Forbidden Speech - Loshon Hora

Rivka Olenick


“Shimon, the son of Rabban Gamliel said: All my days I grew up among the Sages and did not find anything better for one’s person than silence. Study is not the essential thing - deed is, and whoever engages in excessive talk brings on sin.” (Pirkei Avos) 

How easy it is to engage in excessive talk. Do we stop and think about what is considered excessive? When we are alone we think, “I just wish I could talk to someone.” However, from the statement above by Shimon, “he did not find anything better for one’s person than silence.”

When we are part of a group/family, the need for continuous talk is satisfied. I can say whatever I want, with my group/family. And since everyone has something to say, then what I say won’t sound so negative, like gossip, and maybe won’t be repeated, and probably won’t even be remembered.

In Pirkei Avos, it says, “whoever engages in excessive talk brings on sin.” The Rambam says that when a person speaks excessively, he will surely sin because within his words, there will be at least one concept that was unnecessary to mention. It is clear; excessive talk always leads to sin. It leads to forbidden speech, loshon hora. What is considered excessive? The Rambam says most of what we say is superfluous, unnecessary. So if most of what we say is unnecessary, then it is also excessive. Excessive talk is an indication of foolishness, as it is written: “A fool’s voice is known by a multitude of words.”

What about the person/people who listen to loshon hora, forbidden speech? Have they sinned by listening? Our Sages say that the person who receives the loshon hora, forbidden speech - is more severely affected than the one who speaks it. The Chofetz Chaim adds, that the punishment for accepting loshon hora is more severe than the punishment for speaking it! How can the person know before that what he is about to hear will be loshon hora? Why should he/she be punished more than the person who first thought it, found someone who would listen to it, and then said it? What is the difference between being affected by loshon hora and accepting loshon hora?

A person is affected by the forbidden speech - just by listening to it. It is still considered forbidden even if by listening to it your intention is not to accept it. Accepting loshon hora, forbidden speech is a more sever punishment because although you heard negative information about a person you still are not permitted to accept this information without further investigation. This ‘acceptance’ applies only to your business dealings or a match for marriage; it permissible to accept the information to protect oneself, but not to accept the information as fact. So, imagine the negative information you heard was about your sibling - naturally you would not want to accept this information and you might immediately think: this information could be false. That is exactly how we should feel about our fellow Jew as protective as we would be of our own sibling.

There are five categories of speech according to the Rambam. What I refer to above is the second category of speech that includes: false testimony, lies, gossip, curses, vile speech and slander. The Torah is specific in what is included in this category.

The first category is what we are ‘commanded’ to speak: reading from the Torah, Torah study, and looking into its meanings. Category two I cited above.

The third category includes information spoken about by everyone, which is not positive or negative. This is called idle talk. Examples of this would be, “How so and so became wealthy (the most popular “idle” talk!); how a public figure acted a certain way; how a building was built, etc.

The fourth category - “derech eretz” the way of the world - describes acquiring desirable attributes and avoiding negative ones - speech about emulating others with positive traits. Traits that are ethical, intellectual, praise of the wise, their conduct and how important their virtues are and how we should strive to emulate them. Included is speech that discourages undesirable traits, how not to emulate their behavior and their ways.

The fifth category is left to us. This includes one’s personal agenda: one’s livelihood, food, clothing and other needs.
A person can speak about these needs as much as he/she wants. However, it is beneficial to minimize even this type of talk when possible.

“Loshon Hora kills three people: the one who speaks it, the one who listens to it, and the person about whom it is spoken.” Arachin 15b, Jerusalem Talmud (Pe’ah 1:1)

How encouraging it would be if people would invest more energy and effort into the first category and much less energy and effort into the second category!