Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Lashon harah is only prohibited when there is no benefit or to'eles

update - added more sources 9/27/13 [see  Lashon harah revisted
 Balancing the terror of lashon harah]

The main Torah source prohibiting lashon harah is 
Vayikra (19:16): Don't spread gossip amongst your people. Don't stand idly by the blood of your fellow. I am G‑d
 It is important to very  carefully study this verse  to understand what lashon harah is. The first thing to notice is that the verse is not just about lashon harah. The second verse is a command to help people in trouble or to prevent them from getting into trouble. Why are the two issues combined?

A number of commentaries have noted that this dual issue verse teaches that the prohibition of lashon harah is conditional. If a benefit results from saying the negative things that can't be obtained otherwise - then it is permitted to speak. This is known as the heter of to'eles. In fact we see that it is not a heter but it is a condition that determines whether the negative information is lashon harah. This shows that not every negative statement is in fact lashon harah.

Chazon Ish(2:133): Knowledge about a talmid chachom who shapes yiddishkeit is similar to that of an artisan. Just as one is permitted to convey accurate information about an artisan if there is to'eles so it it permitted to reveal information about a gadol if there is to'eles. Of critical importance is to be totally accurate otherwise it is slander. This implies that expressing negative information about others is relevant for those who are considered influential authorities – in order to understand the degree to rely on them.

Rabbeinu Yonah(Mishlei 24:28):
Don’t be a gratuitous witness of your fellow man – ...This principle is stated in Berachos (19a), If you see a talmid chachom sinning at night, do not suspect of him of sinning anymore by the day because he will surely have repented by then. Since he has the reputation of a person who is fearful of sinning and he is upset and regrets that his lust overcame him. However if the talmid chachom is in fact a wicked person who is mistakenly thought by the people to be righteous – he is not only to be criticized to those who know how to keep quiet – but in fact it is a mitzva to publicize his deeds until they are well known to the public. That is because severe harm occurs when wicked people are honored because he will turn many away from the proper path and denigrate the honor of the righteous and encourages sinning. There is in fact profanation of G‑d’s name by honoring the wicked because some people will be aware of the sins the wicked do and will concluded that there is nothing wrong with sinning and that it doesn’t lower one’s stature (Yoma 86b)…

Rav Moshe Sternbuch(Teshuvos v'hanhagos 1:839): Question: A a teacher asks his students to reveal who did something wrong. - is this permitted? Answer: It would seem that the teacher first has to say to his student that the prohibition of lashon harah is very severe. However since this is l'toeles there is no prohibition of lashon harah. (See Chofetz Chaim 4 and the statement of the Alter of Kelm in Marpeh Lashon said in the name of Rav Yisroel Salanter with clear proofs that whatever is for to'eles is not prohibited as lashon harah). In this case it is clearly for the benefit of the chinuch of the student and therefore there is no concern that this is lashon harah. In fact just the opposite because just as there is a prohibition to speak negatively about others - there is an obligation to inform the teacher so that he is able to properly chastise the student and thus it is not considered lashon harah at all.

Chofetz Chaim (Hilchos Lashon Harah 4:10):  Nevertheless if a person sees someone who has bad midos such as conceit, anger, or other bad personality traits or the person isn't concerned about studying Torah etc. then it is correct to tell his son or his students to avoid associating with such a person in order that they not learn his bad midos. That is because the basis of the prohibition of lashon harah - which applies to even if it is truth - is intent to degrade another person and rejoice in his debasement. However if his intent is to guard his fellow man from learning from his bad deeds - then it is clearly permitted and in fact it is a mitzva to convey this [negative] information to others. However in these cases and similar ones it would seem that it is a mitzva for the one conveying the negative information to explain the reason why he is saying these negative things about another person. That is so the listener will not err and assume that negative comments in general are permitted. Furthermore so that the listener will not be astonished that the speaker seems to be a hypocrite in that sometimes he prohibits lashon harah even when true (see clall 9) because it is an important mitzva to keep his children from sin. and yet he is himself is now saying negative things about others...

Chofetz Chaim (Be’er Mayim Chaim Hilchos Rechilus 9:3): Requiring that the motivation to speak rechilus is for a beneficial goal (to’eles) - doesn’t’ mean that if he doesn’t have this motivation that he is automatically exempt from communicating the necessary information to the person in danger. That is because he still has to fulfill the obligation of “not standing idly by the blood of his fellow.” This also applies to saving someone from financial loss. Look at Rashi (Sanhedrin 73a). This requirement of to’eles for permitting speaking negative words means only that he should try and force himself do it for a benefit and not because he hates the person. Otherwise he will be violating the prohibition of rechilus.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yechava Daas 4:60): … In fact this is the way to understand the verse regarding lashon harah. “Do not speak lashon harah but don’t stand idly by concerning the blood of your fellow.” Even though there is a prohibition of lashon harah, nevertheless the second clause of the verse tells you that it is conditional on this not causing harm. Therefore you are obligated to inform others regarding certain matters in order to them to guard against loss and danger. This is expressed in Nidah (61a) that even though it is prohibited to listen to lashon harah but you should protect yourself from the potential danger you hear about. The Rambam (Mitzva 297) says that protecting another’s money is also included in “don’t stand idly by concerning the blood of your fellow.” … Therefore even if there is only a financial loss, one should inform your fellow man in order that he can protect himself from those who want to harm him. And surely when there is a possible danger to an individual or a group.... 

Malbim (Vayikra 19:16.41): Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow - The literal meaning of the verse is that if you see someone in danger – do not stand by but rather make a serious effort to save him…. However the association in this verse of not speaking lashon harah teaches us that even though we are prohibited to speak lashon harah, nevertheless if you know testimony that can help another - even though it involves lashon harah and breaking confidentiality – it is necessary to reveal the information and to testify. This is true even though revealing secrets is prohibited as lashon harah.

Netziv (Vayikra 19:16): Even though there is a clear prohibition in this verse against lashon harah, nevertheless this is conditional on “not standing idly by the blood of others.” In other words if you know that there is someone who wants to harm another then you are obligated to inform the intended victim and it is prohibited to stand idly by and let it happen.

Ohr HaChaim (Vayikra 19:16): The prohibition of lashon harah is conditional on whether not speaking will not cause harm to another. If you see a group that wants to kill people then you are obligated to notify the potential victims so that they can save themselves. One should not keep silent by saying that you don’t want to speak lashon harah. Thus we learn that if you don’t notify the potential victim and he is killed that you have nullified this mitzva of not standing idly by the blood of others. We learn this from the incident of Gedaliah who was warned of danger but did not pay attention to the warning.

Shulchan Aruch(C.M. 426:1): If you see someone drowning in the sea or being attacked by bandits or wild animals and it is possible to save him by yourself or to pay others to save him and yet you don’t save him or alternatively you hear non‑Jews or informers plotting to do him harm and yet you don’t inform him or alternatively you know that non‑Jews or bandits are planning to attack him and you are able dissuade them and yet you don’t or other such scenarios – you are violating “do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow (Vayikra 19:16).

Rav Elochon Wasserman (Kovetz Ha’aros Yevamos #70): ...It would seem that all that is prohibited between people (bein adam l’chavero) is only prohibited when done in a harmful and destructive manner without justification. For example regarding the prohibition of “Not hating your brother.” This is only prohibited for gratuitous hatred (sinas chinom). In other words when he is not doing anything wrong (davar ervah). However if he is doing something wrong then it is permitted to hate him. It is important to note that the reason for hatred being permitted in this case is not because of the fact that a sinful person is not considered your “brother.” Tosfos (Pesachim 113b) explains that if you hate this sinful person for another reason then you transgress the prohibition. The hatred is only permitted because of the bad (davar ervah) that you see in him. Similarly regarding the prohibition of beating another, the Rambam writes that it is prohibited only if done as fighting (derech netzoyan). This is clear from the fact that it is permitted for a teacher to his student. And this that we noted before in Sanhedrin (84b) – that is only a rabbinic restriction. And similarly concerning the prohibition of causing anguish to a widow or orphan, Rambam (Hilchos De’os 6:10) writes that if it is done to teach Torah or a trade – there is no prohibition. Similarly concerning the prohibition of lashon harah, it is permitted against people who cause discord and quarrels in order to stop the fight. Similar concerning using words to cause anguish (onas devarim), it is permitted publicly criticize someone publicly if it is for the sake of chastisement. It is even permitted to publicly embarrass someone if it is done for the necessity of chastisement for a person who has not stopped his bad behavior after being rebuked in private. In such a case it is even permissible to curse him. In fact this is what was done by the prophets in the past as the Rambam (Hilchos De’os 6:8) notes. We thus shown from all this, that all the prohibition involving interpersonal actions do not apply when the act is beneficial.
Chinuch (236): We are required not to gossip about others as the Torah says (Vayikra 19:16) "You shall not be a tale-bearer." The idea is that if we hear someone say something bad about a friend, we should not tell them "Someone is saying such and such about you" unless our intent is to prevent damage or to stop a fight....

Pischei Tshuva (O.C. 156): I want to note here that while all the books of mussar are greatly concerned about the sin of lashon harah, I am greatly concerned about the opposite problem. I want to protest about the even greater and more common sin of refraining from speaking negatively when it is necessary to save someone from being harmed. For example if you saw a person waiting in ambush to kill someone or breaking into someone’s house or store at night. Is it conceivable that you would refrain from notifying the intended victim to protect himself from the assailant - because of the prohibition of speaking lashon harah?  By not saying anything you commit the unbearable sin of transgressing the prohibition of Vayikra (19:16): Do not speak lashon harah [but] do not stand idly by when the blood of your fellow man is threatened? By not speaking up, you violate the mitzva of returning that which is lost to its owner Devarim (22:2). Now if you can understand the obvious necessity of speaking up in these cases then what is the difference between a robber breaking into someone’s house or store or seeing that his servants are secretly stealing from him or that his partner is deceiving him in their business or that another person is cheating him in commerce or that he is lending money to someone that you know doesn’t repay? How is this different from stopping a proposed marriage to someone you know is a wicked person who would be a horrible husband…. From where do we get the mistaken idea that in the case of murder, I will speak up but that it is prohibited to say anything in other situations where someone is being harmed?…


  1. What is the "toeles" of spreading reports about Jews who are accused by the government of stealing? (As was done sometimes on this website.)

    Especially if they deny the accusations and it remains unproven.

    1. what is the issur of repeating information which is public knowledge from newspapers?

      regarding the to'eles it is obvious and I written about it recently and will have a post about in the near future

    2. Not everyone heard the reports in the mainstream media and when you repost those stories here you are spreading it to some people who otherwise would've not heard the story.

    3. Our host just said "it is obvious", but since it wasn't to Szalamen...

      Someone who does business with the accused is absorbing more financial risk than if he chose to conduct it with a different party. The lack of proof does NOT mean I'm obligated to ignore even the possibility that the accusations are true. The halakhah is to "respect but suspect" ("כבדהו וחשדהו"), and therefore others are obligated to help me make informed decisions about what kind of risk vs potential profit ratio I place my money in. To not do so would be geneivas da'as (theft of information).

    4. Micha,

      In the case you describe in your comment it would only be allowed to describe the negative information to you as a potential need-to-know basis to avoid potential negative results.

      It would NOT be allowed, under Jewish Law, to make a public broadcast of the allegations.

    5. please stop giving your personal opinionf and provide a source that repeating information from the public media involving crimes or allegations of crimes is forbidden

  2. Would you therefore say (if you share a Briski-like inclination to force things into existing categories) that a to'eles makes LH huterah (i.e. not LH at all) rather than dekhuyah (LH, but overridden by the greater duty to keep people safe)?

  3. Pikuach nefesh doche Shabbos, Lashan Hara, Messira, vechol minei pironiyosSeptember 25, 2013 at 9:12 PM

    No questions asked, especially where time is of the essence, more so, when the lashan hara and messira is against the perpetrator himself, min haTorah, min Haneviim, umin Haksuvim. Before we indulge, let us explore a few inyanim. Considering lashan hara kills, kama tshuvos bedavar asides of gavrei ketila ko kotil. Firstly, he is considered a Rodef, we then contend with Haba lehorgech, else, if both equal, then chayecho kodmin as well as may chozes dedomoch simkei tfei. A Rodef is considered a RASHA, lost his chezkas kashrus, no more achicha/amcha as far as lashan hara or messira, therefore, lost his order of protection.

    Min Hatorah minayin, Hashem told Noach "Ki moloh haoretz chomos", Avraham told Sarah on his way to Mitzrayim, "vehirgu ossi", H' to Avraham, "Zakat sdom vamorrah ki rabah", Avraham said," rak ein yiras E' bemakom hazeh", Sara told Avraham about Yishmael, "Metzachek" , Yitchak said to Avimelech "ki amarti pen pmus aleha", Rivka told Yaakov, "Hinei achicho misnachem lehorgecho", H' told Moshe Rabenu, "Reid ki shiches amcho", if you go through the parshiyot systematically you will discover countless times that it was all about saving lives from rape or death, or both, and even valuables.

    Min Haneviim minayin, King David was informed numerous times about Shaul in hot pursuit after David's life, or Avshalom was after his life, wife, kingdom et al. Yonatan ben Shaul informed David not to come to Seudat Rosh Chodesh, Michal as well. H' told Yonah Hanavi to go to Nineveh in order to save their lives. The common denominator of all these were, to save the life of the victim(s) or of being victimized, putting all lashan hara aside. For all those using the umbrella of lashan hara, how do they preach in asking a shayla without disclosing all the details, where the entity must also be disclosed to evaluate whether it has merit. Therefore, it is incumbent on everyone to save the life of a Nirdaf, more so, when time is of the essence, no questions asked. Until anyone can come up with a better solution, let the chips fall where they may.

  4. Did the CC make this clear in his eponymous book on the subject?

  5. Rav Wasserman is quoted above as saying "Rambam (Hilchos De’os 6:10) writes that if it is done to teach Torah or a trade – there is no prohibition."

    However, a full reading of the Rambam there shows that there is still some prohibition, and a distinction must be made when chiding an orphan compared to other students:

    When does the above apply? When one causes them suffering for one's own purposes. However, it is permitted for a teacher to cause them suffering while teaching them Torah, or a craft, or in order to train them in proper behavior. Nevertheless, he should not treat them in the same manner as he treats others, but rather make a distinction with regard to them and treat them with gentility, great mercy, and honor for [Proverbs 22:22] states: "For God will take up their cause."


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