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.
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