15-5770 Mitzvah N-77
March 1, 2010
Negative Mitzvah 77 – This is a negative commandment: Do not tell anyone things that another person said against him.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “You shall not go about as a tale-bearer among your people.” (Lev. 19:16) – Even if he speaks the truth, a person thus brings ruin into the world. It is an enormous wrong, which causes the murder of lives among the Jewish people, as we find with Do’eg the Edomite. Now there is a criminal act very far worse than this, included under the prohibition, and that is evil gossip. This means that a person speaks disparagingly about his fellow-man even though he tells the truth; for a person who speaks falsehood is called “one who spreads a bad report.” It is evil gossip when one says, “So and so did this and that. Thus and so were his forefathers. This is what I heard about him.” And so he relates matters of disgrace. Regarding this, the Writ says, Hashem will cut off all unctuous lips, the tongue that speaks proud things (Psalms 12:4).
The Sages of blessed memory taught (Yerushalmi Peah) “For three transgressions, punishment is exacted from a person in this world, and he has no share in the world to come: idol worship, incest or adultery, and bloodshed. But evil gossip is equal in seriousness to them all.” Our Sages further taught (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim 656) “If someone relates evil gossip, it is as though he denied the main principle [of the one and only God].” And our Sages of blessed memory said too, (D’varim Rabbah v.10) “Evil gossip kills three; the one who tells it, the one who hears it and the one about whom it is told. But the one who accepts it is affected more than the one who tells it.”
There are certain matters that constitute a “shade” of evil gossip. For example, “If only someone would tell so and so that he should always be as he is now” or if one says, “Do not talk about so and so. I don’t want to tell what has happened with him.” So also if one speaks well of another person before someone who hates him, because that makes that person speak in disparagement of him. So too if someone speaks evil gossip by way of a joke. And so likewise if it is told in a way of guile and deceit, as if he does not know that this matter is evil gossip.
It is all one whether a person tells evil gossip in the other’s presence or in his absence. So too, if a person tells things that cause trouble if they are conveyed from one man to another, harming his fellow-man physically or through his possessions, or even [merely] distressing or frightening him – and there is no need to add, if one informs on his fellow-man before a government officer and thus causes him to take the other’s items of monetary value. It is as though he killed him and the wife and children who depend on him for he is an informer [in effect}. Purgatory will finish, and he will not be finished [with his punishment]. (The Hafetz Hayim has written many books on Sh’mirat haLashon on the enormity of this crime of evil gossip, and its punishment).
This applies everywhere and always, for both men and women.
As we see from the end of this long lesson, The Hafetz Hayim has written extensively on the problem of evil gossip and this is a subject in which he has a lot to say. Our Mitzvah lesson is only a much abbreviated form of one of the most important topics in Judaism, the commandment not to spread evil gossip.
The real issue here is that so many people spread such gossip and do so feeling fully justified in spreading the story. We make up all kinds of excuses why we can say such terrible things about another person. All the excuses we offer are of no value. There is no excuse for such an abuse of language. Anything we relate to another person that is designed to harm that person, directly or indirectly, including physical harm, monetary harm or public embarrassment, whether or not the information is true or not, in the presence of the subject or in his/her absence, it is all forbidden.
The “shade” of evil gossip (often called the “dust” of evil gossip) is just as bad. Even if we don’t say anything about a person but only hint that there may be more to the story than we are telling, we are guilty of evil gossip. Even if we are only joking at the expense of another person, it is evil gossip in that is makes people think less of the person who is the subject of the joke.
There is a story of two brothers who were arguing over which one was taller. The younger brother would not submit to a back to back test claiming that the other brother was older and they needed to correct for his age. He suggested that the older brother stand in a ditch before going back to back and then see who is taller. Their father, who was watching this argument commented, “Why does it always have to be that to build ourselves up, we have to put someone else down. It would be just as easy for you to stand on a box rather than put your brother in a ditch.” So it is with all people; it is easier to put others down so we will look better, rather than just doing the right thing and raising ourselves up.
It is forbidden to be disparaging to another, but you can, and should, speak well of all people. We should look for things in each other to praise, rather than looking for that which will put someone down. The gossip sections of the newspaper and the internet are always busy with people looking to see how important and famous people will be knocked off their pedestals. But who pays attention to the rich and famous who give to charities, who work with the disadvantaged and who play by the rules? No, it is far more interesting to see who was arrested, who was jilted and who got caught with a hand in the cookie jar. This is why the Hafez Hayim insists that while three people are killed, it is the one who “accepts” gossip who is affected more. Without the listener, the cycle of gossip is broken and the teller of tales will have no one interested in his or her “wares”.
There are some who think that it is not gossip if they tell the tale in the presence of the victim and not behind his or her back. This is wrong. If the information is embarrassing to someone else, we have no business to repeat it to anyone else.
Sometimes, to gain an advantage over another, it is suggested that someone is actually guilty of a crime in order to begin an investigation, causing pain, anguish, public humiliation and damage to their good name. This kind of informing to the government is not only evil gossip; it is a whole crime in itself. You can’t try to eliminate your competition by reporting to the IRS that he didn’t pay his taxes, figuring that by the time he clears his name, the damage will be done and you will reap the rewards of his lost business. According to the Sages, when a person dies, most of his or her sins (including the sin of murder) find atonement with the death itself. There are some sins, however, that go beyond death, which is why all Jews spend some time in Gehenna (Jewish Hell). The time there is for those sins for which death does not atone. The limit is 12 months. Gehenna is so bad that it can atone for most terrible sins in 12 months or less. After that, almost everyone merits Gan Eden (Jewish Heaven). But there are a few sins that are so bad that even Gehenna will not atone for them. These are the deeds of someone so wicked that he oppressed the weak, taking advantage of poor women and children and anyone of the defenseless people in society. The Sages imagined all kinds of punishment for these wicked people. We see at the end of this Mitzvah, that Gehenna is not enough to atone for the sin of informing against a Jew unjustly to the government. Such actions often lead to pogroms, anti-Jewish rioting and expulsion of the entire community. This is why this kind of gossip is rated as an enormous crime, for which all the fires of Hell could never atone.
It is best to follow the example describe in Psalms (34:13-14); “Who is the man who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.”