What if a person clearly knows they are doing something wrong and it is clear that the individual simply does not care? In such a case, says the Chafeitz Chaim, it is permitted to publicize their behavior. A classic example is a scenario where a court summons an individual to stand on trial and he/she refuses a number of invitations. In such a case, it is permitted to publicize this information.
*On that topic, many of you may have received a paper in the mail informing you of an individual in our community who was summoned to court and refused to come – the Baltimore Beis Din has made clear that that specific declaration is not legitimate and should be disregarded.
We discussed yesterday how even if one knows for a fact that someone committed a transgression this does not mean that it is permitted to share this information with others. Rather, if there is reason to believe that he/she is still committing this transgression, one should try to speak to him/her and attempt to persuade them not to do the act again.
If there is reason to believe that he/she will not listen that us still not grounds to share the information with everyone. Rather, the information should be shared with someone who he/she will be influenced by, like a family member or a rabbi.
There are times when sharing negative information about others is allowed. As we discussed yesterday, even if one knows that someone transgresses a certain prohibition, there are some mitzvos that people are simply unaware of. To publicly denounce them for violating such commandments would be forbidden.
This would seem to indicate that if it is a mitzvah that everyone is aware of then it would be permitted. Not so fast, says the Chafeitz Chaim. We all slip up and people make mistakes. It is possible, he argues, that the person who did whatever it is we witnessed them do has changed their ways. To publicize what they have done would not only serve no purpose but be wrong. (We are not discussing a situation where a person is a potential threat to others. There are other considerations to take into account for such scenarios.)
A good example of this is something that made headlines in Jewish publications recently. A certain Jewish publication published findings of their own private investigation – they discovered that a certain prominent scholar in Judaic studies used a pseudonym to post comments on-line and in journals to defend and praise his own works. This was obviously unethical behavior and totally inappropriate for a scholar of any kind, most definitely of Jewish studies. However, this scholar had ceased using this pseudonym a while back. He clearly had felt, whether it was from remorse or fear of being caught, that it was not a good idea. For the newspaper to publish such information is a clear violation of the lashon hara discussed above.
The Chafeitz Chaim goes on a small tangent to discuss the laws of b’tzedek tishpot amisecha, judging another favorably. There are times when it would be justified to share negative information about an individual to pressure the person to stop doing what they are doing. Before doing so, one has to ascertain that they are committing the act with malicious intent. Meaning, even if one is 100% sure that they have witnessed a certain event, it is still possible that the person doing the event is not aware that this is actually a prohibition. This is included in the commandment to judge another favorably.
(Often times people assume judging others favorably is a commandment to be naive. For example, if you see someone buying a cheese burger at McDonald’s and biting into it, people assume that judging favorably would mean that we should assume that the individual switched the cheese burger with a Glatt Kosher burger with tofu cheese in the blink of an eye. The Torah does not expect us to turn off our minds. What we learn from the Chafeitz Chaim’s law above is that judging favorably is more applicable to a case of someone speaking during parts of the prayers when talking is forbidden. One knows exactly what happened, he just witnessed someone speaking in an appropriate time. Judging favorably means that we assume the person is not a bad person, in this scenario, maybe he didn’t know it’s the wrong thing to do.)
Weekly Tip #2
Since we have been and will be discussing judging people favorably for the next little while, I will share this important insight. Imagine someone told you that someone you do not like did something terrible. Imagine what your reaction would be. Now imagine someone telling you that the person who did that same act was really your spouse/mother/father/son/daughter. Did you have a very different reaction? Were you able to come up with possible justifications for what this individual thought they witnessed your loved one do?
We are constantly interpreting facts that we see and hear about. Inasmuch as we hate to admit it we are all jaded to our preconceived notions. If I do not like someone then the things I see the person do will be interpreted in a negative light and the opposite is true for someone we love and respect. That being said, judging another person favorably is not as challenging as we think it to be. Any time we see someone do something that seems wrong, or hear that someone did something wrong, imagine that person to be your spouse/parent/child. Revisit the story and allow yourself to almost naturally judge the individual in a totally different light.
It goes without saying that discussing a person’s not so amazing past is also forbidden. Although at times the context would imply that the statement is positive, such as, “Look how far he/she has come. Do you know what he/she used to do?” such statements are still forbidden because they mention the individual’s negative past.
Even mentioning that a person violates a prohibition that people don’t take so seriously (like lashon hara!) is still lashon hara.
How broad is the prohibition of lashon hara? Very broad.
The first and most famous episode of lashon hara in the Torah is Miriam speaking negatively about her brother. She did not speak out of hatred, or malice. On the contrary, the little bit that we do know about the relationship between Miriam and her brother Moshe indicates that they had a loving relationship. Furthermore, her lashon hara did not affect Moshe in any way. Nonetheless, she was punished for speaking lashon hara. We see from here, says the Chafeitz Chaim, that even ‘joking around’ by poking fun at someone’s negative behaviors etc. is still a violation of lashon hara. Similarly, anytime one speaks negatively about another person even if the conversation will not affect the subject in any way, it is still forbidden.
*A number of people reached out to me for abstaining from lashon hara for an hour a day. You can do it too! Anyone else interested in joining this amazing opportunity to perfect the way we speak?
“But we all did that back in college!” = lashon hara. Incriminating oneself in the discussion does not make the statement positive. Similarly, “I would say it even if he/she was standing right here!” does not mean that the statement is not a negative one and would still constitute lashon hara.
One last point and that is, even if the name of the subject of lashon hara is not specified, but the listener can figure out who is being spoken of, is still lashon hara.
When negative information is well-known it is a matter of debate among the early commentators if it is permitted to discuss this information with others. According to those who are lenient in this matter, sharing such information does not violate the prohibition of spreading lashon hara because it is assumed that even if the listener does not know the information at this moment, he/she will know the information sooner than later. The Chafeitz Chaim states both opinions indicating that one can rely on the more lenient opinion that sharing this information is permitted. That being said, when one does discuss this information it cannot be done for the sake of tarnishing a person’s reputation.
Bear in mind, the Chafeitz Chaim adds that there is public knowledge that is not objective. For example, stating that Bernie Madof ran a Ponzi scheme is objective and everyone knows that so it would be permitted to discuss that information. However, to say that Conan O’Brien did a lousy job at the White House the other day is subjective. Even though his performance was public, the opinions are subjective and therefore sharing a negative review with others would be a violation of lashon hara.
Weekly Tip #1
Lashon Hara can be overwhelming. As human beings we like to speak – a lot! If we are accustomed to speaking negatively about others especially if many of our friends or co-workers typically gossip, stopping to speak lashon hara seems like an insurmountable mountain.
One of the simplest ways to get started is to start small; pick one hour a day (during a time that you are typically awake!) and commit to not speaking lashon hara during that time. Start off by committing to do so for one month. Doing this with a group of people makes it even easier. I noticed that there are quite a few people signed up to this blog. If you are interested in taking this 1 hour a day challenge, you can email me privately, and if there is enough interest, I could divide the hours of the day between the readers of the blog. That way we will all be working on this together. I would propose we do this in merit of peace for the entire world. It’s been a dark and sad time and a little bit of light can push away a lot of darkness.
This Sunday is known as Lag B’Omer; a day of festivities and celebration. One of the reasons that we celebrate is because it is the Yahrtziet of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
Since when do we celebrate a Yahrtzeit? On the contrary, the day Moshe passed away (7th of Adar) and the day Aharon passed away (1st of Av) are seen as days of mourning. Why then do we celebrate the passing of the great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai?
I will be addressing this question as well as many others tomorrow afternoon at 6:10 P.M. in a class titled Beyond the Bonfires and BBQ’s: A Deeper Understanding of Lag B’Omer.
I hope to see you there.
There is a nearly universal Jewish custom not to get a haircut during one part of the sefira period. For those who keep the first half of the sefira, as many do, there is some debate as to when one can take a haircut. Sefardim, following the ruling of the author of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Caro, do not get a haircut until the day after Lag B’Omer. However, Ashkenazim, following the ruling of the Rema, get a haircut as early as the morning of Lag B’Omer but not the night before.
This year, because Shabbos falls out the day before Lag B’omer, in respect for Shabbos, the Rema rules that it is permitted to get a haircut on Friday. However, something interesting comes out of all this – one may get a haircut today and one may get a haircut on Sunday and on, but one cannot get a haircut on Saturday night.