Lashon hara, translated literally as “evil speech,” refers to various types of language prohibited by Jewish law. Colloquially, the term is used to refer to all manner of prohibited speech, whether true or not, and is sometimes translated as “malicious gossip.” But technically lashon hara refers only to true speech that is damaging to the subject.
Different kinds of forbidden speech: Are they all lashon hara?
There are three primary categories of problematic speech in Judaism. The most general is rechilut, or gossip. Rechilut isn’t necessarily negative. Maimonides describes gossip as simply going around telling people what other people have said or done.
Negative speech that is false is called in Hebrew motzi shem ra — literally “gives a bad name,” or more commonly slander or defamation.
Finally, there is lashon hara, which technically refers to speech that causes harm, like saying someone is a bad driver or broke the law. The statement might be true, but speaking it will hurt the person about whom it is said. Maimonides describes it as any statement that, if spread from one person to another, would damage someone’s body or their property, or even annoy or frighten them (Mishneh Torah, Human Dispositions 7:5).
Although lashon hara technically refers only to true speech that is harmful, and not malicious lies (that’s motzi shem ra) or harmless gossip (rechilut),in practice it has colloquially come to encompass all three.
What is the source for the commandment not to engage in lashon hara?
The term lashon hara never appears in the Bible. The closest approximation is a verse in Psalms 34:13-14: “Who is the man who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil [lashon’cha me’rah], your lips from deceitful speech.” The Hebrew phrase translated as “eager for life,” chafetz chayim, would become the title of the most important volume detailing the laws of lashon hara, published in 1873 by Yisrael Meir Kagan, a Polish rabbi who became known as the Chafetz Chaim.
The laws of lashon hara are often said to derive from two principal sources in the Torah. One is a verse in Leviticus 19:16, which prohibits talebearing, and the other is Exodus 23:1, which prohibits bearing false rumors. The verse from Leviticus refers to rechilut, or simple gossip — merely repeating information about other people, even if it’s true and even if it’s not negative. The same verse also bars standing idly by the blood of your neighbor — essentially, failing to save someone from death. That these two prohibitions are contained in the same verse is understood to signify the seriousness with which Jewish tradition regards lashon hara.
How bad is lashon hara?
Jewish law considers the broad category of lashon hara to be a significant sin, as it harms social cohesion and is difficult to atone for. Once such speech has been let loose in the world, it is virtually impossible to undo its damage. Jewish law also regards both the speaker and the hearer of lashon hara as liable.
There are various other commandments that one might be guilty of violating in the course of speaking lashon hara. These include the prohibition known as lifnei iver — literally, placing a stumbling block before the blind, more commonly understood as causing others to sin. Someone who speaks lashon hara and causes the listener to transgress may also be guilty of lifnei iver. Some authorities also consider lashon hara to violate the Torah’s commandment to “remember what God did to Miriam” (Deuteronomy 24:9). This commandment is understood as referring to God striking Miriam with leprosy for having spoken ill of her brother Moses. Speaking ill of others may be a violation of this commandment as well. The Chafetz Chaim lists several other Torah verses that speakers of lashon hara violate.
The ancient rabbis had a lot to say on the dangers of lashon hara, some of which is rather extreme, perhaps because of the verse from Exodus associated with lashon hara that warns against standing idly by the blood of one’s neighbor, and perhaps because the rabbis were famously sensitive to the destructive power of harmful social interactions. The Talmud in Pesachim (118a) states that anyone who speaks lashon hara, and anyone that accepts it as true, should be thrown to the dogs. In Arakhin 15b, the Talmud records a number of sayings about the seriousness of lashon hara, equating it with denying the existence of God and to the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry and sexual immorality.
The rabbis also prohibit something they call avak lashon hara — literally “dust of lashon hara.” This is understood to refer to language that merely implies lashon hara or might cause others to speak it, such as speaking positively about someone in the presence of their enemies.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Origin: Hebrew, literally “evil tongue,” slanderous speech prohibited in the Torah.
Pronounced: huh-LAKH-ic, Origin: Hebrew, according to Jewish law, complying with Jewish law.