But Everybody’s Talking About It!!
by Rabbi Moshe Rosenstein
With Rosh Chodesh Tamuz here and the summer in full swing, we know that the time of Bein Hametzarim is at hand. As we know, beginning on Shiva Asar BiTamuz Klal Yisroel enters into a period of collective mourning. And we also know that this is a time for focusing our efforts on rectifying the sins that caused the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash – the halachos Bein Adam Lichaveiro, and specifically, Lashon Hora. It would be a good time to review some of the known, and less well-known halachos of this halacha that is so central to our Bein Adam LiChaveiro growth.
Isn’t it Common Knowledge?
Many times people assume that Loshon Hora that is already known is permissible to repeat. It is true that if someone spoke Loshon Hora about another person in a “public” setting, there are times when repeating that Loshon Hora will not be a assur. However, there are many details and criteria that must be met for this to be permissible. While we will discuss the laws that pertain to this, it is vital to point at first that due to the complexity of the parameters that govern this exception, one should exercise great caution before relying on this. When possible, one should abstain altogether from speaking, even if all the criteria below are met.
The Halachic Background
The general rule we will discuss relates to the permissibility of repeating Loshon Hora that was originally said in front of at least three people. This concept is known as Loshon Hora that was said “bi’apei tlosa,” in front of three. The underlying concept is that since the original Loshon Hora was related in such a way that makes it inevitable that it will be publicized, there is no prohibition in repeating it to someone else. We can assume that the person now hearing it would have heard it anyway.
There are two aspects of the Lashon Hora that may permit one to repeat it:
· The way in which the original Loshon Hora was said
· The way in which the Loshon Hora is later repeated to others
We will look at each of these separately.
The Way in Which the Original Loshon Hora was Said
The original Loshon Hora had to have been said in front of three people. The original speaker of this Loshon Hora is unquestionably in violation of the prohibition against speaking Loshon Hora, and his sin is compounded by the fact that he said what he said in front of more people. There is no dispensation whatsoever to speak Loshon Hora in front of three people. The laws discussed below pertain only to the repetition of the Loshon Hora already spoken in violation of the halacha.
There are three parameters that must be met regarding the situation in which the Loshon Hora was said to the original three people:
1 – Three people had to have heard the Loshon Hora.
Even if two people spoke the same Loshon Hora to two other people, in each other’s presence, this does not work. There must be three people listening, independent of any of the speakers of this Loshon Hora for this rule to apply.
2 – The three people hearing the original Loshon Hora are the type of people who would repeat this information to others.
Because this dispensation “relies” on the fact that the original three listeners to the Loshon Hora will spread this around, if there is any reason for us to believe that any of the original three listeners will not in fact repeat this, there is no longer any dispensation. If there were only three listeners in the original group, if even one of the three would not repeat the Loshon Hora, then it is not permissible for any of them to repeat it. There are several examples of people who we must assume would not repeat the Loshon Hora:
1 – Family members of the one whom the Loshon Hora is being spoken about.
2 – Friends of the one whom the Loshon Hora is being spoken about.
3 – Generally G-d fearing people for whom it is not the norm to spread gossip.
If even one of the three listeners is from one of the groups above, it is not permissible for any of the others to repeat the Loshon Hora. If, however, the original group was more than three people, even if family or friends were present, as long as there are three listeners who would feasibly repeat what they had heard (i.e. the other listeners are not in the above categories), this dispensation would still apply.
3 – The original speaker of the Loshon Hora did not specify to the three listeners that he did not want this Loshon Hora repeated.
If the original speaker of the Loshon Hora explained to the listeners that he did not want his gossip to be repeated to others, even if the listeners under other circumstances would be the type to repeat what they had heard, because he asked them not to repeat it, we must assume that they will honor his request. We therefore can no longer rely on the assumption that three people will be spreading this Loshon Hora. Therefore, it is not permissible for any of them to do so.
The Way in Which the Loshon Hora is Repeated by the Listeners
Once three people have heard Loshon Hora spoken regarding another person, under certain circumstances it will be permissible for them to repeat what they had heard. However, under no circumstances are they permitted to believe what they heard – what was spoken was pure Loshon Hora and is fully subject to the prohibition of believing Loshon Hora.
There are five parameters that must be met regarding how and when this Loshon Hora is repeated:
1 – It is not permissible to repeat this Loshon Hora with the intent to spread the word further. It is only permissible to mention in a “tangential” fashion.
This would include mentioning this Loshon Hora as an anecdote as it pertains to a topic being discussed or using it to illustrate a point. However, to simply repeat what was heard for the sake of informing others who have not yet heard this Loshon Hora is forbidden and not subject to this heter.
2 – It is only permissible for the original three listeners to repeat what they had heard.
Someone who only heard this Loshon Hora from one of the original three is not included in this heter. Only the original three who actually heard the Loshon Hora being said can repeat it. If the original listener, however, repeated the Loshon Hora in front of another three people, they now have the status of three that heard Loshon Hora and be subject to the rules discussed here.
3 – It is not permissible to add even one word to the original Loshon Hora that was said.
Since the entire premise of this halacha is based on the idea that this Loshon Hora will inevitably be spread, this can only be the case if the exact Loshon Hora is repeated as heard. If even one word is added, this becomes new Loshon Hora and is therefore not subject to this dispensation. There are several applications of this rule:
Any intonation or gesturing that was not part of the originally spoken Loshon Hora is prohibited.
Any commentary offered on the part of the one repeating the Loshon Hora is prohibited.
Repeating the Loshon Hora in a context where there is an implication of negativity that was not part of the original statement made.
In addition, by one adding his own commentary or “spin” on the original Loshon Hora, he is clearly indicating that he has accepted the original Loshon Hora and believes it.
4 – It is only permissible to repeat the Loshon Hora somewhere that this information could feasibly spread.
If the original Loshon Hora was said in a certain town or location, one may not repeat it in a different locale that does not normally hear the news and gossip from the town where the Loshon Hora was spoken. In our times where it is the norm for people from all around the world to talk with each other, it is difficult to give this rule strictly geographical limitations. Rather, the Loshon Hora can only be repeated to people that the original three listeners have a line of communication with and can readily assume the word will spread to.
An exception to this rule is when the matter being discussed is of a nature that it is normal for it to spread beyond geographical or social boundaries. If the original Loshon Hora pertained to something so out of the ordinary or so egregious, it is considered to be the norm for it spread more than “ordinary” gossip would spread. In such a case it can be assumed that this gossip would extend its reach farther than usual.
5 – If the new listener is the type of person who will believe the Loshon Hora to be true, it is not permissible to repeat it.
As mentioned above, it is not permissible for the original three listeners to believe what they heard. What was spoken was true Loshon Hora and is therefore subject to the prohibition of believing Lashon Hora. Therefore it is not permissible for them to repeat this Loshon Hora – even if all the above parameters are met – if they are saying it in the presence of someone who will believe it to be true.