescence; he sees himself as a blameless “bystander.” Therefore, the Torah specifically admonishes him in the starkest terms, “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor, I am God.” Listening to slander is the emotional equivalent of passive acquiescence to murder.
It is appropriate that this discussion occurs in the Pesachim, one of whose etymological derivations is peh sach, the mouth speaks, a homiletic reference to the retelling of the story of the Exodus on Passover.