Who amongst you has not been negatively affected by gossip and evil speech? I bet you that there will be no one out there. Not only that, but I think you will agree with me that somehow, sometime in your lifetime, you were the one to “bad mouth” another person behind his/her back. Personally, I have been a victim of slander, which left me wounded up to this day. Some of you will be there for me to share the feeling of helplessness. What a terrible feeling it is to “be” a topic of a conversation when you are not present, when you cannot defend yourself. I know for a fact that it is impossible to undo the harm.
Ethnographic accounts and social research show that gossip is actually a good thing. It serves as a mechanism to keep a society in control, in unity and solidarity. When people gossip, they seem to make ethical judgments about behavior and maintain their group’s social values (Max Gluckman). Gossip, anthropologists claim, is good for you because it provides the individual with an emotional or psychological comfort that creates a feeling of well-being and belonging to a community (Robert Paine).
As much as I can get what anthropologists are trying to convey, I am not so convinced that gossip, tale bearing and spreading malicious lies about someone are healthy, not for society and not for individuals. They all cause emotional damage and compromise the integrity of many. Thus, Judaism is totally against any speech as such as we are constantly reminded of the biblical commandment, "Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people" (Lev. 19:16). The term that is often used in the Talmud speaks for itself –– lashon harah -- which literary means Evil tongue. In tractate Arakhin 15b we find a number of condemnations of this kind of speech;
a. It has been considered to be a greater sin than killing someone;
The School of R. Ishmael taught: Whoever speaks slander increases his sins even up to [the degree of] the three [cardinal] sins: idolatry, incest, and the shedding of blood.
b. It is considered to have a ‘deadly’ implication;
In the West [Palestine] they say: The talk about third [persons] kills three persons: him who tells [the slander], him who accepts it, and him about whom it is told.
While it is obvious that the one who is spoken about is harmed, the one who speaks lashon Harah is also harmed by lowering himself spiritually. The reputation and dignity of self is compromised and makes this person unworthy. And as we know we shouldn’t talk about others, we do not think that by listening to gossip and being part of an audience, we make lashon harah possible. Thus, the one who listens to lashon Harah is as guilty and also harmed.
R. Hama b. Hanina said: What is the meaning of: Death and life are in the hand [power] of the tongue? Has the tongue ‘a hand’? It tells you that just as the hand can kill, so can the tongue. One might say that just as the hand can kill only one near it, thus also the tongue can kill only one near it, therefore the text states: ‘Their tongue is a sharpened arrow’. Then one might assume that just as an arrow kills only within forty or fifty cubits, thus also the tongue kills only up to forty or fifty cubits, therefore the text states: ‘They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth’. But since it is written already: ‘They set their mouth against the heavens’, why was it necessary to state also: ‘Their tongue is a sharpened arrow’? — This is what we are informed: That [the tongue] kills as an arrow. But once it is written: ‘Their tongue is a sharpened arrow’, why was it necessary to state: Death and life are in the hand of the tongue’? — It is in accord with Raba; for Raba said: He who wants to live [can find life] through the tongue; he who wants to die [can find death] through the tongue.
c. It is socially and spiritually unacceptable;
R. Hisda said in the name of Mar ‘Ukba: One who slanders deserves to be stoned.
Hisda says in the name of Mar ‘Ukba: Of him who slanders, the Holy One, blessed be He, says: He and I cannot live together in the world.
In tractate Makkot 23a and in Pesakhim 118a;
…and Rav Sheshet for Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria; Anybody who tells the evil tongue, and anybody who accepts the evil tongue, and anybody who bears false witnessing on his friend – deserves to be thrown to the dogs…
And if you wonder what is considered evil speech, you will find that anytime you say anything about a person that is not present in the room (good or bad), you are guilty of it.
What constitutes evil speech? — Rabbah said: For example [to say] there is fire in the house of So-and-so. [The fire of the oven. The suggestion: they are wealthy and eating all the time.] Said Abaye: What did he do? He just gave information? — Rather, when he utters that in slanderous fashion: ‘Where else should there be fire if not in the house of So-and-so? There is always meat and fish’ [Behind that apparently innocent phrase lurks the slanderer's purpose.]
Rabbah said: Whatsoever is said in the presence of the person concerned is not considered evil speech. Said Abaye to him: But then it is the more impudence and evil speech! — He answered: I hold with R. Jose, for R. Jose said: I have never said a word and looked behind my back. [To see whether the man concerned was near. I would say it to his face, which proves that in such a case it is not accounted slander (Rashi).]
So, now, let me ask; what would motivate us to engaging in evil speech?
- Are we trying to avoid aggressive confrontations with friends?
- Is it possible that instead of telling our friend we are angry with him/her, we want to take the revenge by gossip?
-Perhaps we all suffer with poor self esteem that we want to gain control and win friendship by slander?
-Are we trying to protect self-interest by this kind of communication?
Let’s face it -- There is no benefit gained from gossip. Let us all remember what the Psalm 34:13 reminds us "to guard our tongue from evil and our lips from deceitful speech." Let us keep our good intention by talking to each other, not by hiding from one another.
© Rabbi Ziona Zelazo