In Bereshit 37:2, we are informed: “Joseph being seventeen years old was feeding the flock with his brothers; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.” It is because of this evil report, lashon hara, our Sages tell us (Tanchuma, Va-Yeshev 7) that Joseph incurred all of his subsequent anguish.
Just as Joseph was punished for transmitting lashon hara, so was David later punished for accepting lashon hara. In Shmuel II 16:3-4, we are told: “And the king said, ‘And where is your master’s son?’ And Ziva said unto the king, ‘Behold, he abides at Jerusalem, for he said, today shall the house of Israel restore me the kingdom of my father.’ Then said the king to Ziva, ‘All that belongs to Mephibosheth is yours.'” As a result of David’s accepting this lashon hara from Ziva, our Sages indicate, the kingdom of Israel was later split (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 56b). The haste exhibited here by David to convict based on lashon hara, the Sages recognized, later propelled ten tribes to secede from the united nation of Israel based on the lashon hara of Jeroboam. In contrast to Joseph and David, our Sages recount (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 87b), “On what account did Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, merit to be mentioned among the kings of Judah? On account of his not accepting lashon hara concerning Amos.”
The act of lashon hara, Rambam (Maimonides) notes, in his Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Deot 7:1, is prohibited by the verse, “You shall not be a talebearer among your people.”
The transgression of lashon hara, Rambam proceeds to relate (ibid., 7:2), is “that one sits and says ‘So did so-and-so do, and so were his forefathers, and so did I hear about him’.”
To be sure, this act of lashon hara is very difficult to avoid. In the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 164b, we are told that one is entrapped by this transgression every day, and, later on, in Bava Batra 165a, we find, “The majority [are suspected] in theft; and the minority in lewd behavior; and all in lashon hara.” In fact, we are quite aware of our frequent violations of this prohibition. We discuss a fellow employee’s “loafing” on the job, one’s colleague swindling his superiors, another’s apparent inconsiderate behavior, or an acquaintance’s drunkenness.
Nevertheless, despite the frequent transgression of the interdict against lashon hara and the difficulty in avoiding this prohibition, Talmudic and Midrashic literature is replete with statements that condemn and warn us of the gravity of this act of lashon hara. For example, in the Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 118a, our Sages relate, “All who speak lashon hara…deserve to be thrown to the dogs.” In the Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 5a, we find, “If one hears something that is improper, one should place his fingers in his ears.” And in Bamidbar Rabbah 19 we find that lashon hara takes the life of the one who speaks it, of the one who listens to it and of the one it is spoken about.
Despite this extensive deprecation of lashon hara, we find several cases in which our Rabbis are lenient: (1) In the Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 61a, we find that, although one should not accept lashon hara, one should be wary of it. (2) The amora, Rabbah, tells us in the Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b that anything that is said to the face of the one who is spoken about is not considered to be lashon hara. (3) In Arakhin 16a, Rabbah bar Rav Huna states that anything that is mentioned before three people is not considered to be lashon hara.
According to the medieval Talmudic commentators, the Tosafot, it appears that the latter two leniencies are but statements of the normal course of events, rather than sanctions for saying lashon hara in such circumstances. In other words, we are told that in a case in which one is willing to report a certain matter to three people, whereby the report would eventually reach the one spoken of, or in a case in which one is willing to report a certain matter concerning a certain person to that person himself, that report is normally not lashon hara – malicious gossip and unconfirmed rumor. If the report were merely malicious gossip or the like, the one who reported it would normally not desire the person spoken of to become aware of it. However, if one would report a matter to three people or to the person spoken of with definite intentions of degrading an individual, the report would be prohibited (see R. Yisrael Meir Kagan’s Chafetz Hayyim, Hilkhot Lashon Hara 10).
Upon examination of these limitations and restrictions upon lashon hara, if these limitations are adhered to, they serve to produce a very important end – the improvement of social relations. It is incumbent upon us all to seek to live in harmony with our fellow human beings, rather than to stir up bad feelings and negative reactions by spreading lashon hara about others. When a person becomes aware that his or her acts are being discussed publicly in a negative fashion, it only helps to make that person feel antagonized and mistreated and can result in his or her mistreating the one who initiated the rumor or those among whom it was spread in ways that he or she never did before.
We should take a lesson from Joseph and David. They were punished for allowing themselves to be ensnared by the tempting practice of lashon hara. Let us not suffer the same fate.