The Dust of Lashon Hara

Speaking ill of someone is not the only way to besmirch his or her reputation.

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Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Values, published by Bell Tower.

Indirect Disparagement

Jewish laws forbidding lashon hara (literally "evil speech") prohibit speaking of another in a manner that lowers his or her status. Jewish ethics also prohibit lowering another’s reputation even when you do so non-verbally. Thus, it is wrong to make a face or roll one’s eyes when a person’s name is mentioned. It is also wrong to make a sarcastic comment, "Yeah, he's a real genius, isn't he?" When I was growing up, a child would often say something positive about another, then clear his throat in such a manner as to convey that he meant precisely the opposite. However, since Jewish law defines lashon hara as anything that lowers another person’s reputation, it is irrelevant whether you convey your contempt silently or with a sarcastic tone.

Jewish legal writings designate such actions as avak lashon hara ("the dust of lashon hara"), and consider them immoral. "The dust of lashon hara" includes any technique by which a person attempts to damage another's name without expressly saying anything critical. For example, let's say you have received a letter that contains spelling and grammatical errors. It is morally wrong to show it to another if your goal is to lower the reader’s respect for the letter writer. It is similarly wrong to show a person an unflattering photograph of another and for the twoof you to laugh about the picture.

two coworkers whispering gossip at work“The dust of lashon hara” also encompasses verbal innuendo. For example, it is wrong to imply that you know something bad about another, even if you don’t reveal what it is, as in, "Don’t mention Robert’s name around me. I don’t want to say what I know about him."And just as it is wrong to say to a person who has improved herself, "Remember how you used to act," it is equally wrong to transmit a negative impression of the person's past to others, as in, "None of us who knew Barbara in her twenties could ever have guessed that she would turn out as nice as she now has."

When it comes to lashon hara, if your goal is to lower another person's status, then it can be done equally effectively through words, a sarcastic laugh, or sharing a letter that holds its writer up to ridicule. Each of those methods is effective, cruel, and wrong.

Praise—at the Wrong Time and Place

Maimonides wrote, "Whoever relates the virtues of his neighbor before the persons' enemies, that constitutes the dust of lashon hara." (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Development 7:4).

If you are speaking to a group of people, among whom is one you know dislikes another person, don’t start singing the disliked person’s praises. Perhaps you believe that complimenting that person in front of his or her adversary is doing him or her a favor. The Jewish tradition does not agree. True, it’s possible that the adversary will listen in silence when your words are first uttered; his or her silence might even continue for as long as you are present. However, when you depart, the antagonist will likely start in with a litany of all that he or she dislikes about the other. (If, however, the person’s antagonist starts attacking him in front of a group, it is commendable for you to speak up on behalf of the person whose name is being besmirched.)

If you want to lessen a person’s animosity for another, then speak one-on-one to the antagonist. But don’t praise someone in a group containing the person’s enemy. All you will guarantee is that the others in the group will eventually hear a delineation of all that the person’s enemy dislikes about him.

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.