The Severity of the Sin of Lashon Hara
The prohibition to speak Lashon Hara and Rechilut (negative speech and slander) are among the most serious in the Torah. The Rambam (Hilchot Dei’ot 7:1-3) writes: “even though one is not flogged for this sin (Rechilut), nonetheless it is a terrible sin and causes the deaths of many in Israel…..Our sages have taught that there are three cardinal sins for which one is both punished in this world and cause him to lose his share in the future world, which are idolatry, adultery and murder and Lashon Hara corresponds to these in severity…..Our sages also teach that one who speaks Lashon Hara denies the most important principle of faith (i.e. belief in Hashem)…..Our sages also said that Lashon Hara kills three, the one who speaks it, the one who accepts it and the one it is spoken about; and it damages the one who accepts it more so than the one who spoke it”.
Moreover, the classic work of Mussar (ethical literature) Orchot Tzadikim writes (section twenty five): “Scrupulously avoid speaking Lashon Hara, because one who speaks Lashon Hara degrades himself, as one who denigrates others is himself denigrated. His manner is to criticize others with his own flaws, because this is what constantly lurks in his heart….One who speaks Lashon Hara searches for people’s flaws and is compared to a fly who will always land on the dirtiest of places. If there are boils on a part of a body, a fly will disregard the healthy portions of skin and will rest on the boils. So too with one who speaks Lashon Hara - he disregards the good in people and instead focuses on the bad.
In regards to certain sins, repentance for the most part involves behavior modification. For example, if one has become lax in observance of Shabbat or Kashrut, he for the most part needs to focus on changing the behaviors, especially when challenging situations arise. However, a habitual violator of Lashon Hara must engage in deep introspection in order to cure himself of this sick activity. He must think deeply about his character flaws and poor attitude that lead him to speak Lashon Hara. For example, once one resolves to have a more positive attitude to Hashem’s creatures and world he will find it far easier to refrain from Lashon Hara than merely training himself to restrain himself when he is tempted to do so. Moreover, he needs to make peace with his own flaws and be content with his station in life.
Lashon Hara between Close Friends and Spouses
A persistent, albeit inaccurate, rumor is that one is permitted to choose one “designated friend” to whom one may speak Lashon Hara. The Chafetz Chaim (Sefer Chafetz Chaim Hilchot Lashon Hara 8:10) dispels this notion and writes: “There is no distinction regarding the prohibition to speak Lashon Hara between those with whom he is related or friends or his spouse….Many make the mistake of speaking Lashon Hara to their wives about what occurred to them in the synagogue or the market place. In addition to violating Lashon Hara he increases conflict between individuals, because she will harbor the anger and will enter the conflict with her husband’s adversary or his family. She also might persuade him to continue to pursue the fight [whereas otherwise he might have not done so]. In the end she will lose respect for him [her husband] due to all the conflict.
Da’agah B’lev Ish Yesichenu
Nonetheless, there might be situations where one engages in healthy discussions about certain issues where one does not violate the prohibition of Lashon Hara. The Pasuk in Mishlei (12:25) states Da’agah B’lev Ish Yesichenu. The Gemara (Yoma 75a) offers two interpretations of this verse. One opinion translates it “One who has anxiety in his heart should strive to eliminate the matter from his mind” and the second opinion explains it as follows: “One who has anxiety in his heart should talk about it to others”. The Chafetz Chaim (ad. loc. 10:14) based on the second opinion considers the permissibility of speaking evil of others in the limited situation of seeking relief from anxiety.
Indeed, Rav Hershel Schachter on this basis permits one who is suffering psychological anguish to speak freely to a therapist in order to bring peace to his soul. However, Rav Schachter cautions that the Chafetz Chaim harmonizes the two opinions in the Gemara. The opinion that recommends disregarding the irritation refers to minor annoyances that are best to simply ignore. The opinion that permits Lashon Hara to eliminate anxiety applies only to discussions of major concerns.
An example of a more serious situation may be a persistent problem with a parent, teacher, coworker or supervisor who routinely treats one poorly and the victim seeks advice as to how to effectively manage and cope with the situation. An example of a situation which is better ignored is where one is bothered that a particular individual did not extend a greeting on Shabbat or other occasion. Rashi (Bava Batra 15b s.v. Minhag Haolam) teaches that we should develop a healthy attitude and raise our tolerance level regarding such minor annoyances. One who does not “sweat the small stuff” lives a far happier life than one who harbors grievances over relatively minor matters.
Da’agah B’lev Ish Yesichenu - Close Friends
An example of a therapeutic conversation between close friends (in this case two female friends) is described in a question posed to Rav Yuval Sherlow, a leading personality in some Religious Zionist circles (Techumin 27:177).
“Occasionally I meet with a friend ‘over a cup of coffee’ and we analyze various interpersonal issues that arise with her family members and vice versa. Solutions emerge from our conversations and occasionally the conversation itself reduces that what seemed terrible to its appropriate proportions. At the end of the conversation she always thanks me for assisting her very much by helping her see matters differently, and in general to let off steam…..I am happy to feel that I have helped but always in the back of my mind there are question marks as regards to the laws of Lashon Hara, especially since I know the people involved. What are the appropriate boundaries in such a situation?
Rav Sherlow responded that it is a great Mitzvah to provide an open ear to someone in need but the following four points need to be observed. The intention must be for the Mitzvah and not for gossip. The conversation should not deviate into areas where are not necessary and relevant to the issues at hand. Discretion must be paramount, as one cannot share these conversations with others. Finally, one should recall that both Halacha and experience teach there are always two sides to a story and that there are other perspectives to the situations described.
A fifth condition may be added that one limit the discussion to one close friend with whom one can be confident to receive a satisfactory response and not repeat such conversations with others. Frank conversations with a trusted and wise confidante are particularly important for those who are in the dating process. In the process of selecting a spouse, which is often the most important decision of one’s life, challenging decisions often need to be made. A delicate balance must be struck between not being overly selective on the one hand and not being sufficiently selective on the other hand. Such conversations can both rescue relationships that should work and also spare individuals from unhealthy situations.
Conversations between Spouses
Rav Schachter specifically mentions a spouse as a primary example of Da’agah B’lev Ish Yesichenu. However, we must ask if a spousal relationship enjoys any special exemptions from the laws of Lashon Hara? Rav Sherlow cites a responsum from Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 20:52) which he argues can shed light on this important question. Rav Waldenburg was asked if a doctor who gives information regarding his patient to his secretary to archive, violates the prohibitions of Lashon Hara and Rechilut? He justifies this practice and among his other considerations is the following: “Since otherwise the doctor cannot properly execute his duties and must employ a secretary in order to archive the results, and this is planned in advance, it is considered as one continuous organic unit, to investigate and develop action plans as is required. It is viewed as if the doctor shares the information with himself”.
Rav Sherlow argues that the same applies to a marriage since: “Husband and wife constitute an ‘organic unit’ in the deepest sense of the phrase. Therefore they talk about every topic in the world including matters that a wife speaks only with her husband…However, one must emphasize that this principle applies exclusively to a husband and wife and cannot be expanded to the connection between parents and children”.
I do not believe that Rav Sherlow contradicts what we cited from the Chafetz Chaim earlier that there is no special spousal exemption from Lashon Hara. A spouse does not need to relate to his/her partner every perceived slight to his/her honor that occurred throughout the day. One should discipline himself to ignore such minor incidents. Rav Sherlow’s ruling may be followed only in regard to conversations that are truly necessary for a couple to function as “an organic unit” such as deciding which schools to send their children or strategizing as to how to best meet the variious challenges faced by their family.
Those who observe the Halachot of Lashon Hara live far happier lives. Indeed, we recite from Tehillim (34:13-14) every Shabbat “Who is the one who wants life, loves days to see good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from uttering deceit”. There are specific situations where it is permitted and is necessary for healthy living to articulate negative perceptions of others. However, these exceptions should not be abused and not detract from our striving to create a holy and happy life where we think and speak positively of others whenever possible.