Category Archives: Proper Speech

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Between Husband and Wife

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We have already seen that there are no grounds for sharing gossip with one’s spouse (Day 16). To view withholding loshon hora from one’s spouse as a breach of harmony and trust is mistaken. (A husband and wife who seek to have the Divine Presence dwell in their midst should build their home on the foundations of halacha and avoid conversations which promote strife and dissension among Jews.) Moreover, sharing negativity (e.g. information, feelings, etc.) does not help create a healthy, positive relationship.

Nevertheless, when a husband or wife is in need of emotional support in dealing with difficulty, it is only natural to look to one’s spouse for assistance. Speaking or listening under such circumstances is constructive and is clearly permissible.

When possible, one should attempt to help one’s spouse understand the situation in a way that would relieve his or her anger or frustration.

If one finds that his or her spouse is forever in need of “letting off steam,” it is important to try to bring about a general change of attitude through discussion, reading or audio material, or suggesting a meeting with a rabbi or other qualified individual.

A word of caution: While one must be prepared to hear out a spouse and offer emotional support when necessary, one must be ever vigilant not to be drawn into a conversation of loshon hora for no constructive purpose. It is often the case that couples fail to draw this distinction, and consequently totally ignore the laws of shmiras halashon when conversing.

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Irrelevant, But Permissible

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In the cases discussed thus far, the determining factor in making it permissible to listen to negative speech was relevance. If the information is important, in a constructive sense, for the listener to hear, it is proper for him to give his attention to what is being spoken, and at times to even solicit such information.

There are times when halacha permits listening to negative information which is of no relevance to the listener or any of his acquaintances. Where the speaker feels the need to express his anger or frustration for relief of emotional pain, one is doing an act of chesed (kindness) by hearing the person out and expressing understanding of his feelings. If the listener feels that the speaker can be made to understand how he misjudged the person responsible for his frustration, he is obligated to do so. (Often, however, a person expressing his frustrations is in need of empathy and is not open to logic. At a later point, after the speaker has calmed down, the listener could approach him and attempt to explain how he may have misunderstood the situation.)

Care must be taken to keep the speaker from wandering from the matter at hand, and speaking irrelevantly about other faults of the one whom he feels has wronged him. Furthermore, one listening in such a situation must take care not to accept what he hears as fact.

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Soliciting Information: Preconditions

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As it is forbidden to cause another Jew to transgress, one may not solicit information unless it is clearly permissible for the other person to offer such information. Thus, in order to solicit information, the following conditions must be met:

(1) The person from whom information is being sought is not known to fabricate stories about others, to read into their behavior in an unjust manner, or to draw hurried conclusions about their character;

(2) And the person is not known to exaggerate in his descriptions of events;

(3) and it can be assumed that when informed that the information is necessary, he will not speak out of malice toward the subject; (thus, one may not seek information from a person who is not on good terms with the subject); and

(4) it is clear that the information is necessary for a constructive purpose, and that there is no alternative to soliciting such information.

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Inquiries

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In light of the above (see Day 98), if one must inquire about a person, family, community, or school in order to make an important decision, but does not want others to know what he is contemplating, he may not engage people in casual conversation with the aim of obtaining pertinent derogatory or harmful information. Unaware that his speech is constructive, the speaker is guilty of speaking loshon hora, and the listener who drew him into conversation has caused him to sin.

Thus, when soliciting necessary information, one must make it clear to the other person that circumstances permit this and that his response, therefore will not constitute loshon hora.

A common practice in such situations is not only to refrain from divulging the purpose of the inquiry, but also to inquire about several people at once, so as to conceal the fact that it is a particular person about whom one is seeking information. This is absolutely forbidden. The desire to protect one’s privacy does not justify irrelevant negative information and causing others to speak loshon hora.

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A Matter of Intent

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While listening to negative information for constructive purposes is not a violation of the prohibition against accepting loshon hora, before taking the liberty of listening to such information one must be sure that he will not be guilty of causing the speaker to sin.

We have seen that in order to convey pertinent information that would otherwise be considered loshon hora several conditions must be met. For example, the speaker’s intent must be to bring about a positive result. If the speaker does not have constructive intent, his words are loshon hora, despite the fact that the information is important for the listener to hear. In such a case, being a listener would be a transgression of “Before a blind person do not place a stumbling block” (Vayikra 19:14).

If one is privately doing business with someone and then, by coincidence, a friend begins speaking loshon hora about that very individual, one is required to interrupt him or walk away! Since the speaker is unaware that the listener is doing business with this person, the speaker is talking loshon hora and must be stopped. After interrupting him, one may tell him that the information he had begun to relate may be important to the listener, and that he may continue speaking provided that he can honestly relate it for that constructive purpose.

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Pertinent Information

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The prohibition, “Do not accept a false report” (see Day 91), teaches us that loshon hora should not be listened to and must not be accepted. However, when the information being conveyed is important to know for constructive reasons, it merits one’s attention and may be listened to. Just as relating negative information l’toeles, for a constructive purpose, is not considered speaking loshon hora, so too is listening for a constructive purpose considered responsible and proper.

Information that one may listen to includes anything that might help to prevent or correct undue harm to any individual, be it the listener, the speaker, the person spoken about, or another party. It would also include information that could help prevent or correct damage that is physical, financial, emotional or spiritual.

It is correct to listen to a person’s claim against someone else if one thinks that he can be of help in rectifying the situation, or if the listener or someone else might be vulnerable to similar treatment by the person being spoken about. It is permissible to listen to information about a person with whom one is planning to collaborate in a joint venture, if the information is pertinent to that relationship. In all of the above instances, the information is being listened to for a constructive purpose, and hence is not considered loshon hora.

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Whom Not to Rebuke

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The obligation to reprove one’s fellow Jew does not apply to a non-observant Jew who is in the category of a mumar (one who is aware of halachic requirements and ignores them – see Day 14). However, a non-observant Jew who sins out ignorance must be instructed gently regarding loshon hora. The beauty of shmiras halashon can be appreciated even by those whose observance level is minimal, and should be shared with them at the earliest opportunity.

Nevertheless, one does not rebuke a non-observant person with whom he does not have a relationship. It is obvious that such reproof will not convince the person to refrain from speaking loshon hora in the future, and will only serve to anger him. This would be similar to the situation (in Day 93) where reproof would cause worse sin to occur and is therefore inappropriate.

This rule holds true for an observant Jew as well. It is wrong to offer rebuke to someone with whom one has no real relationship, if it is clear that he will not change his ways and that he be offended by the person’s meddling in his affairs.

Rebuke in such a case would cause hatred and, possibly, even more loshon hora.

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Whom to Rebuke

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In situations where reproof is required (see Day 93), one is obligated to interrupt even his own parent who is speaking loshon hora and respectfully explain that he or she should not be speaking in this manner. A rav, as well, should not be allowed to speak loshon hora. However, it is disrespectful to accuse a rav of speaking loshon hora. Instead, one should ask the rav for assistance in understanding why it was permissible for him to make a given statement.

Children are not included in our obligation to reprove a fellow Jew who has sinned. However, parents, as well as teachers, are obligated in the mitzvah of chinuch, educating their charges in proper mitzvah observance. Thus, parents and teachers must train children from an early age to refrain from speaking or listening to loshon hora.

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Proper Reaction

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Based on the previous rules, it is clear that upon hearing loshon hora, one should promptly interrupt the speaker and reprimand him for his words. In a case where doing so would cause the speaker embarrassment (i.e. others are present), it is preferable that one tactfully change the subject, thus preventing the further speaking of loshon hora, and offer reproof later (in private).

If one finds himself unable to change the subject, he should walk away. While incapable of fulfilling his obligation to reprove, one must, nevertheless, avoid transgressing the sin of listening to loshon hora. If one feels uncomfortable leaving, the least he should do is try his best to ignore what is being said, and use facial expressions to show disapproval. Certainly, he should not appear as though he is enjoying the conversation.

One must train himself to defend his values, to be more concerned with truth than with his personal pride. Ultimately, one will find that the less he fears scorn and derision of scoffers, the more his self esteem will grow and his stature will grow in the eyes of others as well.

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Group Reproof

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We have seen that one must reprove the speaker of loshon hora even if it is highly unlikely that the reproof will be effective.

When several people are involved in a discussion that includes loshon hora, one must speak up and caution them that what they are discussing is forbidden. However, unlike the case of an individual who speaks loshon hora, if the people ignore reproof, one should not persist in his rebuke unless he feels that his words might ultimately achieve a positive result. In an unreceptive group setting, it is wise to refrain from excessive reproof.

An exception to this rule is when one finds himself in a community where the prohibition of loshon hora has long been disregarded. Widespread disregard calls for more than ordinary reproof. It demands persistent protest, calling for an awareness of the severity of speaking loshon hora, and knowledge of what constitutes loshson hora.