The Torah instructs us, “Do not go around as a gossiper among your people…” (Leviticus 19:6). This is the prohibition against rechilus—gossiping, which is the most basic prohibition against harmful speech. This prohibition applies to any statement made about a fellow Jew that could bring him harm, whether the harm is social, emotional, financial, or physical. This is true even if the statement is completely true and, in fact, not even disparaging of the person.
An Example of Rechilus
Let’s say you know three people, Reuvain, Shimon, and Levi. Unfortunately, Reuvain and Shimon don’t get along with each other. Recently, Shimon had some financial difficulties and Levi, who is friendly with both sides, helped Shimon out of his difficulty. Now, in truth, Levi’s deed is praiseworthy but you know that, due to his dispute with Shimon, Reuvain will bear a grudge against Levi for helping his enemy. In such a case it would be forbidden to tell Reuvain that Levi helped Shimon even though the statement would be completely true and does not denigrate Levi.
The primary application of the prohibition against rechilus is involved in telling one person something that generate ill will towards another person, however, the principle of rechilus also discourages ordinary “gossip” in which we speak about the affairs of others for no beneficial purpose. Such speech, while possibly not intended to be harmful, will inevitably result in violation of the prohibitions of harmful speech.
As stated, the prohibition against rechilus applies even when the statement does not disparage the other person. If one makes statements which disparage another person then the violation is more severe. Such speech is called lashon hara—evil speech. If the statement is false then the sin is even more severe. False statements about another Jew are called motzi shem ra—sending out a bad name—and are the worst form of harmful speech.
In addition to the prohibition against speaking rechilus and lashon hara, there is also a prohibition against listening to and believing such forms of forbidden speech. The Torah teaches us, “Do not accept a purposeless report…” (Exodus 23:1). The main point of this commandment is that a judge may not accept testimony from a witness outside of the proper procedures of the court. For example, he may not listen to one side of the story unless the other side is present, he may not listen to witnesses who are not qualified to testify, and he may not accept the testimony of a single witness when two witnesses are required. Our Sages teach us that this prohibition also applies to ordinary people in their daily life. We are not permitted to listen to, and certainly not to believe, negative reports about our fellow Jews for no productive purpose.
These are the basic mitzvos that prohibit saying, listening to, or believing harmful statements about our fellow Jews. There are actually a number of additional commandments that deal with these specific prohibitions. In addition, many other mitzvos can play a role in these prohibitions, such as the laws against taking revenge and bearing a grudge, hating your fellow Jew, hurting the feelings of another Jew, causing others to sin, and the commandments to love our fellow Jews and judging them favorably.
Despite the severity of the prohibition against harmful speech, there are situations in which one is supposed to make such statements in order to prevent harm to others. For example, if you are aware that someone is planning to hire a person whom you know to be dishonest, or that a someone is considering marrying a person whom you know to be dangerous, then you have a responsibility to warn the innocent party. There are, however, a number of important conditions to be met before you may do this:
- You must be absolutely certain that your statement is completely true.
- Sometimes, what at first glance might appear to be an unethical and illegal act may actually be justifiable if one knows the full situation. Before you tell others that someone has engaged in illegal or unethical activity, you must be certain that your assessment is correct.
- You must confront the person who committed the misdeed and gently admonish him. This gives the person the opportunity to either explain his act, and, if he was in fact guilty of a misdeed, he has the opportunity to repent his deed and undo it (if possible). Only after you done this and the person has not accepted the admonishment may you then inform others. If for some reason it is impossible for you to confront the person, or if you know that he will not accept admonishment, then this step may be skipped.
- You must have positive intent. You are not permitted to make these statements due to your dislike for the other person, even when that dislike is justified.
- There must be no other way to solve the problem. Making a harmful statement about another person must only be done as a last resort.
- That no harm will come to the person you are speaking about beyond what is justifiable. Even if the person was guilty of a crime, he may not deserve the repercussions that might result from your statement. If, for example, the person was guilty of theft, but the people he harmed may retaliate with violence instead of using legal methods, then you may not tell them.
- You must not exaggerate the information.
As you can see, the conditions under which a harmful statement may be made are quite limited. For this reason it is generally advisable to consult with a knowledgeable rabbi before making such a statement.
As we mentioned earlier, in addition to the prohibition against saying lashon hara, we are also prohibited from listening to or believing it. However, in a case where someone warns you of a potential risk to you from another person, you are permitted to take reasonable precautions to protect yourself. However, you are still not permitted to accept the statement as being true.
The Severity of Lashon Hara
Our Sages teach us that the sin of lashon hara is very great. The Talmud states, “Lashon hara is equal to the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder” (Arachin 15b). This is obviously a very strong statement, especially considering a Jew is required to give up his life rather than commit one of these sins.
The Sages also teach us that one who speaks lashon hara is considered as if he denied the basic principles of Judaism (Arachin 15b). At first glance this would appear surprising, why should this particular sin be considered so important? There are a number of explanations for this statement. The basic idea is that people who speak lashon hara will frequently act as if they don’t realize that they are speaking maliciously, and they will try to avoid speaking in the presence of the person that are disparaging. This behavior demonstrates that they are afraid of the opinion of other human beings and of the anger of their victim, but that they do not fear the judgment of God.
Our Sages teach us “Four groups do not merit to see the face of the Divine Presence: the group of liars, the group of flatterers, the group of mockers, and the group of those who speak lashon hara” (Sotah 42a). This statement shows us the importance of being careful of our speech, not only regarding lashon hara, but of all forms of improper speech.
As severe as the sin of lashon hara is, the reward for avoiding lashon hara is even greater. The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, writes in the name of a midrash:
Every single moment that a person seals his mouth [from improper speech] he merits to a stored “light” beyond the comprehension of any angel or creature.
Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good?
Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.
 Can also be translated as “Do not accept a false report” or “Do not accept a destructive report”. All point to the same basic idea, we may not accept purposeless negative reports about our fellow Jews as these are inherently destructive and must be assumed false. (See HaKesav VeHaKabala and HaEmek Davar.)