Tuesday, June 25, 2024

On Lashon Hara and the Surgeon General’s Warning


On Lashon Hara and the Surgeon General’s Warning

I think every parent was a little relieved to hear the surgeon general of the United States recommend that a warning label be posted on social media. Just like we have warning labels on cigarettes and warning labels on alcohol ads, we need warning labels for parents to know that they should keep their kids off social media as much as they can.

We see it as a plague on youngsters today. Easy access to social media has led to  on line bullying and shaming. Even  in supposedly solid Beverly Hills, a Middle School a student shared a photo-shopped image of a classmate in a very compromising position that had never happened, and the damage was done.

So I can envision a whole series of warning labels coming out now:


. (Wikimedia commons).

Yes get rid of these nonsensical video shorts which are the only way our young people are getting the news now.

I saw someone beat me to the punch with Tik Tok, so I decided to get creative:


Yes, Instagram- images of whatever that no one wants to see.


 The other major source of , I can’t believe it, official government notifications, all reduced to 280 characters!?

So, let’s see how far back our Jewish tradition has dealt with such loose   bombardment of truths,and more often, half-truths, worse  than outright lies.

I can claim that the origin of the “ Tweet” is Biblical: Eccelsiastes 10:20:

גַּ֣ם בְּמַדָּֽעֲךָ֗ מֶ֚לֶךְ אַל־תְּקַלֵּ֔ל וּבְחַדְרֵי֙ מִשְׁכָּ֣בְךָ֔ אַל־תְּקַלֵּ֖ל עָשִׁ֑יר כִּ֣י ע֤וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ יוֹלִ֣יךְ אֶת־הַקּ֔וֹל וּבַ֥עַל (הכנפים) [כְּנָפַ֖יִם] יַגֵּ֥יד דָּבָֽר׃

Don’t revile a king even among your intimates.
Don’t revile a rich man even in your bedchamber;
For a bird of the air may carry the utterance,
And a winged creature may report the word.

There you go—the first instance of Twitter in history. Maybe that’s why Musk preferred “X”.


Of course, it is clear,  that the danger from loose talk, ill talk of others, is not a Jewish or modern problem. You all had to learn Othello at some point, and there is that famous line, by Iago:

“ Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands: But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed.”

Iago, the master villain, who kills by destroying the good people by slander, is the one who teaches us the virtue of a Good Name.!

The very end of our Torah portion this week, Behaalotekha, as interpreted by our sages, brings us to this very topic.

Story of Miriam-Numbers 12,

Miriam and Aaron spoke against [Note: “Against”  is an interpretation, not a literal translation] Moses because of the Cushite woman he had taken: “He took a Cushite woman!”

They said, “Has יהוה spoken only through Moses? Has [God] not spoken through us as well?” יהוה heard it.

We note that Miriam here is taking the lead, not Aaron, who we know is not the confrontationist.

Moses is meek, so God rises to his defense, and Miriam is struck with leprosy.

 We understand, from Rabbinic interpretations, that leprosy is punishment for “ Meztora”-“ Motzi Shem Ra”, speaking evil about someone. In this same vein, the Rabbis understand, in our next portion, that the twelve spies  bad mouth the land of Israel. That’s what we call “ Lashon Hara”, Bad Language.

Here are some of our sources, which the Surgeon General is free to borrow for his warning  label:

Lo telech rachil be amcha--Lev 19:16

Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people. Rachil-rechilut-gossip.  Just as a peddlar ( Rochel) peddles his wares from one to another, so the slander “ goes peddling” his merchandise of slander. Or, as Rashi explains- Rachil  is from spying (Meragel) upon one’s neighbor to find a flaw.


We have another perspective, from the Talmud, about the dangers of “ loose lips”.

(Arakhin 15b:22 ) On the phrase” Be-Yad Halashon”- In the power of the word, but literally, “in  the hand of the tongue”.

א"ר חמא ברבי חנינא מאי דכתיב (משלי יח, כא) מות וחיים ביד לשון וכי יש יד ללשון לומר לך מה יד ממיתה אף לשון ממיתה אי מה יד אינה ממיתה אלא בסמוך לה אף לשון אינה ממיתה אלא בסמוך לה ת"ל חץ שחוט לשונם

Rabbi ama, son of Rabbi anina, says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Does the tongue have a hand? Rather the verse comes to tell you that just as a hand can kill, so too a tongue can kill. If you were to claim that just as the hand kills only from close by, so too the tongue kills only from close by, therefore the verse states: “Their tongue is a sharpened arrow” (Jeremiah 9:7). The tongue kills like an arrow that is fired from a bow, at a great distance.


The danger of bearing evil news, even if true, with ill intention, is derived from the story of Saul who destroys the entire city of Nob, because the inhabitants had given shelter to David, his enemy:

The discussion refers to a phrase “ Triple”, like a Triad or a Three-some, in regards to tale-bearing:


Jerusalem Talmud Peah 1:1:47

Why is it called “triple?” Because it kills three: The one who says it, the one who accepts it, and the one calumniated. And in the days of Saul, four were killed: Doeg who said it [he reported that the priests at Nob protected David] , Saul who accepted it [ and executed the people as a result and eventually died himself], Aḥimelekh who was calumniated[ the priest who sheltered David and was killed], and Abner. Why was Abner killed? …The rabbis say, because he did not let Shaul make peace with David. [In other words, he could have ended Saul’s enmity and prevented the greater tragedy.] But some say, because he had it in his power to intervene for Nob, the city of priests, and he did not intervene.”

Is it then any wonder that three times a day, we add in our Amidah prayer:…

אֱלֹהַי נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.

My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully.


 This is a phrase taken directly from Psalms:34:14

Which raises the question, How do we gain life?

מִֽי־הָ֭אִישׁ הֶחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים אֹהֵ֥ב יָ֝מִ֗ים לִרְא֥וֹת טֽוֹב׃

Who is the man who is eager for life,
who desires years of good fortune?

And the answer is:

נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֝שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה׃

Guard your tongue from evil,
your lips from deceitful speech.

 For your inspiration, I am putting here a very popular rendition of this Psalm:


This  leads me to one of the great Sages of modern Jewish teachings, the Rabbi who adopted these verses as the title of his book, and in turn became known  by that title:


The Sefer Chofetz Chaim is a book by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, who is also called "the Chofetz Chaim" after it. The book deals with the Jewish laws of speech.

Yisrael Meir ha-Kohen Kagan (January 26, 1838 – September 15, 1933) was an influential Lithuanian Jewish rabbiHalakhistposek, and ethicist whose works continue to be widely influential in Orthodox Jewish life.

By all accounts, he was a modest and humble man, faithfully devoted to his Jewish faith. For a while, he had a shop selling household provisions, which he and his wife managed.

During his lifetime, Kagan was venerated by Jews and non-Jews alike.

So, I have put here a sampler of his words of advice:

Silverstein translation http://www.sefaria.org/shraga-silverstein

Selected items:


…And if we carefully searched our ways — which of the sins have primarily caused the length of our exile? — we would find them to be many; but the sin of lashon hara above all, for several reasons. First, for it was the major cause of our exile …. This being so, as long as we do not undertake to correct this sin, how can there be a redemption, the sin being so severe as to have caused us to be exiled from our land!




Introduction to the Laws of the Prohibition of Lashon Hara and Rechilut


Negative Commandments

One who bears tales against his friend transgresses a negative commandment, viz. (Vayikra 19:16): "Do not go talebearing among your people." What is talebearing? "Loading oneself" with words and going from one to another, saying: "This is what ploni [so and so] said about you"; "This and this is what I heard ploni did to you." … And there is a sin much greater than this — lashon hara, which is included in this negative commandment. And that is speaking disparagingly of one's friend, even if what is said is true. But one who speaks falsely [about his friend] is referred to as a "motzi shem ra" [one who spreads an evil report].

[ Don’t post it on Facebook or Instagram or Tik Tok in the first place]

And the speaker or the receiver [of lashon hara] also transgresses (Shemoth 23:1): "Do not receive [tissa] a false report," which can also be read as: "Do not spread [tassi] a false report," so that this negative commandment includes both [the speaker and the receiver].

[Don’t open the post you got, and if you do get one, don’t retweet or repost or click “like”]




Positive Commandments


And he [the speaker of lashon hara] also transgresses (Vayikra 19:18): "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself," whereby we have been commanded to be as solicitous for our friend's money as we are for our own, and to be solicitous of his honor, and to speak in his praise, as we are solicitous for our own honor.




And if through his lashon hara or rechiluth he lowers his friend so that he loses his livelihood as a result, as when through evil-heartedness he publicizes his friend as being dishonest, or, if he is a worker, as being unfit for his work, or the like, he also transgresses (Vayikra 25:35): "And if your brother grows poor and his hand falls with you, then you shall uphold him [even if he be], proselyte or sojourner; and he shall live with you." And (Ibid 16): "And your brother shall live with you,"…. How much more so are we commanded not to cause him to lose his livelihood!

[Remember, it all shows up when the boss interviews your neighbor for a job!]



Seif 5

There is no difference in the issur of speaking [lashon hara], as to whether one speaks it of his own volition or whether his friend stands over him and begs him to tell him — in either case, it is forbidden. And even if his father or his Rabbi — whom he is obligated to honor and to fear and not to contradict their words — even if they importune him to speak of a certain thing, and he knows that in the midst of the account he will perforce come to speak lashon hara or even only the "dust" of lashon hara, he is forbidden to consent.


This issur of lashon hara obtains whether it is actually spoken by mouth or stated in a letter [ That would include a false Tweet!]  . There is also no difference whether he speaks it explicitly or by sign.[ No Emogis and GIFs!] In all modes, it is in the category of lashon hara.


Seif 9

And know also that even if in demeaning his friend he demeaned himself with the very same slur — even if he began by railing thus against himself, he has nevertheless not left the ranks of the slanderers.

Seif 8

There is no difference in the language of the exhortation, whether he exhorted them not to mention the subject at all anymore, or whether he said to them, "Let none of this be made known by you" — in all modes, it is forbidden to reveal the demeaning of another, even to a different person; how much more so to the person demeaned himself. For if it is revealed to another, in the end it will become known to all, and even to him [the person demeaned] through the channels of "Your friend has a friend, etc."


And, therefore, one must take great heed, even if a man is known to have had a certain fault in his youth, but from then until now he has been conducting himself correctly; or if it is known about his forbears that they did not conduct themselves correctly at all, but he does not hold on to their ways, and all such things, where, in truth, he is not open to aspersion, it is forbidden to demean him or to shame him before his friends because of this [early fault]. [ Don’t go searching on Google for someone’s dirty past!]


Seif 12

 That is, when someone lectures in the house of study it is forbidden according to the din to mock him and to say that there is nothing to his lectures and there is nothing to hear. And in our many sins we see many people to be remiss in this, not considering this mockery as an issur at all. But according to the din it is absolute lashon hara. For through such speech it often happens that he causes monetary loss to his friend, and, sometimes, pain and shame, too

 [ Don’t knock your professor-or the Rabbi-no matter how boring the lecture is!]


Seif 13

If one revealed to his friend, in the presence of three, details of his occupation or trade or the like, things which, in general, are otherwise forbidden to repeat afterwards to another, lest this result in injury or pain to him — now, since he himself revealed it in the presence of three, it is evident that this is of no concern to him, even if it comes to be known in the end. Therefore, the one who hears it from him is permitted ab initio to reveal it to others, so long as he [the teller] does not make it clear that he is opposed to his doing so. [ In today’s terms, if you were not made to sign an NDA-non-disclosure agreement, you may share trade secrets, as  they are no longer secret].




If one wishes to bring his friend into his affairs, such as to hire him for his work or to go into partnership with him or to make a match with him, and the like, even if until now he has heard nothing negative about him, still, it is permitted to make inquiries of people as to his character and his dealings. Even though they may tell him something negative about him, still it is permitted, since his intent is for his own good alone, so that he will not come afterwards to injury or to strife or to contention and desecration of the Name, G–d forbid. But it appears to me that he must apprise the one he is making inquiry of, that he wishes to make a match with him [the one he is inquiring about] or enter some kind of partnership, as mentioned above. [ Therefore, I may do a background check on a job applicant, as long as that is  known and agreed to. This is a legitimate action for self-protection.]



And know that just as it is forbidden to slander one's friend, so is it forbidden to "slander" his possessions (see Rabbeinu Eliezer Mimitz in Sefer Yere'im). And it is very common, in our many sins, that one shopkeeper slanders the wares of another (and so, in other instances of the same kind), out of envy. And this is absolute lashon hara according to the Torah. [ A form of truth in advertising]


                                So, you now have the warning label on your smartphone or computer- from the Surgeon General, and Rabbi Weinberg, to the great ethical authority, the Chofetz Chayim. You can also throw away your newspaper Tabloids, and have a much better life!

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