middot silence mesorah the littlest member

the littlest member

Written by  riverton mussar

art-whisper“Come, my children, listen to me, and I will teach you to fear Hashem. Who is the man who desires life, to love each day and see only goodness in them? Let him then guard his tongue from speaking evil and his lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do what is good, desire peace and pursue it.” — Psalm 34

The 31 Prohibitions according to the Chofetz Chayim

The Chofetz Chayim enumerated thirty-one Torah commandments which may be violated when a person speaks or listens to lashon hara. The number of infringements will vary in accordance with circumstances, but on each occasion when lashon hara is spoken many commandments are violated. Anyone reading this list will see that refraining from lashon hara is not merely a meritorious act, but an obligation of the highest magnitude.

Positive Commandments

1. “You shall not go as a talebearer among your people.” (Lev. 19:16)

This is the prohibition dealing specifically with lashon hara and r'chilut. Lashon hara is the term used for a derogatory or damaging statement. R’chilut is the term used for a report that someone has spoken or enacted against the listener. Both are prohibited even when true. Just as a peddler (rochil) goes from house to house selling his wares, so too, a habitual gossip goes from person to person picking up and leaving behind tidbits of derogatory information about others (see Rashi on Lev. 19:16).

2. “You shall not utter a false report.” (Ex. 23: 1).

This verse is also rendered as “You shall not accept a false report.” This prohibition bans the speaking or accepting of lashon hara.

3. “Take heed concerning the plague of leprosy.”(Deut. 24:8).

Sifri explains that this verse refers to lashon hara which is punishable by the infliction of tzara’at (commonly translated “leprosy”).

4. “Before the blind do not put a stumbling-block.” (Lev. 19:14).

This verse prohibits us from placing a spiritual stumbling-block in the path of others. If someone causes another to sin, he violates this prohibition. By speaking or listening to lashon hara, you not only sin yourself, but also cause others to transgress.

5. “Beware lest you forget the L-RD your G-d” (Deut. 8:11).

This is the prohibition against being conceited. One who ridicules others is generally motivated by a feeling of superiority. If he were aware of his own faults, he surely would not deprecate others. The Talmud equates arrogance with idolatry and states that whoever has this trait will not be privileged to be resurrected by tchiyat hamaitim.

The gravity of the transgression is increased if the speaker elevates his own esteem through the medium of degrading some one else. Our Sages have declared that such a person will lose his share in olam habah (World to Come).

6. “You shall not profane My Holy Name.” (Lev. 22: 32)

We are warned not to cause chilul Hashem (profaning the Name). There are a number of aspects to this prohibition (see Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvos 63). If a person commits a transgression without deriving physical pleasure from it, it is considered a revolt against Hashem Yisborach and a chilul Hashem. Speaking lashon hara is in this category.

Another aspect of the chilul Hashem involved in lashon hara is the laxity shown towards this mitzvah. If someone was accidentally eating pork and a friend would point this out to him, he would immediately spit it out. When someone is censured for speaking lashon hara, however, he has a thousand rationalizations and excuses. He will argue that what he is saying is not considered lashon hara and that the person he is speaking about is in a category that gives one license to speak against him. Not only will he not heed the rebuke but he may be spurred on to increase his lashon hara. This total disregard for one of G-d’s mitzvos is a chilul Hashem.

Yet another aspect of chilul Hashem is when a distinguished person transgresses and others follow his example. Therefore one who studies Torah has an even greater obligation than others to guard his speech.

7. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” (Lev. 19:12)

If you act in a friendly manner towards someone in his presence but speak against him behind his back, you violate this prohibition. This prohibition refers only to concealed hatred (Sifra). When you openly tell someone about your dislike for him, you do not transgress this prohibition but are guilty of not fulfilling the mitzvah of loving a fellow Jew.

8-9. “You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge against the children of your people.” (Lev. 19: 18).

If you are angry at someone because he refused to grant you some favor and in revenge you speak lashon hara about him, you have violated these two prohibitions, in addition to having spoken lashon hara. For recalling that person’s refusal to render you assistance, you are guilty of, bearing a grudge. For slandering him, you are guilty of taking vengeance. You are obligated to forget the entire incident.

To illustrate the extent of these two prohibitions, a certain scholar related the following anecdote:

Lost and wandering in a desert, Gavrial finally spotted a man leading a herd of camels. Half-crazed from thirst, Gavrial crawled up to the man and begged for water. The camel owner refused and left Gavrial to the elements. Gavrial miraculously managed to get back to civilization and in a short time became very wealthy. One day, Gavrial’s secretary announced that a camel dealer was interested in obtaining a loan from him for the purpose of enlarging his stock. When the man entered Gavrial’s oflice, Gavrial immediately recognized the face. It was the person who had refused to aid him in his hour of need.

Gavrial is obligated to grant the loan without recalling the desert incident. This is a true and diflicult test of Gavrial’s strength of character, but it is required of him by these two mitzvos.

10. “One witness shall not rise up against a man for iniquity or for any sin.” (Deut. 19: 15).

If a solitary witness testifies against someone before a Bait Din in a non-financial matter, he violates this prohibition besides being guilty of speaking lashon hara. In financial matters the testimony of a single witness has practical effects. (It can obligate someone to make an oath.) In non-financial matters, however, the Bait Din cannot accept the testimony of only one witness.

Therefore his coming to testify merely blackens the reputation of the person he speaks against without any beneficial results.

11. “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil” (Ex. 23:2)

If you join a group to speak or hear lashon hara, you violate this prohibition (see Shaarey Tshuvah 3 : 50).

12. “You shall not act similar to Korach and his company” (Bamidbar 17:5).

This verse forbids us to maintain disputes (Sanhedrin 110a).

If you will cause the continuation of a quarrel by relating lashon hara, you violate this prohibition.

13. “You shall not wrong one another” (Lev. 25:17).

This verse forbids us to say anything that will insult or anger another person (Bava Metzia 58b). Some examples of this would be:

(1)     reminding someone about his previous misdeeds

(2)     embarrassing someone for his family background

(3)     ridiculing someone for his lack of Torah knowledge

(4)     insulting someone for his lowly status

(5)     asking someone how he would answer a certain question when you know that he is not competent to reply.

If you relate lashon hara to others in the presence of the victim, besides being guilty of speaking lashon hara, you also violate this prohibition.

14. “(You shall rebuke your neighbor) and you shall not bear sin because of him.” (Lev. 19:17)

This verse prohibits us from embarrassing others even when privately delivering rebuke (Erchin 16b). Rebuke must be delivered in a tactful manner that will not cause shame. If you speak lashon hara about a person and cause him shame, you violate this prohibition.

If you shame someone in public, the crime is so severe that it is punishable by the loss of olam haboh (Bava Metzia 59a).

15. “Any widow or orphan shall you not afflict” (Ex. 22:21).

If you speak lashon hara about widows or orphans in their presence, no matter what their social or financial position, you violate this prohibition.

16. “You shall not pollute the land wherein you are” (Num. 35 : 33).

This verse forbids us to flatter a wrongdoer. If you know Reuven dislikes someone, the correct thing to do is to admonish Reuven for his hatred. By speaking lashon hara to Reuven about his enemy in order to find favor in his eyes, you violate this prohibition. A listener to lashon hara can also be guilty of this prohibition. It is very common for people to nod their heads or vocally show approval when someone tells them lashon hara. This flattery is termed chanifut and is a very serious offense (see Shaarey Tshuvah 3: 187-199).

17. “You shall not curse the deaf” (Lev. 19:14).

This verse forbids us to curse others with G-d’s name. It applies even to a deaf person. All the more so are we forbidden to curse someone who is able to hear (Choshen Mishpot 27). If you speak lashon hara about someone in anger, you are apt to curse him.


Positive Commandments

1. “Remember what the L-rd your G-d did unto Miriam by the way as you came forth out of Egypt” (Deut. 24:9).

The Torah obligates us to vocally recall the punishment Miriam received for speaking lashon hara about Moshe Rabainu (Ramban Commentary). There were numerous factors that might have mitigated the gravity of Miriam’s sin and thus her punishment:

(1)   She spoke about her brother whom she loved dearly.

(2)   She risked her life to save Moshe when he was an infant.

(3)   She raised him in his childhood.

(4)   She did not say anything actually derogatory about Moshe; she merely minimized the extent of his greatness.

(5)   Since she did not speak in Moshe’s presence, he didn’t suffer embarrassment.

(6)   She did not speak against him in public; she privately spoke to Aharon, her brother.

(7)   Moshe Rabainu was the paragon of humility and was not affected by what Miriam said about him. Despite her righteousness Miriam was punished with leprosy. Anyone who speaks lashon hara violates the commandment to recall what Hashem Yishborach did to Miriam.

2. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

Torah obligates us to be equally considerate of the property and dignity of others as we are of our own. By speaking or listening to lashon hara a person shows that he does not love the subject, definitely not to the degree that he loves himself. Although a person might be aware of his own faults, he does not want anyone else to speak about them. If someone does relate his faults, he hopes that the listeners will reject what they hear. Anyone who speaks or accepts lashon hara violates this commandment.

3. “In righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Lev. 19:15).

This verse obligates us to give someone the benefit of the doubt when we see him performing an action that could be interpreted in his favor (Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvos, Positive Precept 177).

If an average mitzvah observer does or says something and the chances of a favorable judgment and unfavorable judgment are equal, we must grant him a favorable judgment. If the person in question is a G-d fearing man, we must judge him favorably even if the unfavorable side outweighs the favorable one. If you assume that this person’s action was improper and you relate it in that manner to others, besides violating the prohibition of lashon hara, you also violate this commandment.

Often, a narrative may consist of entirely true facts, but because the action or words referred to were taken out of context, a completely distorted picture is conveyed. Also, many things are said or done in anger that under normal circumstances would not have been said or done. It is unfair to judge such incidents without taking the circumstances into consideration.

4. “If your brother be waxen poor and his means fail him when he is with you, then you shall uphold him” (Lev. 25:35).

The Torah obligates us to give financial aid to a fellow Jew in order to prevent his becoming poor. This could be in the form of a grant, a loan, or a source of income. If you relate lashon hara and as a consequence the subject loses his job or income, you have violated this commandment.

5. “You shall rebuke your neighbor” (Lev. 19:17).

If someone begins to tell you lashon hara, and instead of rebuking him you assist him by listening to his narrative, you violate this commandment.

It is important to remember that rebuke should be administered as soon as you realize that a narrative contains lashon hara. Do not wait until the other person finishes speaking. Every single word of lashon hara is a separate transgression, and it is your obligation to stop the other person from sinning.

6. “To him shall you cleave” (Deut. 10:20).

This commandment requires us to keep in the company of Talmidai Chachomim so that we should learn from their example. If you forsake their company to join a group of people who are speaking lashon hara, you violate this commandment.

7. “You shall fear my sacred place” (Lev. 19: 30).

We are obligated to act with reverence when we enter a shul or Bais Medrash since they are considered a mikdosh m’at – a minor scale Bais Hamikdosh. Anyone who speaks lashon hara in a shul or Bais Medrash violates this commandment.

8. “Before the gray-haired you shall rise up, and you shall honor the face of the old man” (Lev. 19:32).

This verse requires us to honor a Torah scholar, even if he is not aged, and an elderly person, even if he is not a scholar (Kiddushin 32b). If someone relates lashon hara about a Talmid Chochom or an elderly person in his presence, he violates this commandment.

9. “You shall sanctify Him” (Lev. 21:8).

This verse obligates us to show respect to kohanim – members of the priestly family. If you speak lashon hara about a kohain in his presence, you violate this commandment.

10. “Honor your father and mother” (Ex. 20:12).

The Torah obligates us to honor our parents. If you speak lashon hara about your father or mother, you violate this commandment. This verse also includes an elder brother.

11. “The L-rd your G-d shall you fear” (Deut. 10:20).

We are obligated to realize that Hashem Yisborach is aware of every move we make, and that there is retribution for every wrongdoing. Someone who is careless with his speech violates this commandment.

12. “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deut. 6:7).

Every single word of the Torah that you study is a fulfillment of a mitzvah. Conversely, for every single word of lashon hara that you speak, you are guilty of bitul Torah, not having spent your time fruitfully in studying Torah.

13. “From a false matter you shall keep yourself”(Shemot 23:7).

If you add untrue details to the lashon hara that you speak about someone, you violate this commandment.

14. “Walk in his ways” (Deut. 28:9).

We are required to emulate the attributes of Hashem Yisborach.

“Just as He is merciful and compassionate, so too, we must be merciful and compassionate” (Shabbos 133b). Among G-d’s attributes is His hatred for lashon hara.

When Jericho was conquered, a ban was put on taking spoil from the city. When his army was defeated in a subsequent battle, Joshua was told by G-d that the ban was violated. Joshua asked G-d for the identity of the transgressor, but G-d replied, “Am I an informer’? Make a lottery to find out” (Joshua 7; Sanhedrin 11a). Anyone speaking lashon hara has failed to emulate G-d, and violates this commandment.

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