What would you do if a friend is considering marriage and you know that the potential spouse had a serious flaw? Are you permitted to reveal the flaw to your friend? In this issue, we will explore when Halacha permits and even obligates someone to reveal a significant flaw and when one must remain silent.
Flaws that Someone should Reveal about Himself
The Torah prohibition of Onaa (Lo Tonu Ish Et Achiv, Vayikra 25:14) forbids us to misrepresent the merchandise that we sell (see Bava Metzia 59-60). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Even Haezer 4:73:2) writes that most certainly this prohibition applies to when presenting himself/herself to a potential marriage partner. He even suggests that misrepresenting oneself to a potential mate is even more serious of a sin than misrepresenting merchandise. Thus, Rav Moshe in this responsum writes that if one is suffering from Marfan’s syndrome, he must reveal this flaw. Elsewhere Rav Moshe writes (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 4:118) that a girl must reveal that she is not a Bitula. Interestingly, Rav Moshe advises that she should not reveal this on a first date. Rather, when things begin to look “serious” then she should reveal her past and explain that she has done complete Teshuva.
Indeed, the Sefer Chassidim (507) writes that one should not conceal flaws from a potential marriage partner. The Sefer Chassidim explains that it is preferable for the couple to separate than live a miserable life together. However, one need not reveal every minor flaw. It seems that one must reveal only a flaw that is highly likely to cause the marriage to be an unhappy one. In fact, Rav Hershel Schachter told me that if someone sells an automobile, he need not enumerate every flaw, unless it is a highly significant one. Indeed, the Gemara (Yevamot 45a) seems to indicate that one need not reveal that his father is not Jewish. See, however, Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Nishmat Avraham 3:251) who rules that one must reveal if one’s father is not Jewish or if a parent is a convert. The Steipler Rav (commentary to Yevamot 45a), though, appears to disagree. One must consult a Rav regarding this profoundly delicate and sensitive question regarding which issues one must reveal. Similarly, if one’s mother had remarried without the benefit of a Get from her first husband and an eminent Posek ruled that he or she is not a Mamzer/Mamzeret because the mother’s first marriage was a conducted in a non-Orthodox manner, then he/she must ask a Posek whether this information must be revealed.
Revealing the Flaws of Others – Background Information
The question becomes even more sensitive regarding the issue of revealing another person’s flaw to his or her potential marriage partner. First, we must outline the parameters of the prohibition to speak Lashon Hara. The Rambam, in the seventh chapter of Hilchot Deot, outlines the three basic prohibitions regarding evil speech. The first prohibition is called Rechilut, telling stories about another even if they are true and even if the content is not negative. The second and even more severe transgression is the prohibition of Lashon Hara, speaking evil about another even if the content of the speech is true. The third and most severe sin is Motzi Shem Ra, speaking evil about another when the content is not true.
The Rambam emphasizes the severity of the Aveira of Lashon Hara. He writes, “it is a severe sin and it causes the destruction of many Jewish souls.” He cites Chazal who say that one that speaks Lashon Hara is the equivalent of one who rejects the existence or omniscience of Hashem. Moreover, the Rambam quotes Chazal who regard Lashon Hara to be equal in severity to the sins of murder, promiscuity, and idolatry combined.
The following Talmudic passages emphasize the severity of the transgression of Lashon Hara. The Gemara (Yoma 4b) states that if someone tells you something, you are forbidden to repeat that information until given express permission to do so. The Gemara cites the Pasuk (Vayikra 1:1) that states “and Hashem called to Moshe from the Ohel Moed to say [to the children of Israel]” as a source for this rule. We see that Hashem authorized Moshe to repeat what He told him. If Hashem had not given this authorization, Moshe would have been forbidden to tell Am Yisrael what Hashem told him. Moreover, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 31a) teaches that a judge may not reveal how he voted in a Bait Din split decision. A Dayan who informs a litigant how he voted in his case violates the prohibition of Rechilut. The Gemara also teaches that there is no statute of limitations associated with the Rechilut prohibition. A student was once banished from the Bait Midrash for revealing a secret that was twenty-two old.
Exceptions to the Rule
Despite the severity of the transgression of Lashon Hara, there are times when one is permitted or even obligated to reveal someone’s flaws. The Rambam (Hilchot Rotzeiach 1:14) writes “Whoever can save another individual and fails to do so violates the Torah prohibition of Lo Taamod Al Dam Reiacha, do not stand idly by while your brother’s blood is being shed. Therefore, if one sees someone drowning in water or robbers are setting to attack him and he can save him, or he hears people planning to harm him and set a trap, and he fails to inform and warn him, he violates the Torah prohibition of Lo Taamod Al Dam Reiacha.”
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 426:1) codifies this passage as normative Halacha. Accordingly, Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechave Daat 4:60) concludes that the prohibition of Lashon Hara applies only when one maliciously seeks to harm another. However, if his intent is for a constructive purpose or to prevent damage, the prohibition of Lashon Hara does not apply. Instead, the obligation to save another takes effect. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, popularly referred to as the Netziv (Haemek Davar Vayikra 19:16) explains that it is for this reason Hashem juxtaposed the prohibitions of Rechilut and Lo Taamod Al Dam Reiacha in the same Pasuk. The Torah thereby indicates that even though there is a prohibition to gossip, nevertheless, there is a prohibition to remain silent if he knows that someone is in trouble and can be saved by the information he will divulge.
The Six Requirements of the Chafetz Chaim
In accordance with these passages in the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, the Chafetz Chaim (Hilchot Rechilut 9) rules that one must reveal a serious flaw to the person the flawed individual is considering for marriage. However, he writes that one must pass a six-pronged test to determine if such revelation is appropriate. First, he must be absolutely certain that the information is true. Second, the flaw must be of very great significance. Third, his intentions in revealing the information must be entirely noble and not vengeful in any way. Fourth, there must be a reasonable chance of that the information will effect the person receiving the news. If it is most likely that the person will ignore the news then one may not reveal the information. Fifth, one may not exaggerate the information. Sixth, there must not be an alternative way of achieving the desired goal without revealing the sensitive information.
Three Responsa – Rav Breisch, Rav Waldenberg, and Rav Ovadia Yosef
Three rulings from three major twentieth-century authorities will help illustrate what types of information must be divulged to the relevant party. A doctor posed the following difficult question to Rav Yaakov Breisch (Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov 3:136) a few decades ago. A twenty-year-old man, who suffered from cancer and was expected to live no more than a year or two, became engaged to a young woman. The doctor asked whether Halacha permitted or required him to inform the Kalla of her Chatan’s illness. Rav Breisch ruled that the doctor was obligated to inform the Kalla of her Chatan’s illness.
A doctor asked Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 16:4) about a female patient who had no natural reproductive organs and was engaged to a young man. Rav Waldenburg ruled that the doctor must reveal the information to the Chatan. Rav Waldenburg ruled that the same applies if the man’s reproductive organs were seriously impaired. He explains that even though all doctors take the Hippocratic oath not to reveal confidential patient information, a religious doctor never intended this oath to apply when it conflicts with Torah Law.
Interestingly, Rav Waldenburg advises that the doctor should first inform the woman that the Torah obligates her to reveal her flaw to her potential mate. Only if she fails to inform the Chatan should the doctor divulge the sensitive information to the Chatan. In this manner, the woman is potentially spared the humiliation of having the doctor reveal this highly sensitive information about her. A Rav who is skilled in this area can advise similar strategies to help cushion the blow in such circumstances.
Rav Ovadia Yosef (ad. loc.) was asked whether a doctor may reveal to the government department of motor vehicles that his patient who is applying for a driver’s license is afflicted with epilepsy. Rav Ovadia rules that the doctor is obligated to tell this information in order to preserve life and property.
Each of these cases involved very serious flaws that had to be revealed. However, everyone has flaws and one cannot simply decide to reveal any flaw to someone who is dating the person seriously. Moreover, many cases are “borderline cases” and are difficult to decide such if a woman behaved poorly during Get proceedings with her first husband or if he withheld a Get from his first wife for some time. One must present these very delicate cases to a competent and experienced Rav for adjudication. A mistake in either direction can potentially have devastating consequences.
Both Rav Yosef and Rav Waldenburg cite the Pitchei Teshuva to Orach Chaim 156 who decries the fact that people often fail to say Lashon Hara when they should. Indeed, people often speak Lashon Hara when they should not and do not speak Lashon Hara when they should. Indeed, Rav Nachman of Bratzlav’s celebrated aphorism that the entire world is a very narrow bridge, certainly applies in these situations. It is both a terrible sin to speak Lashon Hara when it is wrong to do so and it is a terrible sin to not speak Lashon Hara when one must do so. A competent Rav who has significant experience in dealing with these issues must be consulted regarding these most sensitive and crucial questions.