There are rare and specific occasions
when it is permissible to say or to accept what is normally considered evil speech, when
there is a constructive and beneficial purpose to saying it. There are many conditions.
For example, the speaker must know personally of the truth of the facts (not hearsay, e.g.
the speaker was an actual witness) and the listener may not believe the news but only may
take normal and necessary precaution to guard himself against damage. You may refrain from
proceeding with a partnership when I tell you not to enter into a business partnership
with Mr. Ploney because I personally know of his having been a brazen and massive cheat,
fraud and crook in previous business relationships. You may refrain from a match when I
tell you not to marry Miss Ploniss because I personally know that she was imprisoned for
violence and has been diagnosed as criminally insane. In either case, you might undertake
an investigation into Ploney or Ploniss or simply drop the relationship. Take all
practical questions to a competent orthodox rabbi. Always remember that Heaven treats you
the way you treat others - including regarding speech.
There are occasions when one may change the truth for certain situations including for
the sake of peace, to avoid machlokess (fights, hostility, divisiveness), or to spare
feelings from being hurt. Permission to change the truth applies
* when you have no alternative,
* when no other Torah principle is violated,
* when there will be a constructive Torah-sanctioned purpose achieved and
* when there are no negative "side effects."
How to craft any change from the "accurate truth" may require consideration
or preparation. There may be rules as to what you can or cannot say. If you have any
doubt, ask an orthodox rabbi. The guiding principle is: truth is defined by the
achievement of G-d's will, not by the accuracy of your report of the "truth."
G-d's "truth" generally causes no hurt, fighting, anger or malevolence. G-d's
truth is generally consistent with love, respect, derech eretz (thoughtful and courteous
behavior), pleasantness and peace.
The saintly Chafetz Chayim wrote an entire sefer (holy book) on the extensive laws of
refraining from evil speech. In a letter, he wrote that, in his days, machlokess
(fighting, quarreling) was growing at a rapid, frightening and painful rate [note:
nowadays it's even worse! which is why I cite this here]. People, even if they hold
themselves to be right, think nothing of saying that the argument is totally the fault of
the other and the "truth" is totally with them. They get blindly preoccupied
with winning and with validating themselves. More people take sides and the argument grows
wider and dirtier. Principle goes by the wayside. The Torah's interpersonal laws and
behavior standards are disregarded. The people in the fight succumb to serious sins of
anger, disgracing, disrespecting, hurting feelings, divisiveness, stubbornness, verbal
slurs, maligning and chillul Hashem (profanation of G-d, especially when people see
violation of His Torah). This brings destructive punishments from G-d and prolonging of
this hard and bitter exile. The Chafetz Chayim concluded the letter by writing that the
Jew should better spend his time in Torah, good deeds and peace.
The Torah tells us that a metzora (leper) suffers a spiritual disease of which the
physical disease is only an external symptom or manifestation. The cause is evil speech,
spoken in a spirit of arrogance or self-aggrandizement. The metzora is put out of the
camp. This teaches that the way he tried to ostracize the victim against whom he spoke, he
is punished with ostracism. He has to humble himself and train himself to refrain from
evil speech and from hurting people. When he is healed, he brings two birds as a
sacrifice. Just as birds chirp, he chirped too much. One bird is killed, to show that his
mouth could kill. The other bird is taken to be set free in the "sadeh (field)."
Why does the Torah specify to a field? Rabbi Avraham Asher Zimmerman, one of today's great
Torah authorities and one of my Torah teachers, explains why the Torah said that the
second bird should be let free specifically in the field. A midbar (desert) has no life -
nothing grows there. A field has cheeyuss (life) - trees, fruit, grass, vegetation. You
may think that the sin of evil speech is so serious that I should never speak, to save
myself from the chance of a sin. The Torah is saying essentially, "No, you must
speak." But what must one speak? The Jew uses his power of speech for things of
"life" - Torah, kindness and mitzvos.
In the Talmud (Chulin 89a), Rabbi Yitzchok asked, "What is meant by that which is
written [Psalm 58:2], 'Indeed [UMNam] does the mute one speak righteousness, do you judge
uprightly, sons of man?'" [Due to the grammatical relationship of the word root of
alef, mem and nune, we learn] what the profession [UMNus] of a person must be in this
world. He must make himself as one who is mute. This may seem like it means to even be
silent and not speak words of Torah. Therefore, the verse continues, 'Speak
righteousness.' This might bring one to arrogance. Therefore, the verse continues, 'Judge
uprightly, sons of man.'"
The Chafetz Chayim, in Shmiras HaLoshon, discusses the above Talmudic teaching. The
gemara referred to training oneself to be silent as a profession. If one who does not have
training in a profession attempts to do the work of a profession, utilize the tools of a
profession, build or repair what one in the profession builds or repairs, he will fail.
One who has training in that profession knows the work and can succeed.
Similarly, if one tries to speak when he should and be silent when he should without
training, he will fail. He will speak lashon hora (defamation, gossip), motzee shaim ra
(slander), richiluss (talebearing), devarim bitailim (empty, wasted speech), divray chol
bi'shabos (secular words on the holy sabbath), laitzonus (scoffing, mockery), nivul peh
(vulgarity), machlokess (fighting, arguing), ono'as devarim (words that hurt people) and
other forbidden kinds of speech. He will not know when to be quiet. He may not know how to
keep quiet or have the strength to resist temptation to open his mouth. This requires
training, the same way that learning a profession and acquiring expertise requires
training. Only if one approaches developing the ability to remain silent when necessary as
a profession can one come to be able to be able to speak and to be silent when each is
proper. This can only come with ongoing learning and training. This is to be a person's
profession in this life.
Let me append a series of verses from Psalm 34 (13-15). "Who is the person who
wants life, loves having days that he may see good? Guard your tongue from evil and your
lips from speaking deceit. Abandon evil and do good, seek peace and chase it."