Hebrew In Israel | What is Lashon Hara? – Learn Torah

lashon hara, evil speech, leshon hara

Hebrew In Israel | What is Lashon Hara? – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi No Comments

The Torah, in Leviticus 19:16, states:

 לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ

“Do not go around spreading slander among your people…”

This verse has always been understood to deal with the prohibition of spreading gossip inside the covenantal community of Torah.  Unfortunately, throughout the years there has been a massive abuse of this law, reaching a point where people would use the claim that something is “lashon hara” (literally meaning “evil tongue” or “evil speech”) as a tool to silence people when their statements are uncomfortable for the listener.  This, unfortunately, is an incorrect interpretation of the law and is, in truth, a demagogy.

Parsing the Verse

Due to the condensed nature of commandments in this section of the Torah, there is very little to ride on when trying to interpret the law.  The two key words in this verse are the word  רכיל rakhil, from the root רכל, which is an infinitive to indicate travelling from place to place with information.  This word in general means gossip, and is closely related to the word רכל rokhel, which is a merchant.  The main principle detected here seems to be the idea of picking up information and taking it from place to place.  Like a merchant who buys and sells all over the place in the market, picking items from one person and giving them to another.  It is also interesting that the marketplace would be the logical place for anyone to pick up information from wherever.

The second important word is בְּעַמֶּיךָ beamecha, which by most can be understood to mean “nation”.  However, can also be translated as your immediate surrounding, such as family, friends and townsfolk.  Hence, the idea is that information that can be considered gossip is usually information contained inside the small circle of your family, friends and townsfolk.  This, in my opinion, would exclude any general information of greater magnitude such as national level, or even municipality level, even if this information is about someone committing a crime or breaking the law.

What are Rekhilut, Lashon Hara, and Motzi Shem Ra?

As explained in the above paragraph, rekhilut is the gathering of information from private people and passing it around to whomever you wish.  This information can be good or bad, however it was passed to that person privately and in confidentiality.  Any violation of the confidence clause and passing of information is categorized as rekhilut/gossip.  This would also include seeing something accidentally or deliberately in someone’s private life.

Lashon hara is a latter term coined in tamudic Hebrew to indicate the principle of passing true negative information about a person.  However, not every passing of information can be classified as lashon hara, even by talmudic standards.  In the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 39a, says

“For Rabah, son of Rav Huna, says all words which are said in front of three does not fall in the category of bad speech.”

Though there are several interpretations to the meaning of this text, one thing is very clear.  Public information or information that becomes public does not fall in the category of lashon hara anymore.  However, the ones who leak out the information are still accountable for the act.  It is only the latter act of the information being discussed by the public that no longer qualifies as gossip or lashon hara.

A third category is the placing of a bad name on someone (motzi shem ra).  This law can be derived from Deut 22:19 with the law of a husband who lies in court and claims that his newly-married wife is not a virgin.  This is a blatant lie and is probably one of the worst forms of spoken offenses possible.  Spreading lies and rumors are damaging to someone’s reputation and cause strife in the community for no reason.

What Does Not Qualify as Lashon Hara?

  1. Public, well-authorized information; meaning something which has been verified and proven to be completely true, even if it is negative, and especially if this information benefits the general public.  This would include warning people about doing business with certain individuals, criminal activity, thievery and so on.  This would also include court rulings, information about government officials who are corrupt and so forth.
  2. Giving testimony in court or in front of any official body that is sanctioned by the general public.
  3. Information that was not passed on in confidentiality.  This category is a little dangerous, and therefore one should be careful what they tell others.  There are social sensitivities and social cues that one should naturally know and understand.
  4. Talking about yourself.  If you’re talking about yourself, there’s no lashon hara in that.  If you’re that dumb, that’s your problem.
  5. Saying negative things–probably the most abused category there is!  Saying something negative, even if it is to the dislike of someone, by no means is lashon hara.  By definition, lashon hara is the passing on of information; not opinions, etc.  If you don’t like someone or something, it is your right.  However, if that someone has done something that you know about, you do not have the right to pass it on.  Therefore, I highly recommend to weigh out how you word things.  However, a public figure or someone who has published something publicly  or information that has been become public and has been verified by public bodies such as a court or government officials no longer falls into this category.  Anything which is hearsay, gossip, tabloid news, or is still under investigation should not be discussed in public unless it will enable others to come forward and give testimonies.

There are probably many more categories that can be placed here.  However, from experience, the attempt to expand these types of laws can end up with an interpretation that bans speech completely.

What Do We Do With Chafetz Chaim?

Probably one of the most famous books on lashon hara was written by Rabbi Israel Meir haCohen of Radin (1839-1933), aka the Chafetz Chaim, which means “one who desires life”.  This is taken from Psalm 34:13, 14:

נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע;    וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.

 סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב;    בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ

Who is the man that desires life, and loves days, that he may see good therein?  

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.

This book became the foremost authority on lashon hara, even to the point of extending beyond Jewish circles.  He also wrote a very famous commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, the famous Jewish book of law.  The Chafetz Chaim saw it as a life mission to educate the Jewish world in keeping people’s communications clean.  It is not uncommon for someone Jewish to pick up one commandment and to turn it into a massive focus of their life.  However, while discussing the subject of lashon hara with my own personal rabbi when I lived in Jerusalem, I came across a great difficulty with the Chafetz Chaim’s interpretations.  My rabbi, who happened to be an ultra-orthodox rabbi, openly admitted that there is an inherent difficulty in the interpretation and it would be wise to seek out what older commentators said about the subject.  Though my rabbi did not want to say anything negative, I understood the hint.  The Chafetz Chaim interpreted all the laws always in a severe manner.  This was evident because he always picked the more severe opinion or always gave a more strict interpretation.  This was very methodic, from what I noticed, and didn’t always fit the source material.  Some may jump and say “This is lashon hara!”  However, expressing an opinion on another opinion, even on a great rabbi such as the Chafetz Chaim is the right of anyone.  Discussing opinions and interpretation, even if you disagree with someone, is not lashon hara.  It would be lashon hara if I would have said something untrue, insulting or offensive (truly offensive, not something that someone “feels” is offensive).  


The most basic principle of rekhilut and lashon hara is the passing of true information that is not intended as public information.  Negative information or lies fall in the category of lashon hara and should not be tolerated by anyone.  The same way we all hope to have a good reputation for ourselves, we should also hope that people in our community (aka, our “am”) would also have that same sense of responsibility for one another.

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