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Mud Vs. Mud

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(As explained in Day 31, this segment is based on Sefer Shemiras HaLashon, Shaar HaZechirah ch. 7)

The story is told of a Jew who committed many sins in his life. When he passed away and stood before the Heavenly Court, matters did not look good for him. Then an angel came to testify how on a cold, snowy winter night, this man had gone out of his way to help a traveler get his wagon out of a ditch. This great mitzvah made the weight of good deeds almost evenly balanced with the weight of sins on the Heavenly scale. Then an angel brought forward all the mud this man had waded through as he struggled to extricate the wagon from the ditch. The mud tipped the scale to the side of merit and the man was granted entrance to Gan Eden.

Then there is another type of mud, the ruach hatumah (spirit of impurity) created by lashon hara. This “mud” cannot be seen by the human eye, but it is there nonetheless — and the damage it can cause is far-reaching.

Imagine a pair of students sitting together studying Gemara for four consecutive hours. They feel uplifted and channel their spiritual energy into the tefillah that follows. “I think this is the best Minchah I’ve ever davened,” one tells himself. Both leave the beis midrash very accomplished. Or so they think.

There is something that they have forgotten. That morning while eating breakfast together, an old classmate’s name came up. This classmate did not get along well with these two fellows, for a variety of reasons. Over breakfast, all his faults were recalled and the two friends shared new stories they had heard about him since the day he had left their yeshivah.

This discussion — all of it lashon hara — lasted fifteen minutes. When they entered the beis midrash a few minutes later with the goal of accomplishing a lot in the next four hours, it appeared that this would be a day of great spiritual accomplishment. But their eyes could not see the powerful ruach hatumah that their words had created. This ruach hatumah enveloped the words of Torah and tefillah that their mouths uttered, weakening their power and depleting the reward that they could have achieved.

The Chofetz Chaim informs us that the damaging effects of forbidden speech is discussed in the Talmud.

The world is sustained only in the merit of the breath [of Torah] study of school children.

Said Rav Papa to Abaye: “And what of our Torah study?”

Abaye replied, “There is no comparison between breath that is tainted by sin and breath that is untainted by sin.”

What did Abaye mean when he said that the breath of the great Sages of the Talmud was “tainted by sin”? Surely this could only mean a few minor, unintentional words that might not even be considered sinful by our standards. Yet, Abaye was convinced that even such words could damage the power of one’s Torah learning. The kind of conversation we described above can certainly have a devastating effect on the power of one’s learning and prayer.

Let’s do our best to avoid lashon hara. There is too much at stake.

IN A NUTSHELL

Words of lashon hara can have a devastating effect on the power of our Torah study and tefillah.

 -A project of  Mesorah Publications –

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The All-Encompassing Power of Words

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(As explained in Day 31, this segment is based on Sefer Shemiras HaLashon, Shaar HaZechirah ch. 7)

Lashon hara is harmful to the neshamah in a way that other sins are not. When, for example, some­one sins with his hands (for example, he hits some­one), he causes a ruach hatumah (spirit of impurity) to come upon his hands. However, as Zohar states, when someone speaks lashon hara, he brings a ruach hatumah upon his entire body.

Why is this so? Why is lashon hara so destruc­tive? The answer is that the power of speech is what defines us as human beings. It is an expression of our intellect, of what distinguishes man from beast.

On the words “And man became a living being” Targum translates, “And man became a speaking spirit.” What we speak is what we are. Therefore, when we speak forbidden words, we contaminate, in a spiritual way, our entire being.

But it works both ways. When a Jew uses his power of speech for Torah study, it causes a spirit of kedushah (holiness) to rest upon him. This brings healing to both body and soul.

There is an expression: “Talk is cheap.” This is an American expression, not a Torah one. In Jewish life, words are very powerful.

We can gain an insight into the power of speech from a word that the average Jew recites millions of times in his life — “Amen”. Our Sages teach that answering “Amen” to a berachah is greater than reciting it. The reward for responding “Amen” even once is unfathomable. And with proper intent, responding “Amen” to a berachah is considered as if the person actually carried out the mitzvah himself (as when one fulfills his obligation to recite Kiddush by listening to its recital and then responding “Amen”).

The Gemara states, “The berachah of even a simple person should not be unimportant in your eyes.” There are countless stories of people who witnessed great yeshuos (salvations) for having children, being healed from illness, or finding their shidduch (marriage partner) after receiving a blessing from someone who, apparently, was a “simple Jew.”

Once, a baby boy was born with life-threatening complications. On Friday morning, doctors told the father that the baby did not have much longer to live. The father consulted the great tzaddik Rabbi Yehudah Zev Segal of Manchester, and asked whether or not there should be a shalom zachar celebration that night.

“Absolutely,” the Rosh Yeshivah replied. “At a shalom zachar, everyone wishes the father ‘Mazel tov!’ and offers a blessing that the child be raised to ‘Torah, chuppah and good deeds.’ For these blessings alone it is worthwhile to have a shalom zachar.”

The shalom zachar was held. To the doctors’ amazement, the complications cleared up and the baby had a complete recovery.

Our words have enormous power. Let’s use them right.

IN A NUTSHELL

Never underestimate the power of words.

 -A project of  Mesorah Publications –

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Not to be Relied Upon

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SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Hilchos Lashon Hara 2:3-4

In the previous segment, the Chofetz Chaim dis­proved the misconception that it is permissible to speak lashon hara in the presence of three or more people. Now, the Chofetz Chaim deals with one who has listened to lashon hara that has been spoken in the presence of three or more people.

Under certain conditions, it might be permissible to repeat such lashon hara. The reason is that information that has already reached the ears of three or more people may no longer be “confidential.” It is likely, the reasoning goes, that among this group there is at least one person who does not live by the rule of shemiras halashon. This loose-tongued fellow is going to “spread the word” all around town. Therefore, anyone else in the group who repeats the information to others is not causing any damage. He is merely repeating that which is already known.

Can we rely on this reasoning in real life? Are we permitted to relate lashon hara that has already been said to a group of three or more? The Chofetz Chaim makes it quite clear that this leniency, if it can be relied upon at all, would only apply under certain very specific conditions. After discussing those conditions, the Chofetz Chaim concludes:

After all this discussion and these truths that we have clarified, realize, my brother, that one should stay far away from this leniency, for it almost never applies. And even in a situation where all the conditions [to rely upon it] are met, it is not clear that the halacha follows the opinion that this leniency is valid. According to some authorities, it has no basis at all in Shas. Therefore, one who seeks to protect his soul should stay away from it.

In Sefer Chofetz Chaim, the next three segments deal with the conditions that are needed for one to rely on the “apei tlasa” leniency. Since the Chofetz Chaim himself finds this leniency very problematic and advises that it should not be relied upon, we will skip any further discussion of it. Instead, we will devote the remainder of this segment and the next three segments to the parallel pieces in Sefer Shemiras HaLashon, also written by the Chofetz Chaim.

The Damage Caused by Lashon Hara
(Sefer Shemiras Halashon, Shaar HaZechirah ch. 7)

Take note of the damage that lashon hara can cause to the speaker:

When a person speaks lashon hara, some of his zechuyos (merits) are transferred in Heaven from his account to the account of the one about whom he spoke. As stated in Sefer Chovos HaLevavos:

Many people will come to the day of reckoning [in Heaven, after they leave this world] and when shown an accounting of all their actions, they will find good deeds that they did not do. “I did not do this,” one might say, only to be told, “This was done by the person who spoke shamefully of you.”

The guilty party will seek these zechuyos for himself and will be told, “They became lost to you when you spoke against So-and-so.”

A person can spend a lifetime devoting much of his day to Torah study, prayer, and good deeds — only to lose their merit because he was loose-tongued for all or much of his life. What a frightening thought!

Let us resolve to carefully live by the laws of shemiras halashon, for our own sake and the sake of the entire Jewish nation.


IN A NUTSHELL

We should not rely upon the “apei tlasa” leniency.
We must carefully guard our tongues if we wish to preserve our mer­its in our “Heavenly bank accounts.”

 -A project of  Mesorah Publications –

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Setting the Record Straight

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SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Hilchos Lashon Hara 2:1

The Chofetz Chaim devotes almost an entire chapter to clarifying an oft-misunderstood statement in the Gemara. The statement deals with the rule “in the presence of three”.

Rabba bar Rav Huna said: Any tale that was related in the presence of three people is exempt from the [prohibition] of lashon hara.

Misconception #1: This Gemara is teaching us that it is permitted to relate lashon hara in front of three people or more.

Of course, this is ridiculous. Can anyone truly think that lashon hara is forbidden only when spoken to one or two people, but not when spoken to three or more?

In fact, the greater the crowd, the greater the sin.
So what does Rabba bar Rav Huna mean?
The Chofetz Chaim explains:

Certain statements can at times be considered lashon hara and at other times not be considered lashon hara. It depends how they are said and in front of whom they are said.

The Chofetz Chaim, citing a Gemara, offers an example.

On a winter day, a stranger comes to town, cold and hungry. He stops a passerby and asks, “Can you tell me where I might find a fire burning at this time of day?”

The passerby replies, “Sure, go to the Starmans down the street — they’ve always got a fire burning on their stove.”

The passerby may have been disparaging the Starmans, saying that they are always eating, and therefore are always cooking something on their stove. Or, he may have meant that the Starmans excel in the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, hospitality, and are always cooking something for the many guests whom they host.

If the passerby has the first explanation in mind, then it is lashon hara. If he has the second explanation in mind and says the statement in a manner that implies this, then it is permissible.

When a comment about someone is said in the presence of three, it is likely that it will be repeated by at least one of them and will reach the ears of the one of whom it was said. The speaker would not want his subject to think that he said something derogatory about him, and therefore, he will be sure to say it in such a way that will clearly not be derogatory.

It is only in such a case that one is permitted to say something in the presence of three which in other situations might have seemed derogatory and therefore would be forbidden as lashon hara.

It is not uncommon to see a child complain that another child made fun of him, only to hear the other child respond, “I didn’t mean anything bad!” With regard to lashon hara, the halachah is clear: Statements that can be interpreted in opposite ways should not be said unless it is obv­ous that they were not meant negatively.

The same applies to the sin of ona’as devarim, causing pain with hurt­ful words, even when the words are spoken in private with no one else listening. Never say anything that can be misinterpreted as insulting or mean.

IN A NUTSHELL
When speaking about others, make sure that your words will not be misunderstood as lashon hara.

 -A project of  Mesorah Publications –

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No Greater Pleasure

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SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Hilchos Lashon Hara 1:7-9

When Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, renowned as the Steipler Gaon, was 19 years old, he was drafted into the Russian Army. As a ben Torah in a very hostile environment, he faced many spiritual tests.

Once, his battalion passed by a church and the commander ordered all soldiers inside to pray. The Steipler respectfully told the officer that as a Jew, he could not comply with the order. The commander responded by ordering some soldiers to drag the Jew into the church by force.

As soon as the soldiers let go of him, the Steipler ran outside. When he was dragged in a second time, the results were the same. At that point, the furious commander ordered the “impudent Jew” to run the gauntlet. The young tzaddik was forced to run between two rows of soldiers who beat him on the head with clubs as he ran by.

In later years, the Steipler said, “Never did I experi­ence such pleasure as when I was beaten for upholding the honor of Hashem and His Torah.”

Suffering embarrassment might not be as difficult as running the gauntlet, but it is difficult nonetheless. When someone suffers shame for refusing to partici­pate in a lashon hara conversation, he should experience the kind of pleasure of which the Steipler spoke.

The Chofetz Chaim states:

If someone is sitting with a group that is engaged in forbidden conversation, and if he sits stony-faced and takes no part in their conversation they will think of him as insane, it is surely forbidden for him to join. It is of such situations that our Sages say: “Better for a person to be called a fool all his life, and not be wicked in the eyes of Hashem even for a short while.” He should gather all his spiritual strength at that time to stand firm. He should rest assured that his reward from Hashem will be without limit, as our Sages teach, “In proportion to the suffering is the reward.”

The Chofetz Chaim also cites the Midrash quoted by the Vilna Gaon in his famous letter: for every moment in which a person restrains himself and does not speak that which is forbidden, he merits a spiritual light that even the Heavenly angels cannot fathom.

The Chofetz Chaim concludes this segment by making us aware of some common mistakes:

To be guilty of lashon hara, it is not necessary to make fun of some­one outright. We may not communicate negative information in any manner, including hints or body language, such as a wink behind someone’s back. It is also forbidden to communicate lashon hara in writing or to pass around a note or letter that makes the writer appear foolish.

“Last year, Rina and I pulled a mean trick on our math teacher. I know we shouldn’t have done it, but at the time, we just couldn’t resist.”

Speaking badly about oneself does not give one the right to speak badly about others. In our example, the fact that the speaker was not ashamed to speak about what she did to her teacher does not give her the right to mention Rina.

IN A NUTSHELL
We must resist the temptation to speak lashon hara to gain acceptance by others.
We may not speak lashon hara through hints, nor may we mention lashon hara about others by including ourselves.

 -A project of  Mesorah Publications –

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Pressure Cookers

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SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Hilchos Lashon Hara 1:5-6

When it comes to the sin of lashon hara, the Satan operates on two fronts. Sometimes, a person becomes filled with a tremendous urge to share some “juicy” information about someone with his friends or family. At such times, one must struggle with himself; he should remind himself of how terrible lashon hara is, how much damage it causes, and how speaking lashon hara contradicts the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael.

Other times, the Satan operates on a different front. He sends people to pressure the person to reveal negative information that they very much want to hear. Sometimes, the person exerting pressure is a close friend:

Come on, Leah, just tell me who it is that’s in trouble with the principal. Why can’t you tell me? I know that you know! Why aren’t you answering me? I thought we were best friends! Is this how you treat a best friend? Why is it lashon hara? — by next week, everyone will know about it anyway …

No matter how great the pressure, no matter how important the one exerting the pressure, one is not allowed to speak lashon hara.

Even if a father, mother, or teacher is demanding to be told lashon hara, one is not permitted to do so. (This refers to situations where there is no to’eles, positive benefit, in relating the lashon hara. The rules of to’eles will be discussed in a later chapter.) Even if one’s boss ridicules him for not revealing negative information, even if he threatens to fire him, he is not permitted to speak lashon hara.

In All for the Boss, Ruchoma Shain tells of what might have been the most uplifting moment of her father’s life. R’ Yaakov Yosef Herman and his wife emigrated to Eretz Yisrael in the summer of 1939. While they were still at sea, the Second World War erupted. The boat was forced to take a circuitous route and docked at the Haifa port shortly before Shabbos. The Hermans had only an hour or so to reach their hosts before Shabbos. They were forced to leave their personal belongings on the dock — nine suitcases and 16 crates filled with all their possessions.

Such a mammoth loss would surely cause the average person to be subdued. Not R’ Yaakov Yosef Herman. He was in a heightened state of exhilaration all Shabbos, exclaiming, “The Boss [i.e. Hashem] does everything for me. What could I ever do for Him? Now at last I have the z’chus (merit) to give all for the Boss, for His mitzvah of Shabbos and to be mekadesh Hashem (sanctify Hashem’s Name)!” (On Motza’ei Shabbos, they returned to the dock and found all their possessions intact. The British officer in charge at the dock had been so impressed that the Hermans were willing to lose everything to uphold their religion that, unbeknownst to them, he appointed a soldier to guard their possessions.)

R’ Yaakov Yosef Herman was an exceptional tzaddik. Nevertheless, we can take a lesson from him: When a person gives of himself for the sake of Hashem and His Torah, he becomes filled with joy and a feeling of true accomplishment. When we resist the pressure to speak lashon hara, we should feel proud and happy that we have remained strong in guarding our speech for the sake of Hashem and His Torah.

IN A NUTSHELL
No matter how great the pressure and no matter who is pressuring us, we may not speak lashon hara.

 -A project of  Mesorah Publications –

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The Baal Lashon Hara

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SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Hilchos Lashon Hara 1:3-4

As we have already noted, the Chofetz Chaim wrote two works on lashon hara. Sefer Chofetz Chaim, on which this book is based, is a sefer of halacha on the laws of forbidden speech. Sefer Shmiras Halashon is a work of hashkafa (Torah outlook) based on countless teachings of Chazal (our Sages), which focuses on the terrible damage that results from lashon hara and the great blessings that shmiras haloshon brings.

Yet, in today’s segment, the Chofetz Chaim cites not a halacha, but a teaching of Chazal.

For three sins a person is punished on this world and has no share in the World to Come: idol worship, immorality, and murder — and lashon hara equals them all.

The Chofetz Chaim cites this teaching here for a very important reason. He has just completed a comprehensive introduction which enumerates 31 mitzvos that are connected to the sin of lashon hara. In the opening of this chapter, he mentioned, once again, the primary prohibition of lashon hara.

Now, however, the Chofetz Chaim informs us that lashon hara can be much worse than other sins in the Torah.

When is this so? When a person becomes a baal lashon hara, someone who does not view speaking lashon hara as a sin at all. As the Chofetz Chaim illustrates, there are those who, unfortunately, take great pleasure in having regular “gossip sessions.” They sit with people who suffer from the same spiritual weakness and keep abreast of the latest news. “Did you hear what So-and-so did …? Did you hear what So-and-so’s father did …? Wait till you hear what I heard about So-and-so …!” Because they ignore a mitzvah in the Torah and brazenly transgress it on a regular basis, their sin is much greater, and therefore their punishment is much greater.

There is another reason why the sin of lashon hara so severe. As the Chofetz Chaim explains elsewhere, Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, has decreed that the Satan’s power to accuse the Jewish people is directly related to how we speak about one another. When we refrain from speaking badly about one another, then Hashem, like a loving father, is willing to overlook our misdeeds. However, when we accuse one another of wrongdoing through lashon hara, we give the Satan power to stand before Hashem and accuse the Jewish people of wrongdoing.

While the baal lashon hara is enjoying himself, his words are ascending to Heaven, where they grant the Satan the power he needs to accuse our people before Hashem.

The Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yehudah Zev Segal, once made the following observation:

Picture a baal lashon hara being called to the Torah reading on the Shabbos when Parashas Kedoshim is read. When the baal kriah comes to the verse in which “Do not go as a gossipmonger among your people” is found, he is shocked to discover that those words are missing from the sefer Torah! Of course, the sefer Torah is not fit for use; it must be put away and another one used instead.

Said Rav Segal: This man who was called to the Torah understands that a sefer Torah is not kosher unless it contains these four words. Yet, this same man is a baal lashon hara, and conducts his life as if these words do not appear in the Torah.

Elsewhere the Torah states “You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d.” According to Rabbi Aharon Kotler, to be “wholehearted with Hashem” means not to live a life of contradictions. A baal lashon hara lives a life of contradictions.

IN A NUTSHELL
The baal lashon hara’s sins are equal to the Three Cardinal Sins, and he gives the Satan the power he needs to indict the Jewish people before Hashem.

 -A project of  Mesorah Publications –