Probably the single biggest cause of our speaking lashon hara today is the fact that we don’t recognize it to be really forbidden. Meaning to say, for most of us the way we view it is listen, it’s not right, it’s not great, it’s not really proper, but it’s not like eating a cheeseburger, it’s not like wearing shatnez, it’s not something that really the Torah forbids. And the Chafetz Chaim in his introduction explains that’s completely false. He spends a tremendous amount of time explaining that there are 17 separate lo sa’asehs, 17 separate prohibitions that circle around lashon hara, 14 mitzvos asei, 14 positive commandments that you annul by speaking lashon hara, and 4 curses.
Now, he explains that it’s unlikely that you’re going to hit all 35 in one speech, but he explains that if you regularly speak lashon hara there’s no question you’ll violate many, many of the lo sa’asehs, many, many asehs, the curses, and within enough time you’ll hit all 35 of them.
And because the Chafetz Chaim spends that much time on it and because he delineates one by one, I’d like to start with learning each one of the negative prohibitions and each one of the positive mitzvos aseh and the curses so that we get an understanding of quite what we’re dealing with.
Lo Seileich Rachil B’amecha – Three Manifestations
Number one, the very first thing that a person has to deal with is what the Torah calls “לא תלך רכיל בעמך”. The words “לא תלך רכיל בעמך” mean don’t be a talebearer in your nation. Now, all of the monei mitzvos, all the ones who count the mitzvos consider this a full lo sa’aseh. What does it mean “לא תלך רכיל בעמך”? So the Chafetz Chaim explains that there are three manifestations of it.
The first is rechilus. Rechilus is if I come to you and say, “I heard someone say about you such-and-such,” or, “I heard someone try to do such-and-such to you.” Rechilus is when I come to you and tell you that someone is trying to speak badly about you, someone is plotting to do something to you, someone has done something to you. That’s called rechilus. What am I doing? I’m a talebearer. I’m going from person to person like a merchant selling items. Now, we’ll see later on there are times when it is permitted; if I’m doing it for a purpose to protect you, to help you it is permitted. But what the Torah says is forbidden is when I come to you for no purpose other than just talking, filling the air. That’s a full lo sa’aseh in the Torah called rechilus.
“לא תלך רכיל בעמך” has a second manifestation called lashon hara. Lashon hara is simply words that are damaging, words that hurt a person’s reputation, words that hurt a person’s stature or hurts a person’s feelings. For instance, if I come to you and say, “You know what Reuven did last week? You know what he said? You know what he did in public?” What I’m doing is I’m defaming Reuven. Now, it’s not rechilus because I’m not saying he did it to you, I’m not causing direct animosity, but I am speaking badly of Reuven. That’s a second manifestation of “לא תלך רכיל בעמך”, don’t be a talebearer, don’t be a peddler in your nation. Don’t go peddling stories from person to person.
The third manifestation is something called motzi shem ra. Motzi shem ra is lashon hara that’s not true. And this underscores one of the major points that the Chafetz Chaim says over and over. The definition of lashon hara is only when it’s true. Many times people say, “It’s not lashon hara because it’s true.” Says the Chafetz Chaim, you have it backwards. It’s only lashon hara if it’s true. If I come to you and say Reuven did such-and-such, Reuven did this and this, it’s only if it’s true that it’s lashon hara. If it’s not true it’s also forbidden, but it’s in a different category, it’s called motzi shem ra. Motzi shem ra is when I defame someone and there’s no basis to it.
All three of these are included in “לא תלך רכיל בעמך”. Number one is rechilus, if I tell you “Reuven tried to do this to you, Reuven wants to do this to you, Reuven said this about you,” that’s included in “לא תלך רכיל בעמך”; that’s rechilus. Lashon hara is included. Lashon hara is if I say about Reuven “This is what Reuven did, this is what Reuven said,” any words that are derogatory that cause him a lack of income, a lack of honor, words that are painful. If they are true they are lashon hara. The third manifestation of “לא תלך רכיל בעמך” is if the words are not true, if I make up something about Reuven, “He did this,” and he really didn’t do this, “He said this,” and he didn’t say it. That’s also included in the category of “לא תלך רכיל בעמך”, but because it’s not true it’s called motzi shem ra.
In any case, all three of these violate a full lo sa’aseh of the Torah. If one does either rechilus, lashon hara or motzi shem ra he violates a full lav in the Torah.