Lashon hara (or loshon horo) (Hebrew: לשון הרע; "evil tongue") is the halakhic term for derogatory speech about a person, which emotionally or financially damages them or lowers them in the estimation of others. Lashon hara differs from defamation in that lashon hara is truthful speech rather than lies.
Lashon hara 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 ("do not go out as a talebearer among thy people").
Speech is considered to be lashon hara (detraction) if it says something negative about a person or party, 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.
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 lies, and is best translated as "slander" or "defamation" (calumny). Hotzaat shem ra is worse an even graver sin than lashon hara.
The phrase consists of the noun lashon ("tongue"), 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 is not mentioned 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." The Biblical curse on one who "strikes his fellow in secret" is understood by the rabbis to refer to lashon hara, as it is a form of harming a person without their knowledge.
The Talmud lists lashon hara as one of the causes of the Biblical malady of tzaraath. Elsewhere, it declares 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, questioning why Moses is 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 adaptation, 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, a "desecration of the name of HaShem" (Leviticus 22:32). Lashon hara, rechilut and motzi shem ra are not accepted social tools in 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 permitted or even required to disclose information whether or not the information is disparaging. For instance, if a person’s intent in sharing negative information is for a to’elet, a positive, constructive, and beneficial purpose that may serve as a warning to prevent harm or injustice, the prohibition against lashon hara does not apply. 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.
- Chofetz Chaim
- Public disclosure of private facts (legally recognized by many U.S. jurisdictions as constituting actionable injury)
- '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.
- Telushkin, Joseph. A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1 - You Shall Be Holy. New York: Bell Tower, 2006. p. 332.
- לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ – Leviticus 19:16
- 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 mauvaise 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 19:16
- Deuteronomy 27:24
- Rashi to Deuteronomy 27:24
- Arakhin 15b
- Sotah 42a
- "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-03-27.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Zelig Pliskin, Guard Your Tongue. Bnay Yakov Publications (2002)
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