Chazal describe something called avak lashon hara – dust of lashon hara. These are categories of speech, of words, that aren’t directly lashon hara but have some element of lashon hara in them. One of them is the following:
If someone mentions Reuven’s name, and I say, “Well, who says Reuven always was that good?” Or, “I’d rather not talk about Reuven because there are a lot of things that I wouldn’t want to be known.” I haven’t directly maligned, I haven’t directly degraded Reuven, but, explains the Chafetz Chaim, that is avak lashon hara since it will lead other people automatically to speak badly about Reuven.
Meaning to say, the minute I say, who says he always was what you think he is, people start thinking, they start remembering things, and they start telling things and it potentially causes other people to speak lashon hara. That’s one manifestation of avak lashon hara, and it’s forbidden for me to do that.
So, if in fact the name Reuven is mentioned and I say I don’t want to talk about him, I don’t want to mention him because who says he always was this way or I don’t want to speak lashon hara, that’s within the category of avak lashon hara.
If I directly cause someone to speak lashon hara about Reuven, that’s even worse than avak lashon hara, it’s lifnei iver. Meaning to say, if I directly elicit a response about Reuven, that I say something that then causes you to speak badly about him, then it’s beyond avak lashon hara, it’s actually lifnei iver. I’m causing you to speak lashon hara.
The Chafetz Chaim is speaking about a case where I say something that is somewhat neutral but somewhat negative. Just that alone can cause other people to speak lashon hara and that would be in the category of avak lashon hara.
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