The Sin of Lashon Harah: “You Shall be Guiltless Towards the L-RD and Towards Israel”
It is written, “You shall be guiltless towards the L-RD and towards Israel” (Numbers 32:22). This verse teaches us that if we accuse somebody of having done something that he did not do, the accused is forbidden to keep silent, for the suspicions raised about him could seem justified in the eyes of others. Instead, he should prove his innocence to everyone, otherwise he transgresses the Divine commandment, “You shall be guiltless towards the L-RD and towards Israel.” However if he proves his innocence, yet people continue to have doubts about him and begin to speak ill of him, they will be the ones transgressing commandments, such as “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people” (Leviticus 19:16). As the Talmud teaches, people who transgress in this way will be afflicted with physical pain (Shabbat 97a).
The gravity of Lashon Harah (“evil speech”) is literally indescribable. Communities and entire cities have been destroyed because of it. We note in particular the gossip peddling of idle women on Shabbat and holidays, when they meet in their homes or in synagogue. This is the why the prophet proclaims, “My soul detests your New Moons and your appointed times” (Isaiah 1:14). Hashem detests them because they are not celebrated in holiness, because peace and harmony do not reign between a man and his fellow, and because people gossip about one another. When Sodom and Gomorra were destroyed, it was essentially because people did not respect one another (a source of Lashon Harah). As for the generation of the flood, our Sages teach that their fate (to be wiped out) was sealed by the sin of theft (Sanhedrin 108a), as it is written: “The earth was filled with robbery” (Genesis 6:11), for each person stole from the other and there was no unity among them.
Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 disciples who all died between Passover and Shavuot because they did not show respect for one another (Yebamot 62b). The Talmud also teaches that the second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred that raged among Jews (Yoma 9b), and especially because of Lashon Harah, which is as serious as the three cardinal sins combined (Erchin 15b). The Holy One, blessed be He, detests the person who speaks ill of his fellow, even if it is the truth (see Sotah 35a). Lashon Harah generates hatred and controversy, putting the entire world in danger.
As we have seen, the generation of King Ahab of Israel worshipped idols. The Talmud even states that Ahab wrote on the gates of Samaria that he renounced the G-d of Israel. Nevertheless, they were victorious when they went out to war. Why did this king, who was among the 10 monarchs who reined over the entire world (Perkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 11), merit this? It is because in his time Jews did not speak ill of one another, nor were there informers among them (Vayikra Rabba 26:5). We therefore see that harmony reigns when Lashon Harah is not rampant, and thanks to such unity we achieve abundance, even if we deny our faith, as did Ahab, who nevertheless respected the Torah (Sanhedrin 102b).
“I would prefer that they forget Me but keep My Torah, because the light of the Torah would bring them back to the right path,” exclaims Hashem (Eicha Rabbati, Introduction 2). This passage is difficult to understand, for if the Children of Israel do not respect Hashem, how can they respect His Torah?
The answer lies in the fact that for the Holy One, blessed be He, the Torah symbolizes the unity of the Children of Israel. This is of primary importance in His eyes, as we saw above in the case of King Ahab’s generation, for idol worship was rampant at that time. The Torah tells us the story of the king of Aram, who sent messengers to Ahab demanding that he send him a Torah scroll in a disgraceful way. Despite the fact that he had renounced Hashem, Ahab and his people refused to comply with the king of Aram because they respected the Torah. Ahab said, “Understand now and realize that this man is seeking evil” (I Kings 20:7). Ahab then offered Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram, silver and gold, but he refused. What he wanted was the most precious thing of all, a Torah scroll (Sanhedrin 102b), obtained in a disgraceful way. Ahab nevertheless refused. He waged war against Aram and was victorious, even though Ben-Hadad was stronger than he. This victory was due to the respect that Ahab showed for the Torah. Moreover, his servants testified to the respect that they showed one another and to many Torah commandments that actually deal with interactions between man and his fellowman.
This is sadly not the case in our days when rabbis, who consider themselves to be great sages, do not hesitate to speak ill of others. Transgressing the mitzvah of judging their fellow favorably and finding good in them (Perkei Avoth 1:6), they tarnish the image of G-d in their fellowman and taint the entire world with evil by means of their Lashon Harah.
I often see people being attracted by tidbits of gossip, rumor peddling, and slander during a Torah lecture. Instead of receiving the reward reserved for those who engage in Torah study, they will be punished for having spoken ill of their neighbor. They obviously forget that a person who favorably judges his fellow will be favorably judged by the Holy One, blessed be He (Zohar I:79b). Why then should a person succumb to this sin, since it is so easy to watch over words coming out of one’s mouth?
Someone once asked me for advice on what to do, given that he often hears Lashon Harah during a weekly Torah class. I explained to him that according to the Torah, it is forbidden to attend such a class, especially since the person organizing it at his home is attacking others and slandering them. Since that person sins and makes other people sin, how will his repentance be accepted? As we have seen, that person will not be given the chance to return to the right path. Instead of bringing heavenly abundance down into the world, that person (whose home is a meeting place for pious Jews) actually strengthens the forces of impurity and brings strict judgments, even illnesses, upon the world (Zohar II:122a, 264b). Those who organize Torah classes and whose goal is to bring their brothers to the right path should be especially careful to not speak ill of others. Otherwise, when they face adversity and call out to Hashem and implore Him for help, He will not come to their aid, for they have succumbed to the grave sin of Lashon Harah, a sin that destroys both body and soul. In addition, if they do not ask forgiveness of those against whom they have spoken, their sin will not be atoned (Yoma 85b).
Concerning this topic, we know that in the will that the Vilna Gaon left his wife and family, he forbid them to go to synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, lest they hear Lashon Harah from other women. The Zohar teaches that one who speaks ill of others creates an angel who brings accusations against him to G-d, and G-d cannot, so to speak, stop him (Zohar III:85a). As for the Talmud, it teaches that such speech shortens one’s life.
My dear brothers, take a firm decision to stop speaking ill of others! Let us remember the episode involving Miriam the prophetess, by whose merit a well provided water to the Children of Israel in the desert for 40 years (Taanith 9a). Nevertheless, she was struck by leprosy when she spoke ill of her brother Moses (ibid. 16a). Let us also remember the episode of the spies, who did not draw a lesson from her leprosy and spoke ill of Eretz Israel (Tanhuma Shelach Lecha 5). Let us therefore refrain from this extremely grave sin and not listen to those who slander others and peddle rumors, nor accustom ourselves to listening to lies. In this way we will not come to hating others.
If we see two groups who do not share the same point of view, in no way must we get involved. Let us flee from all those who speak ill of the great of Israel. Concerning this subject, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that because of ordinary individuals who speak ill of others, the Satan dances in the midst of the Tzaddikim. In order for controversy to not reign among them, these ordinary people must be taught to not speak ill of others. Peace and harmony will then reign among all.
Someone once asked me if the spies were punished for having spoken ill of the land and what were the consequences of their sin. I replied that not only have they no part in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 108b), but that they died of the plague, eaten away by the worm (Sotah 35a), and are called rebels (Pesikta Zutreta, Shelach Lecha 14:4). It was also because of them that all the generations that followed have continued to shed tears over the destruction of both Temples on the 9th of Av. Finally, their Lashon Harah brought about the death of an entire generation in the desert, and only their descendants had the merit to enter the Holy Land (see Numbers 14:31).
We may now understand why Eretz Israel was also punished. As we have seen, G-d poured out His anger on wood and stone. This is because Lashon Harah kills three people: The one who speaks ill of another, the one who is spoken ill of, and the one who listens (Erchin 15b). This is why Eretz Israel was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans, and it is also why the spies were punished. The Talmud teaches that they ended up worshipping idols, a sin that is equal to Lashon Harah (ibid.). Their descendants too were punished, since they were not able to live in Eretz Israel, which vomited them out because they defiled it (see Leviticus 18:28).
If the land received such punishment, what of a person who speaks ill of his fellow, who was created in the image of G-d? He simply does not realize how much damage he causes, destroying both his life and that of his family, for they will certainly suffer a severe punishment. One who speaks ill of his fellowman changes the Divine image that he embodies, and people also begin to change their behavior with respect to him, thinking ill of him. Thus he tarnishes G-d’s work. As the Talmud teaches, the entire world was created for this man, now a victim (Sanhedrin 37a). Therefore one who speaks Lashon Harah destroys G-d’s universe, and the transgression of this sinner cannot be expiated other than by asking the victim for forgiveness before all who heard him being maligned. Otherwise, even if he is a Tzaddik, this sin cannot be expiated other than at his death, following which he must give an accounting to his Creator.
As we have seen, it was because of Lashon Harah that the first and second Temples were destroyed and the Jewish people exiled from its land. Cain, who murdered his brother Abel, was condemned to be a nah ve’nad (“fugitive and wanderer”– Genesis 4:12) because he spoke ill of him. Actually, instead of admitting his sin to G-d, he exclaimed: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v.9). In other words: “I hate him and I don’t know where he is. I’m not interested in him at all, and I’m not responsible for watching over him.” Even though Cain later repented and was reconciled to his Creator (Bereshith Rabba 22:28), he was condemned to wander about in exile. With respect to this, we note that the last letters in the term Lashon Harah form the word nah.
The Talmud teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, acted measure for measure with Cain (Shabbat 105b). In fact, a person who speaks ill of another is trying to make him repugnant in the sight of others, so that people distance themselves from him and refuse to trust him. The person who has sinned is therefore forced to wander about and be humiliated wherever he goes.
My friends and brothers, let us strive to completely put a halt to this wicked trait and to live in peace with everyone. We will then be guiltless towards Hashem and Israel. We may say that the expression ve’hitem ne’kiyim (“and you shall be guiltless” – Numbers 32:22) has the same numerical value (681) as the phrase rodfeh shalom (“those who pursue peace”), which represents integrity and complete harmony. In addition, the expression ve’hitem ne’kiyim mei’Hashem u’mei’Israel (“and you shall be guiltless towards the L-RD and towards Israel”) has the same numerical value (1334) as the phrase issur lashon harah u’fi tzaddik ye’he’geh chochmah (“Lashon Harah is forbidden, and the mouth of the righteous speaks words of wisdom”).