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Keeping Secrets

 

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

It goes without saying that according to halacha, it is strictly forbidden to reveal the secrets of others. In fact, in addition to the basic prohibition against lying, which one transgresses when breaking a promise not to reveal a secret, doing so is also a violation of the Torah’s prohibition of “smiting one’s neighbor in secret” [1] King Solomon teaches us that “talebearers reveal the secrets of others but the faithful protect them”.[2] The prohibition against revealing the secrets of others applies equally to everyone – especially to rabbis and other trusted officials.[3] Revealing the private affairs of another person is so severe that the Talmud notes that Rav Ami expelled a student from his Yeshiva for having revealed confidential information that was entrusted to him twenty-two years earlier![4] One must be careful to avoid any social settings which might force one to reveal or even hear the private affairs of other people.[4]

Of course, repeating the secrets of others also falls under the umbrella of lashon hara and is in fact one the most severe forms of lashon hara.[6] It is interesting to note that according to halacha, one is to assume that anything one is told is to be kept secret unless specifically instructed otherwise.[7] Much ink has been spilled on how lashon hara, especially exposing the secrets of others, has the potential to destroy friendships.[8] It makes no difference whether one was told the secret in private or in the context of a larger group.[8] One is obligated to keep a secret even in a situation wherein none of the rules of lashon hara would be transgressed by revealing it.[10]

There are, of course, a number of exceptions in which revealing a secret is permitted, and often required. For example, a doctor who has information about a patient whose condition is likely to put the public at risk is permitted to notify the appropriate authorities.[11] In fact, a doctor or other trusted official who withholds such information may be guilty of the Biblical prohibition of “standing idly by your neighbor’s blood.”[12] There are also limited circumstances where one is permitted to reveal the secret of another to save someone from financial loss.[13] Similarly, in certain situations, it is permitted to reveal sensitive information which might be vital regarding a shidduch in order for the parties involved to make an informed decision.[14] It is also often permitted to reveal information to an employer regarding a prospective employee’s dishonesty or unreliability.[15] Even when it is permitted to reveal the secrets of another person, one must ensure that one is doing so with noble intentions and not for any ulterior motives. One must also be sure not to exaggerate any such information when one relates it.

Closely related to the prohibition of revealing the secrets of others is the prohibition to read the mail or other documentation which is addressed to others. So too, one may not listen to other people’s phone conversations, and other such similar activities.[16] Not only is reading other people’s mail forbidden, it is even forbidden to open envelopes and packages addressed to others, even if one has no intention of examining the contents.[17] One is permitted to read documents and other materials which have been discarded or if it is clear that the person they belong to would not mind.[18] As such, postcards and other explicitly exposed materials may be read.[19] It is forbidden to open and read the little notes and prayers that are left at holy sites, such as at the Western Wall.[20] Our sages teach us that the extent of the severity of revealing secrets cannot be over emphasized.[21]


1 Devarim 27:24

2 Mishlei 11:13

3 Sanhedrin 29a

4 Sanhedrin 31a

5 Sefer Chasidim 461

6 Chafetz Chaim Issurei Rechilut 8:65, Rambam Deot 7:2

7 Yoma 4b

8 Erchin 15b

9 Hagahot Maimoniot Deot 7:7

10 Rabbeinu Yona 3:225

11 Yechave Daat 5:60, Tzitz Eliezer 15:81:2

12 Rambam Rotzeiach 1:14, C.M. 426:1

13 Rambam Sefer Hamitzvot #297

14 Sanhedrin 73a

15 Chafetz Chaim 1:4,6

16 A ruling generally attributed to Rabbeinu Gershom though some doubt exists as to its true origins. See Bnei Banim 3:17.

17 Beit David cited in Bnei Banim 3:17

18 Maharam Mirottenberg 160a, Be’er Hagola Y.D. 334

19 Bnei Banim 3:17

20 Bishvilei Haparasha p.405.

21 Orchot Chaim of the Rosh 41

 

 
 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

19 Responses

  1. moshe shoshan says:

    “It goes without saying that according to halacha, it is strictly forbidden to reveal the secrets of others. ”

    I dont think that this goes without saying at all. there are certainly pesukim and maarei chazal that discourage it, but realing secrets is neither lying nor necessarily lashon hara as it is normaly understood. can you quote (not just cite) a source that defines such behavior violating an issur?

  2. Ari Enkin says:

    How’s “v’asita et hayashar v’hatov…”???

    Ari Enkin

  3. moshe shoshan says:

    sorry, thats a general moral principle. does anyone derive from this a specific prohibtion against revealing secrets?
    its seems to me that you have invented a halakhic prohibition. doesnt mean that revealing secrets is nice, but there seems to be no issur.

  4. joel rich says:

    I might not have used the term secrets – I did my tikkun leil shavuot on b’al tomar (see yoma 4b) which isn’t limited to what we would call secrets. Maareh mkomot available on request
    KT

  5. moshe shoshan says:

    gil
    thanks for clarifying the source of the issur.

  6. Yirmiahu says:

    “How’s “v’asita et hayashar v’hatov…”???”

    Perhaps that prohibits having secrets?

  7. Isaacson says:

    Are the examples that you list regarding when it is permitted to reveal a secret the totality of the times where this is permitted? What about things that will only affect one or a few individuals (not the public)? What about revealing a secret that will affect a shidduch?

    Could you perhaps provide some more guiding principles on when revealing a secret is permitted or required?

  8. Mr. Cohen says:

    I thank Rabbi Ari Enkin and Hirhurim for this excellent and important essay.

    I hope to bli neder return part of that favor by sharing a few of my Torah quotes on this subject.

    PS: footnote numbers [4] and [8] were both used twice;
    you might want to correct that

  9. Mr. Cohen says:

    Mishlei, Chapter 25, Verse 9:
    …and the secret of another, do not reveal.

    Rashi:
    In addition to not revealing the secrets of other people, also do not reveal the foolish deeds of their ancestors.

  10. Mr. Cohen says:

    Tanna DeBei Eliyahu Raba, Chapter 8, End of Paragraph 3:
    Because King Hezekiah ate together with Gentiles, and he showed them the Holy Ark, and revealed secrets to them, he was given the wicked King Menashe to be his son.

  11. Mr. Cohen says:

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Balak, chapter 16:
    The Jewish People were saved from Egypt because they practiced four merits:
    They did not change their Jewish names, they did not abandon the Hebrew language,
    they did not reveal secrets and they did not commit immorality.

  12. Mr. Cohen says:

    Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, chapter 53:
    Whoever slanders a Jew in secret has no share in the World to Come.

  13. Mr. Cohen says:

    Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, chapter 54:
    The Holy One Blessed Be He said:
    Whoever slanders his fellow in secret has no cure,
    how much more so when he slanders his brother,
    who is the son of his father and mother.

  14. Mr. Cohen says:

    Commands of Rabbi Eliezer the Great, Chapter 10, Paragraph 28:
    My son, do not reveal a secret to your wife. Be faithful with every person, and do not reveal his secret even if he conflicts with you, and more so if he is at peace with you.

    Commands of Rabbi Eliezer the Great, Chapter 14:
    My son, do not pain your friend about his faults, ignoring his good while focusing on his bad. Conceal your friend’s faults, and do not reveal his crookedness to the world.

  15. Mr. Cohen says:

    Midrash Tehillim for chapter 7, paragraph 1 of 14:
    The wall has ears [people may be listening even when you think they are not.]

  16. Mr. Cohen says:

    Shevet Mussar, Chapter 13, Paragraph 4, Subparagraph 85:
    Your words should not be heard outside the house
    [because you were speaking too loud inside the house].

  17. Mr. Cohen says:

    Sefer Pele Yoetz, Perek Dibur:
    A person who reveals a secret is considered as if he worshipped idolatry.

    ספר פלא יועץ – ערך דבור
    המגלה סוד כאילו עובד ע”ז

  18. Steve Brizel says:

    Issacson-think of this WW2 adage “loose lips sink ships.”

 
 

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