Please note: The Halachot of lashon hara are very complex, and this is just intended as a rough guide.
If you have a burning desire to publicly speak evilly about a specific person, please first check it with a competent Rav (who doesn’t speak habitually speak lashon hara himself….) The following is all based on the guidelines set out in the book Purity of Speech, which you can buy for yourself HERE.
THE 8 RULES OF SAYING NEGATIVE THINGS (LASHON HARA) FOR A CONSTRUCTIVE PURPOSE
Before you can say anything about anyone, you have to make sure that what you want to say meets the following criteria:
- It’s 100% accurate – you can’t make blanket statements based on one misdemeanor of problem. Use specific examples of what you’re talking about, i.e., that person once short-changed me, not ‘they rob everyone blind!!’
- It’s something that could definitely cause the other person harm. I.e. there is absolutely no justification for telling someone about some person they never met in their life and who they have nothing to do with ever – even if he’s Hannibal Lecter.
- Don’t exaggerate – use the barest minimum of negative words to convey whatever information you feel you need to.
- Have a CONSTRUCTIVE INTENTION for saying the negative information. You can’t talk about anyone that you personally have a grudge against, or dislike yourself.
- You can’t tell the other person negative information if you know that it isn’t going to affect the outcome – i.e., nothing you say is going to persuade them to change course anyway.
- You have to try any other means of ‘preventing the harm’ to your friend other than speaking negatively, first.
- You can’t tell over negative information to people with big mouths, who will indiscriminately pass it on to other people – even if they themselves are directly affected by it.
- You can’t tell over negative information to people who are likely to over-react in a way that is against halacha.
Now, once you’ve checked all of these things off your list, you can move on to considering saying something negative about someone else, for a constructive purpose.
If the 8 rules above are met, then you can pass over negative information in the following circumstances:
- Someone is asking you for information about a shidduch proposal.
- Someone is asking for information about a prospective business partner, tenant or employee.
- You’re telling someone who has influence to prevent the person you’re speaking about from committing a sin.
- You’re revealing a specific, harmful threat – but you first have to rebuke the person making the threat yourself in person, and in private.
- You’re degrading (publicly shaming) someone who is causing harm to another person, or to society, in some way, physically, emotionally or monetarily. (Child abusers fit into this category.)
- You’re degrading (publicly shaming) someone who regularly speaks lashon hara (evil speech.) (Journalists and bloggers fit into this category).
- You’re degrading (publicly shaming) someone who is a baal machloket, i.e. someone who deliberately and regularly causes strife, arguments and discord between different Jews, and different Jewish groups. (Journalist and bloggers, liars and habitual speakers of lashon hara also fit into this category.)
- You’re degrading (publicly shaming) someone who isn’t Torah observant – but only if most people know this sin is forbidden; the person has committed it many times, all the other rules of speaking evilly for a constructive purpose have been met.
- You’re trying to find out information about something about someone, like a school, doctor, rabbi etc. BUT – you can’t ask in a public forum, only privately; you can’t pass the negative information you hear on to anyone else; and you have to be very careful about observing the Halachot related to listening and believing evil speech (i.e., you can’t assume that it’s definitely true, or do something to harm the other person as a result.)
As you’re hopefully starting to figure out yourself, most of us are being bombarded with lashon hara 24/7!
Read any of the Jewish news sites, visit most of your favorite blogs, hang out on Facebook for even 5 seconds – you probably just broke a whole bunch of serious Torah laws connected with speaking, receiving and believing evil speech….
Once again, this applies to talking about a SPECIFIC, NAMED individual. Discussing bad character traits globally, negative behaviors or unidentified bent rabbis (for example…) is OK, and even a very good and necessary thing to do.
The problem comes as soon as you’re identifying a specific, named individual and talking specifically about them in a public forum, without following all the rules set out above, and / or getting competent advice from a switched-on, genuinely holy halachic authority who gives you permission to do that.
And when all the rules have been followed, and / or you’ve received halachic permission to speak negatively about an individual in a public forum, it’s a very good idea to state that openly, so everyone is clear that what you are passing on is NOT just standard evil speech and negative information, but halachically-mandated negative information for a constructive purpose.
- See HERE for the Crash Course on the Laws of Lashon Hara.