The Worst Sin

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

A friend suggested we study Maimonides' writings on Lashon Hara found in Pirkei Avos 1:17. Maimonides' words (quoting the Tosefta and Talmud Arachin 15a) were a precious find.

The Tosefta says, "For 3 sins, man is punished in this world and loses his afterlife: for idolatry, sexual prohibitions, and murder…and Lashon Hara is equivalent to them all." 

Maimonides then quotes Arachin that says each of the 3 cardinal sins is described in Torah verses using the word "great" (gadol). Regarding idolatry, Moses said of the Jews' Golden Calf sin, "The people sinned a great sin” (Exod. 32:31). Regarding sexual prohibitions, Joseph refused to sleep with Potiphar's wife saying, "How can I commit this great evil?” (Gen. 39:9) And regarding murder, Cain said of God's punishment of banishment for killing his brother Abel, "My sin is greater than I can bear” (Gen. 4:13). But regarding Lashon Hara, the verse says, "Mouths that speak greatnesses” (Psalms 12:4) using the plural "greatnesses,” and not merely using the word "great" in the singular as the 3 sins above. This is understood to indicate that Lashon Hara incorporates all 3 sins, i.e., it includes all the "greatnesses" of the 3 cardinal sins. 

To clarify, the word "great" here refers to "severe." Moses, Joseph and Cain all viewed the sins as severe, and not minor infractions. But what is this message; in what manner are these 3 sins "severe" when compared to all others? It is amazing that the Torah is so precise, and so generous with its clues. Maimonides draws our attention to the fact that Torah goes out of its way to signal us to a pattern of the repeating word "great" in connection with these 3 sins. Then, it goes one further, and uses the word great in the plural–greatnesses–to teach that Lashon Hara incorporates all the evils found in idolatry, sexual prohibitions and murder. In other words, God wrote his Torah through His Prophets in a style that hints at deeper ideas. For this alone we must feel a sense of appreciation for the Creator's method of teaching us. 

So what is the severity in the 3 sins, not found in other sins? And how is Lashon Hara equivalent to these three sins?

An example is useful here. In terms of harming one's self, not harming others, which sin is more severe: being overly-jealous, or never giving charity? Both are extremes. I would say the latter is worse. Why? It is because one is corrupted in the area of justice, which is far more significant of moral decay than one's feelings of envy. My acts of justice reflect a more primary nature in man than envy.  

What makes one attitude or moral more significant than others? This depends on its centrality to our being. As humans, we have major and minor components. We have a multitude of attitudes and emotions: envy, sorrow, pity, remorse, humor, delight, revenge, apathy, ambition, the list goes on. If we are deviant in any of these feelings or attitudes, it is not as corrupt as being deviant in major components of ourselves. I refer to what psychologists and our great Rabbis agree are our 3 major components: 1) the soul (intelligence), 2) instinctual drives, and 3) the ego. The Rabbis call these neshama, nefesh and ruach respectively. Freud called them the superego, the id, and the ego. (See Ibn Ezra on Koheles 7:3 for a marvelous analysis.)

Now, if we are deviant in our primary components, we are more corrupt, than if we deviate in minor emotions. This is understood. Being a sloppy dresser is not as bad as being crooked in business due to ego emotions.  For our style is not central to our definition as a human, whereas ego is a primary component. If we corrupt our egos, that which is more central in ourselves is corrupt, so the sin is worse. Similarly, the sicker person is one with liver disease, not one with a wart. We can now answer what makes these 3 sins so severe.

Idolatry occurs when man's grip on reality is lost. He accepts his imagination and fantasy as real. Thus, he bows and prays to stone idols. He has erred in the most important area: what God is. His soul is severely damaged, unlike one who thinks blue is red. In both cases, one maintains a falsehood. But the greater the falsehood, the more corrupt the person. 

One who cannot control his sexual desire and sleeps with a married woman has corrupted his instinctual makeup. If this makeup is not under his control, he lives like an animal, hates his friend, and forfeits his purpose to live as an intelligent being. And one who murders does so, as he views another person's existence as a threat to his ego. In his world, he feels he set things "right" when the threat is no longer alive.

In all three, the person has distanced himself from God; either through corrupt soul as he thinks God is something else; through overindulgence in lusts which removes him from a life as an intelligent being, or placing himself—not God—as the center of the universe by murdering others. This explains why these three sinners are punished here, and forfeit the afterlife. All 3 sinners have deviated severely (gadol) from the path God set for mankind. Their lives no longer have value. Their souls are destroyed, unless they repent. This is why the word "great" is reserved for application to these 3 sins, for it is these alone, wherein man deviates in his major components.

How is Lashon Hara equivalent to these 3?

We must appreciate that speech is a very gratifying tool; we feel deep satisfaction through our words. This makes it akin to sexual prohibition, for it too aims at satisfaction of an instinctual drive.

When speaking Lashon Hara, we are intent on character assassination. We don't wish to pay the consequence of a prison term for murder, so we "kill" the person we hate through speech. This is how it is akin to murder. We view another person as worthless, for they threaten our ego. Our concept of ourselves in this case is the "center of reality," and this obscures God's position.

Lashon Hara is also akin to idolatry, as we said, one fabricates a "setting it straight" scenario in his psyche when he derides another. In his fantasies he feels that through Lashon Hara, he got even. But in fact, nothing transpired at all, just as nothing is true about the belief in idols hearing one's prayers. In Lashon Hara and idolatry, one accepts imagination as reality.

What's worse, is that Lashon Hara eventually makes a person deny God, as King David said, "They say, 'We will grow mighty with our tongues; our lips are with us, who can rule us!” (Psalms 12:5) One feels through speech, he attained power over reality; he has created statements heard by others and in his fantasy, he equates his words with true reality. There is an invincible feeling sensed by one who speaks. This is the message King David revealed to us.

Great sins are where we deviate from God in the most severe degree. This occurs when a major component of our beings is sinful. Our major components of soul, instincts and ego are the focus in the big 3 sins, and in Lashon Hara.

God communicated His knowledge to the Prophets. He hinted to subtle clues in many manners. And in our case He hinted by reserving the use of the word "great" to 3 sins, and Lashon Hara. The Rabbis picked up on this repetition, and taught us God's intent as learned from His prophets. 

Fortunate are we who have the Torah.