The notion of a news source that omits all forbidden gossip–lashon ha-ra–seems like a pipe dream. Perhaps those with rabbinic supervision approach this ideal. But are we halakhically required to obtain our news solely from those sources? May we read other newspapers, respectable media even if they do not fully reach our standards? Rabbis have often complained about reading newspapers. The Chafetz Chaim repeatedly warns people not to read them because of the rampant lashon ha-ra (e.g. his letter #42). However, those who wish to be aware of world occurrences have no choice but to read or hear the news, either in a newspaper or on some other device. And they will inevitably stumble across lashon ha-ra. Are they halakhically permitted to do so?

Reading Newspapers

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I. Newspapers and Lashon Ha-Ra

The notion of a news source that omits all forbidden gossip–lashon ha-ra–seems like a pipe dream. Perhaps those with rabbinic supervision approach this ideal. But are we halakhically required to obtain our news solely from those sources? May we read other newspapers, respectable media even if they do not fully reach our standards?

Rabbis have often complained about reading newspapers. The Chafetz Chaim repeatedly warns people not to read them because of the rampant lashon ha-ra (e.g. his letter #42). However, those who wish to be aware of world occurrences have no choice but to read or hear the news, either in a newspaper or on some other device. And they will inevitably stumble across lashon ha-ra. Are they halakhically permitted to do so?

Interestingly, one rabbi argues that the Chafetz Chaim himself would permit reading a newspaper that contains lashon ha-ra under certain conditions. The Chafetz Chaim (1:2:10) writes that even when you have permission to repeat some information because it has already become publicized (and all other conditions are fulfilled) you may still not tell it to someone whom you know will automatically believe it. His accepting the story is a violation which you may not facilitate.

II. Reading Is Not Believing

R. Binyamin Cohen (Chelkas Binyamin on Chafetz Chaim 1:7:4 in CB 6) deduces that if the listener (or reader) will not automatically believe the information, if he evaluates news stories and does not accept them uncritically, then he does not violate any prohibition by hearing or reading lashon ha-ra. However, R. Cohen is quick to point out a contradiction.

Elsewhere, the Chafetz Chaim (1:6:2) writes that you violate a prohibition by listening to lashon ha-ra even if you do not intend to believe it. They very act of tilting your head to listen is forbidden. There are two aspects to this prohibition, each equally forbidden: listening to lashon ha-ra and accepting it.

The Chafetz Chaim (ibid., BMC 2) proves this from the Gemara (Shevu’os 31) that a judge is forbidden to hear one litigant’s claim before the other litigant arrives because of lashon ha-ra. The Chafetz Chaim analyzes this text from various angles and concludes that it proves the previously mentioned point. But above he implied that you are only prohibited from listening if you will accept the story as true. Which is it?

III. Don’t Look For It

R. Cohen (ibid., 1:2:10 in CB 18) struggles with this contradiction, leaving it unresolved. Perhaps we can suggest that the difference is a matter of intention. If you consciously attempt to listen to lashon ha-ra, then even if you maintain a skeptical attitude you have listened. But if you do not try to listen to lashon ha-ra, you do not “tilt your head to hear,” then you do not violate the prohibition because the lashon ha-ra comes to you and not you to it. It is a prohibition that comes to you passively and against your will (see Chafetz Chaim 1:6:5 BMC 14). You might still violate the prohibition of accepting lashon ha-ra. But if you maintain a skeptical attitude and do not look for lashon ha-ra, then if you happen to read it you have not violated any prohibition.

If the above is correct, and I fully admit that it is all speculative, then a critical reader would be allowed to read a newspaper that sometimes contains lashon ha-ra. If it regularly contains lashon ha-ra, then your reading it is essentially tilting your head to hear. But if it is there incidentally, you need not worry if you stumble across such a forbidden article. However, you must maintain a skeptical attitude toward the reporting, recognizing the limitations of journalism and the need to refrain from judging the subjects based on such limited evidence and without hearing both sides of the story.

(As always, ask your rabbi for personal guidance and do not rely on internet or newspaper guidance)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

16 comments

  1. Even without the Lashon Ha-Ra issue, certain newspapers are fanatically dedicated to relentlessly bashing the Jewish faith and the Jewish people and the Jewish land, or at least constantly present them in the most negative way possible, while consistently presenting those who seek to harm Jews in the most positive way possible.

    Jews are the only, repeat ** ONLY ** people in the word who persistently purchase and read newspapers that deliberately and consistently portray them negatively and unfairly.

    One Jew complained to me on countless occasions that The New York Times is very unfair to Israel, yet that same Jew reads the NYT 365 days a year, and he will continue to do so until the day he dies.

    Check out this link:
    http://www.beyondbt.com/2009/06/23/why-do-frum-jews-purchase-anti-orthodox-and-anti-israel-periodicals/

  2. An extrapolation (perhaps practiced by the nikei Yeushalayim) would be not to associate in any way with people who speak lashon hara on any regular basis (i.e. become a monk?)
    KT

  3. I think the assumption that halakha keChafetz Chaim be dinei lashon hara needs to be rexamined. RAL has often complained that the chofetz chaim does not sufficiently take into account the potential damage done by not saying lashon harah. He is “machmir” on the side of the subject of the lashon harah. (see also Benny Brown’s briliant article on the CC’s hilkhos lashon hara) Many an abuser has been protected under the cover of laws of lashon hara, and a community that has been taught not to accept accusations against “unserers”.
    Further more the CC did not believe in democracy or an open society. As such he does not see the free flow of information as crucial to society.

  4. I’d need more specific examples to agree. From what I can see, the issue is the application of the Chafetz Chaim’s rules. I think they can be applied fairly liberally.

  5. R. Lichtenstein (in an interview in the Commentator a few years back) said that the rules of lashon hara do not really follow (exactly) those outlined in the Chofetz Chaim’s sefer, because if they did, then we wouldn’t be allowed to report a teacher who beats his students. Perhaps someone else can find the interview to get R. Lichtenstein’s exact words, but the example of beating students was the one he gave in the interview.

  6. Wasn’t “My Uncle the Netziv” banned in part because it revealed that the Netziv read newspapers?

  7. R’JB,
    I thought it was reading the newspaper on shabbat
    KT

  8. Agree with Moshe Shoshan. And before the CC, much of klal Yisroel observed hilchos loshan hara.

  9. Barry Kornblau

    Graphic is very cool! How’d’ja do it?

  10. Google: create newspaper clipping

  11. Amazing, anytime you quote hilchos Lashon Horah, the Benny Brown quotes come out in full force.

    Eliot – in his introduction, the CC specifically points out that in his experience, even talmidei chachomim don’t observe hilchos lashon horah. That’s the CC claiming that, not little ole’ me. So, obviously, your point is disputed.

  12. Oh, BTW, I heard a hilarious line from the new Oorah Schmorg 5. It has impressions from Shlomo HaDarshan (a badchan/comedian), who does a great imitation of Rabbi Juravel. To paraprase, he gives the following story: “There was an older woman who became frum. She says that when she wasn’t frum she didn’t even know what lashon horah was. Now, she speaks it perfectly!”

  13. MiMedinat HaYam

    1. “the issue is the application of the Chafetz Chaim’s rules. I think they can be applied fairly liberally”

    i think he rules too strictly.

    2. “And before the CC, much of klal Yisroel observed hilchos loshan hara.”

    the CC says otherwise, claiming that is why he wrote the book.

    3. the CC’s strictness was always opposed by various … gedolim / poskim. but its the CC, so who can argue? luckily, we see, RAL agrees with the others.

    4. article should have mentioned a side point of shabbat is another issue.

    5. MOAG has the story of (later a major RY) who was caught reading a newspaper (on a weekday) in yeshiva. he accepted the fine (5 kopecks, or so.) but insisted on getting back his newspaper. the RY had to agree, that he he gets back the paper.

  14. Virtually all newspapers today also contain immodest images. In the print NYT, and the NYT magazine, this would be mainly in the ads, and to some extent in the news photography. In online newspapers such as Daily Mail or news sites such as Huffington Post, nearly unclothed women are all over the place (men too, to a lesser extent). DrudgeReport, a popular conservative-leaning news site that I imagine is read by many conservative Orthodox Jews, links to DailyMail on a daily basis. So this is something that should be of great concern as well as the lashon hara issues.

  15. Is there any meaningful way of deciding what is news and what is lashon hara?

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