Is Careful Language Possible?

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The eightieth yahrtzeit today of R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, author of the important works Chafetz Chaim and Mishnah Berurah among others, offers us the opportunity to consider whether his rules for careful speech are realistic. While forbidden speech comes in many forms, I would like to focus on the cases where lashon ha-ra–true but disparaging information–is permissible. The Chafetz Chaim (1:10:2) lists seven conditions that must be fulfilled before saying negative information. Many learn this list and conclude that they cannot abide by the overly strict regulations. However, I contend that the rules that are not nearly as strict as commonly thought. They are realistic when applied properly.

Here are the seven conditions one of my children brought home from school on a refrigerator magnet:

  1. You must be certain that the information is 100% accurate.
  2. You must be sure that the wrong has been committed.
  3. You must speak to the wrongdoer first and try to persuade him to rectify his behavior.
  4. You cannot exaggerate the matter in any way.
  5. Your intention must be only to help the person who is being victimized (the person you are telling the Loshon Hora to).
  6. If you can achieve the same result without speaking Loshon Hora you must use that option.
  7. Your words cannot cause the person to suffer a greater loss than halacha would impose.

These correspond to the list of seven conditions in Chafetz Chaim (1:10:2):

  1. Certainty – You must personally witness the events you are considering describing. If you heard it from someone else, you may not repeat it unless you know with certainty that it occurred as described.

    However, later (2:9:2), the Chafetz Chaim omits this condition. In a footnote (9), he explains that when someone else may be saved from damage by this information, you must reveal it even if you are uncertain. In a further note to this footnote, the Chafetz Chaim adds that if you are certain about the information, your failure to reveal it to prevent further damage violates the prohibition against standing by your fellow’s blood. If you are not certain, then it is a mitzvah (positive act) but not obligation to reveal the information. However, you must add proper disclaimers that clearly delineate the limitations of your information. (See similarly in 1:4:10:43.)

    Going back to our list, in a footnote (5), the Chafetz Chaim implies that you may repeat information you heard (without certainty) about someone in a specific case that will prevent damage to a third party. But in our case (in the list), preventing damage is so remote that it is insufficient to permit revealing the negative information.

  2. Consideration – You may not reach your judgment hastily but must carefully consider whether the person’s can be explained in a positive way. You must look at the context to understand what has occurred and why. I have nothing to add to this.
  3. Rebuke – Before repeating damaging information about someone, you must approoach him and gently rebuke him and try to convince him to change his ways. Only after (and if) you fail then you may tell others about his misdeeds.

    However, the Chafetz Chaim adds later (par. 7) that if you know he will not listen to you, then you can skip this step. However, when you tell others, you must do so in front of at least three people. This leniency is very surprising because the Rema (Orach Chaim 608:2) rules that even if you know someone will not listen to your rebuke, you must still confront him once. Why does the Chafetz Chaim exempt people from that initial rebuke? The Chafetz Chaim (Intro:Asin:5) clearly disagrees with this Rema. See also Mishnah Berurah (Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun 608:13), where he quotes views consistent with his position here and relies on them slightly to take a middle position.

  4. Precision – You must tell the story precisely, without any exaggeration. If you exaggerate, you lie and inflict additional damage. Additionally, you may not omit any information that sheds a slightly better light on the information. The Chafetz Chaim writes similarly, regarding a potential partnership (2:9:2) and marriage prospect (2:9:6), that you may not exaggerate the information.

    However, he writes (1:4:10:43) about warning your children or students to stay away from someone who is a bad influence, that you may exaggerate if necessary. R. Binyamin Cohen (Chelkas Binyamin 1:10:2:CB 10) struggles with this contradiction and suggests that you are allowed to exaggerate if it is really necessary. It all depends on the circumstances, the potential damage that might occur to the innocent if you do not exaggerate.

  5. Intent – When telling the negative information, you must intend to help others and not damage the person who is the subject of the information.

    Later, the Chafetz Chaim (2:9:11:28:*) writes that this condition is subject to a debate between the Sema (Choshen Mishpat 461:28) who requires it and the Taz (ibid., sv. kedei) who does not. According to the Taz, by protecting others you are doing a mitzvah, regardless of your intent. However, the Chafetz Chaim argues that, according to the Taz, if you have the wrong intent then you will inevitably fail one of the other conditions. R. Binyamin Cohen (ad loc., Bi’urim 15) suggests that the debate between the Sema and the Taz do not apply to lashon ha-ra and that both would agree that intent is irrelevant. However, he is explicitly disagreeing with the Chafetz Chaim on this.

  6. Last Resort – You may only tell damaging information if you cannot accomplish your goal in another way. Lashon ha-ra must be your last resort. I have nothing to add to this.
  7. Appropriate Results – You may only tell damaging information if the subject will suffer consequences that are consonant with halakhah. If he will be overly punished, you may not reveal the information.

    However, the Chafetz Chaim points out in a footnote (12) that this can cause an impossible situation. A thief in an area where the government punishes thieves beyond halakhic requirements will have free reign over Jews, who may not reveal his crimes. Therefore, the Chafetz Chaim writes, we may set aside this condition to prevent harm in the future. Elsewhere, I noted places where the Chafetz Chaim seems to contradict this leniency (link) and suggested that you may only reveal the information indirectly is the criminal will suffer undue consequences.

My point in this exercise is not that readers should conclude that these rules can be dismissed. Rather, these rules are nuanced. Like all areas of halakhah, this subject requires detailed study and inquiry of halakhic authorities. The more we study these laws, the more we are able to apply them properly and internalize them.

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.

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