In Jewish tradition, an entire set of laws governs how we speak about, and to, other people. These are known as the laws of Lashon Hara, “Evil Speech (literally – tongue).” They include prohibitions against any speech that may damage another person or cause emotional distress. Insults, lies and breaches of confidence are all forbidden. When discussing the existence of these laws, a student of mine once reacted with shock and derision. “That’s ridiculous!” he said,  “How can you control human nature? Speaking about other people is as natural as breathing!”

Judaism maintains that, on the contrary, speech is very much under our control, that we can determine what we say and how we say it. The laws of Lashon Hara help us appreciate the incredible power of speech that has inspired people and saved lives, but has also caused death and destruction. As the verse in Proverbs states, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

We bear tremendous responsibility for what we say, even beyond any tangible impact on the subject, because when we speak about someone in a derogatory fashion we corrupt both ourselves and our listeners.  Even if what is said is true, and even if it will not cause any measurable damage, it is still forbidden to speak negatively about another person, because this is a misuse of the power of speech. Our tradition defines the human being as a “speaker.” Lashon Hara is a sin that corrupts and perverts the very essence of the human being, speech.

It is significant that the verse most often repeated in the Torah teaches us a law about the ethics of speech. Virtually every time God speaks to Moses, the Torah writes, “God spoke to Moses, to say.” The Talmud notes that the Hebrew word for “to say” (le’emor) seems to be unnecessary. The redundancy teaches us, that unless one is told, “to say,” anything a person hears should be kept in confidence:

“God called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting to say…” From here we see that one whose friend has told him something is prohibited from speaking of it to others until given permission to do so.

It is commonly assumed that nothing is confidential unless we are told otherwise, but Jewish law teaches us precisely the opposite; we should treat everything we hear as confidential unless told otherwise.

Even worse than revealing secrets and breaking confidence is spreading dissent or hatred by being a “gossip-monger”  — one who tells others about negative things that someone has done to them or said about them. (In Hebrew, the term for this is rechilut). Even if what he relates is true, the narration creates acrimony.  Such a person thrives on the ill feeling and damage that he causes with his tale bearing. In the words of Maimonides, he “destroys the world” through his speech.

The laws of Lashon Hara teach us to speak with great care and kindness and to avoid making negative statements about others.  They direct us to be truthful, seek peace, and value silence.  As Mark Twain once said, “You always regret what you say much more than what you don’t say.”

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