During the three-week period between the seventeenth of Tamuz and Tisha B'Av, we mourn the Destruction of the Batei Mikdash. The point of mourning is not to mourn for its own sake, but rather to reflect on what led to the Destruction, and how these pitfalls exist in our own lives. Accordingly, we attempt to mend our ways and thereby merit the rebuilding of the third and final Beis Hamikdash.
It is well known what Chazal tell us in Yoma
Why was the first Beis Hamikdash destroyed? Because of three transgressions that were predominant at the time, idol worship, immorality and bloodshed… But the second Beis Hamikdash when they were learning Torah and doing mitzvos and kind deeds, why was it destroyed? Because of unjustified hatred that people felt for each other. This shows us that unjustified hatred out weighs the other three transgressions.1
The Chafetz Chaim explains that even though the Gemara only mentions baseless hatred, it also refers to lashon hara, which is a product of sinas chinam. It is a vicious circle: hatred leads to lashon hara and lashon hara causes more hatred.2 Sinas chinam alone does not warrant the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the exile of Klal Yisroel. But the resulting lashon hara definitely can lead to such devastating results. After analysing the main cause of our lengthy exile, the Chafetz Chaim proves that it is indeed the presence of lashon hara to which we owe our long exile. He therefore concludes that this transgression must be rectified before we can merit our redemption.
To stop oneself from speaking lashon hora, one must first know how, precisely, lashon hara is defined. Many may think that it relates to derogatory remarks alone. But lashon hara also includes any information that might lead to hurting someone else in any way: physically, financially or emotionally. In short, lashon hara is any damaging speech. This is so even if what is being said is true, as the Chafetz Chaim often stresses. The only time such speech is permissible is if it involves a to'eles, a positive outcome. However, before hastily assuming that there truly is a to'eles, one has to fulfil seven conditions, (which the Chafetz Chaim discusses at length).3 It is therefore best to first consult a Rav who is both knowledgeable in these halachos, and not personally connected to the issues under discussion.
Avak lashon hara
All this, however is not our main point of discussion. We shall rather focus on a less well- known area of lashon hara known as avak lashon hara (literally "the dust of lashon hara.") This means that even if something is not bona fide lashon hara, which is prohibited by the Torah, it may still fall under the category of avak lashon hara, which is Rabinically prohibited. What exactly falls into this category? This is not a simple matter, as we shall see. Let us go back to one of our classical earlier poskim and begin our analysis from there.
The Rambam in his discussion of the laws of lashon hara writes:
Some speech is avak lashon hara. For example, one who says 'Who would have believed that so and so would turn out like this?' or 'Don't talk about him, I don't want to say what happened.' So too one who praises someone in front of people who dislike him is speaking avak lashon hara as he causes them to speak lashon hara about the subject. So too one who speaks lashon hara in a joking manner with no hatred in mind. So too, one who says lashon hara in a sly manner, pretending not to know that what he is saying is lashon hara, and when rebuked, respondes, "I didn't know that these are so and so's ways or that this is lashon hara."4
At first glance, the Rambam seems to enlist four categories of speech, which fall under the heading of avak lashon hara. They are:
1. Implied lashon hara ('Who would have believed that he would turn out like this?').
The Chafetz Chaim begins the laws of avak lashon hara by quoting the first two cases we have mentioned: implied and causative lashon hara.5 He continues by pointing out that not only is praising someone before his adversaries prohibited, but even doing so in front of neutral listeners can be forbidden. One must not praise anyone excessively, as this will inevitably lead to lashon hara by causing either him or one of the listeners to mention some of his shortcomings. He also adds that one should not praise a person in public, as there may be people who dislike that person and will disparage him among the crowd of listeners. However, this does not apply in a case were the subject is known to be a righteous person for then any ill remarks will be disregarded. The Chafetz Chaim then continues with a different subject, and seems to have ended the laws of avak lashon hara.
The question, then, is obvious. Why did the Chafetz Chaim end his laws of avak lashon hara at this point, and leave out the last two categories mentioned by the Rambam? The answer to this question is contained in the third chapter of the Chafetz Chaim, where he writes:
Look how severe the prohibition of lashon hara is! Even if one is not speaking out of contempt, and does not mean to disgrace the subject, but rather was speaking in a joking and light-headed manner, it is still considered lashon hara that is prohibited by the Torah since what was said was derogatory.6
Thus the Chafetz Chaim considers lashon hara said in a joking manner to be actual lashon hara not merely avak. Later, he states that saying lashon hara in a sly manner is also considered lashon hara. 7
The Chafetz Chaim is aware that he seems to be contradicting the Rambam. In the Be'er Mayim Chaim - the Chafetz Chaim's footnotes - he explains his view, namely, that the Rambam only meant the first two cases to be avak. The last two categories, however, are complete lashon hara. He says this in the name of the Yad HaKetana. 8
According to this interpretation of the Rambam's words, there are only two cases of avak. In truth, the Chafetz Chaim also has difficulty with the first case of avak (implying lashon hara). He questions the Rambam's source for this form of avak? His question stems from the fact that the second category of avak (causing others to say lashon hara) has a source in the Gemara, but this case does not. The Chafetz Chaim concludes by suggesting that the reason that the first case is avak is not because it implies something derogatory, but rather because making a comment of this nature will in fact cause the listeners to continue the subject and speak lashon hara themselves. Accordingly, there is actually only one type of avak: causing others to speak lashon hara. The Rambam's first two categories are both examples of this. This does, however, seem to go against the simple interpretation of the Rambam's words, which imply that all four cases are avak. (In a later footnote, the Chafetz Chaim writes that he later found that from the Rambam's commentary to Pirkei Avos, it is clear that the Rambam's view is that these cases are also avak.9 The Chafetz Chaim adds that although this is the opinion of the Rambam, since the majority of poskim disagree with the Rambam, the Chafetz Chaim's ruling still stands: these two cases are considered to be complete lashon hara.)
The Chelkas Binyamin (a commentary to the Chafetz Chaim) offers an explanation as to why these four cases listed by the Rambam should in fact be only avak lashon hara and not complete lashon hara.10 He note that the common denominator they all share is that in all these cases, the lashon hara is not convincing. The listeners are not being compelled or persuaded to believe the derogatory comments that are being said. Typically, when a person says lashon hara, he is stating plainly that this is his opinion and that it should be accepted. This force of persuasiveness is lacking in all four of the Rambam's cases.
In the first case, ('Who would have believed...?'), no derogatory remark was actually said at all. It was merely an allusion to something being wrong, and clearly no one is being compelled to believe the lashon hara is true, since the lashon hara was not even spelt out. In the second case (praising) this point is even clearer, since no derogatory remark was said at all. The issue is that the listeners will themselves start speaking lashon hara; the original speaker is certainly not compelling them to look down on the subject. In the third case, joking, even though the lashon hara was said clearly, since it was said in a jocular manner, it does not come across as compelling, and much of the sting is lost. In the last case, sly lashon hara, since the speaker did not clearly show that he intends to deride the subject, and did not say the lashon hara outright and with confidence, his remarks are less convincing. Therefore, in all of these cases the lashon hara is weakened and is only considered to be avak lashon hara.
In conclusion, through studying the parameters of avak lashon hara, we realise the severity of actual lashon hara. Chazal felt compelled to erect a fence, keeping us far away from lashon hara. Furthermore, even praising someone, which is definitely done with the best of intentions, is only permissible as prescribed by halacha. We must watch our every word. Through the meticulous observation of these halachos, may we rectify the cause of the current galus and may we merit the redemption, speedily in our days.
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