The Hebrew term lashon hara (or loshon horo) (Hebrew לשון הרע; "evil tongue") is the halakhic term for derogatory speech about another person. Lashon hara differs from defamation in that its focus is on the use of true speech for a wrongful purpose, rather than falsehood and harm arising.
Speech is considered to be lashon hara (detraction) if it says something negative about a person or party, is not previously known to the public, is not seriously intended to correct or improve a negative situation, and is true. Statements that fit this description are considered to be lashon hara, regardless of the method of communication that is used, whether it is through face-to-face conversation, a letter, telephone, or email, or even body language.
Lashon hara (lit. "evil tongue") is considered to be a very serious sin in the Jewish tradition. The communicator of Lashon Hara (and rechilut) violates the prohibition of "Lo telech rachil b'ameicha (Leviticus 19:16)."
By contrast, hotzaat shem ra ("spreading a bad name"), also called hotzaat diba, or motzi shem ra (lit. "putting out a bad name") consists of untrue remarks, and is best translated as "slander" or "defamation" (calumny). Hotzaat shem ra is worse, and consequentially an even graver sin, than lashon hara. And the act of gossiping is called rechilut, and is also forbidden by halakha.
The noun lashon, "tongue", followed by the definite article ha and the adjective ra, "evil". The Hebrew noun lashon means "tongue", and as in many languages, "speech" or "language". The phrase is generally translated as "evil speech". The term corresponds to the idea of an evil tongue in other cultures, such as the Latin mala lingua, the French mauvaise langue, and the Spanish mala lengua.
The term lashon hara does not occur in the Tanakh, but "keep thy tongue from evil" (נְצֹר לְשֹׁונְךָ מֵרָע) occurs in Psalm 34:14. The Torah contains a general injunction against rekhilut (gossip): "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD" (Leviticus 19:16). In addition, the words "ye shall not wrong one another" (Leviticus 25:17) according to tradition refer to wronging a person with one's speech.
The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) lists lashon hara as one of the causes of the Biblical malady of tzaraath. In Sotah 42a, the Talmud states that habitual speakers of lashon hara are not tolerated in God's presence. Similar strong denouncements can be found in various places in Jewish literature.
In Numbers chapter 12, Miriam gossips with her brother Aaron. She questions why Moses is so much more qualified to lead the Jewish people than anyone else. God hears and strikes her down with tzaraath. Miriam had to stay outside of the camp for a week due to the tzaraath. During this time, all of Israel waited for her.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan wrote two major halakhic works on the evil tongue: Chafetz Chaim ("Desirer of Life", Psalms 34:13-14) and Shmirat HaLashon ("Guarding the tongue"), both 1873. The Chafetz Chaim lists 31 speech-related commandments mentioned in the Torah. An English translation, Guard Your Tongue, (2002) anthologizes the teachings of these two books.
Baalei Lashon Hara
The expression Baalei Lashon Hara literally means "masters of evil tongue", and it refers to habitual speakers of Lashon Hara. The serious prohibition of communicating lashon harah relates foremost to somebody who incidentally did so. Someone who makes it his habit to talk lashon harah about others ("did you hear ...", "do you already know ...", etc.) is called a ba'al lashon hara. By repeatedly communicating so, lashon hara became an integral part of this person, and his/her sins are far more severe, because this person regularly creates a Chillul Hashem, meaning a "desecration of the name of HaShem" (Leviticus 22:32). Lashon Hara and also Rechilut and Motzi Shem Ra are not accepted social tools in (Orthodox) Judaism because such behavior cuts the person who does in this manner off from many good things in the world around them. It is often phrased that one should stay away from people who communicate Lashon Hara because any day, one will almost certainly become an object of derogatory communication by the same people.
There are times when a person is supposed to speak out, even though the information may be disparaging. Specifically, if a person’s intent in sharing the negative information is for a to’elet, a positive, constructive, and beneficial purpose, the prohibition against lashon hara does not apply if the lashon hara serves as a warning to prevent the possibility of future physical harm or, if the truth, to exonerate the subject of any wrongdoing he or she may originally be accused of. Hotzaat shem ra, spouting lies and spreading disinformation, is always prohibited. It is important to note that even with positive intentions, there are many important limitations regarding when it is permitted to speak lashon hara.
- 'hotzaat shem ra' / 'hotzaat diba' - spreading a bad name
- 'motzi shem ra' - lit. putting out a bad name, see Tazria#Leviticus chapter 13, Metzora (parsha)#Leviticus chapter 14 2
- 'rechilut' - talebearing that incites hatred and resentment
- "Judaism 101: Speech and Lashon Ha-Ra". jewfaq.org. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
- Morgenstern, Arthur B. "The Prohibition of Communicating Lashon Hara". Ethics of Speech - Shmiras ha-Lashon. Project Genesis Inc. Retrieved 20 March 2014.
- A Commentary on Catullus - Page 19 Robinson Ellis - 2010 re the Virgilian motto: " "baccare frontem cingite, ne vati noceat mala lingua futuro" .... would seem to show that the notion of witchcraft was originally that of the evil tongue (mala lingua) rather than the evil eye."
- John A. Lent -Third World mass media and their search for modernity Page 179 1977 "Lewis, writing about the features of West Indian society that make it more traditional than modern, delineated a number of interpersonal communications traits: Passion for intrigue; malicious gossip, the famous Trinidad mauvaise langue
- Caroline Sweetman Men and masculinity - Page 50 1997 "... to less acceptable but more aggressive methods of power enforcement such as spreading malicious rumours or mauvais langue".
- Cuban-American literature and art: negotiating identities - Page 24 Isabel Álvarez-Borland, Lynette M. F. Bosch - 2009 "The difference between the two organs is that whereas the diseased body is put in the care of medical specialists, responsibility for the ailing tongue, for la mala lengua, rests with the speaker alone. The only treatment available to ..."
- Cassell's Spanish dictionary: Spanish-English, English-Spanish Edgar Allison Peers - 1968
- Speaking for themselves: Neomexicano cultural identity Doris Meyer - 1996 "An article entitled "La lengua" [The tongue], appearing about the same time in El Nuevo Mundo [May 18, 1899], begins with the traditional equation between moral character and probity of speech. The image of a "mala lengua" [evil tongue]"
- "Psalms 34 / Hebrew - English Bible / Mechon-Mamre". mechon-mamre.org. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
- "Leviticus 19 / Hebrew - English Bible / Mechon-Mamre". mechon-mamre.org. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
- "Leviticus 25 / Hebrew - English Bible / Mechon-Mamre". mechon-mamre.org. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
- Zelig Pliskin, Guard Your Tongue Bnay Yakov Publications (2002)
- Benjamin Brown, 'From Principles to Rules and from Musar to Halakhah - The Hafetz Hayim's Rulings on Libel and Gossip'
- Translation of Sefer Shmiras HaLashon
- Let Them Talk: The Mitzvah to Speak Lashon Hara by Rabbi Mark Dratch, JSafe
- A primer on how to raise our children to look at the positive and speak well about others
- 31 mitzvot of speech
- Hilchot Lashon Hara (L"H)
- Negative Speech (Lashon Hora) | Chabad.org
- Finding Your Zivug or Mate Loshon Hora and Information-Seeking in Shidduchim