Lashon Hora? But it's Common Knowledge!
In this week’s Parsha, we are told of the forty-two travels of Klal Yisroel as they wandered in the wilderness. Several meforshim point out a discrepancy between the name of one of the resting points given here, in Parshas Mas’ei, and the name given for the same stop in Parshas Beha’alosicha. In the final pasuk in Beha’alosicha, we are told that Klal Yisroel traveled from Chazteiros and rested in the Dessert of Paran. However, in our sedra we are told that they traveled from Chatzeiros and encamped in Risma [33:18]. Rashi explains to us that the Torah gave the name Risma to that place of encampment because that was the place where the meraglim, the spies, spoke their Loshon Hora, slanderous speech, about the land of Israel. The word “risma” comes from a pasuk in Tehillim that likens slanderous speech to resamim, a particular type of burning coal. Unlike most coals that glow on the outside when they are still hot and capable burning and causing damage, this particular coal can look extinguished from the outside while still retaining its destructive fire hidden inside of it. So too Loshon Hora can look innocuous and harmless at first glance. But this is just a façade – its true destructive nature is merely hidden, waiting to be unleashed.
Especially during this time of year, the time of Bein Hametzarim – a time for focusing our efforts on rectifying the sins that caused the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash – it is appropriate to devote this week’s Parsha Encounters to a discussion of the laws of Loshon Hora.
Isn’t it Common Knowledge?
We will examine an often sited dispensation for the saying of Loshon Hora. Many times it is erroneously assumed that Loshon Hora that is already known is permissible to repeat. It is true that if someone spoke Loshon Hora about another person in a “public” setting, there are times when repeating that Loshon Hora will not be a violation of the halacha. However, there are many details and criteria that must be met for this to be permissible. While we will discuss the laws that pertain to this, it is vital to point at first that due to the complexity of the parameters that govern this exception, one should exercise great caution before relying on this. When possible, one should abstain altogether from speaking even if all the criteria below are met.
The Halachic Background
The general rule this Parsha Encounters will discuss relates to the permissibility to repeat Loshon Hora that was originally said in front of at least three people. This concept is known as Loshon Hora that was said “bi’apei tlosa,” in front of three. The underlying concept is that since the original Loshon Hora was related in such a way that makes it inevitable that it will be publicized, there is no prohibition in repeating it to another. We can assume that the person now hearing it would have heard it anyway.
There are two categories of parameters that must be met to permit repeating Loshon Hora of this sort:
1 - The way in which the original Loshon Hora was said
2 - The way in which the Loshon Hora is later repeated to others
The Way in Which the Original Loshon Hora was Said
The original Loshon Hora had to have been said in front of three people. The original speaker of this Loshon Hora is unquestionably in violation of the prohibition against speaking Loshon Hora, and his sin is intensified and compounded by the fact that he spoke this in front of more people. There is no dispensation whatsoever to speak Loshon Hora in front of three people. The laws discussed below pertain only to the repetition of the Loshon Hora already spoken in flagrant violation of the halacha.
There are three parameters that must be met regarding the situation in which the Loshon Hora was said to the original three people:
1 - Three people had to have heard the Loshon Hora.
Even if two people spoke the same Loshon Hora to two other people, in each other’s presence, this does not constitute the dispensation of apei tlaso. There must be three people independent of any of the speakers of this Loshon Hora for this rule to apply.
2 - The three people hearing the original Loshon Hora are the type of people who would repeat this information to others.
Because this dispensation “relies” on the fact that the original three listeners to the Loshon Hora will spread this around, if there is any reason for us to believe that they will not in fact repeat this, there is no longer any dispensation. If there were only three listeners in the original group, if even one of the three would not repeat the Loshon Hora, then it is not permissible for any of them to repeat it. There are several examples of people who we must assume would not repeat the Loshon Hora:
1 - Family members of the one whom the Loshon Hora is being spoken about.
2 - Friends of the one whom the Loshon Hora is being spoken about.
3 - Generally G-d fearing people for whom it is not the norm to spread gossip.
If even one of the three listeners is from one of the groups above, it is not permissible for any of the others to repeat the Loshon Hora. If, however, the original group was more than three people, even if family or friends were present, as long as there are three listeners who would feasibly repeat what they had heard (i.e. the other listeners are not in the above categories), this dispensation would still apply.
3 - The original speaker of the Loshon Hora did not specify to the three listeners that he did not want this Loshon Hora repeated.
If the original speaker of the Loshon Hora explained to the listeners that he did not want his gossip to be repeated to others, even if the listeners under other circumstances would be the type to repeat what they had heard, because he asked them not to repeat it, we must assume that they will heed his wish. We therefore can no longer rely on the assumption that three people will be spreading this Loshon Hora. Therefore, it is not permissible for any of them to do so.
The Way in Which the Loshon Hora is Repeated by the Listeners
Once three people have heard Loshon Hora spoken regarding another person, under certain circumstances it will be permissible for them to repeat what they had heard. However, under no circumstances are they permitted to believe what they heard – what was spoken was pure Loshon Hora and is fully subject to the prohibition of believing Loshon Hora.
There are five parameters that must be met regarding how and where they repeat this Loshon Hora:
1 - It is not permissible to repeat this Loshon Hora with the intent to spread the word further. It is only permissible to mention in a “derech mikreh” fashion.
This would include mentioning this Loshon Hora as an anecdote as it pertains to a topic being discussed or using it to illustrate a point. However, to simply repeat what was heard for the sake of informing others who have not yet heard this Loshon Hora is forbidden and not subject to this dispensation.
2 - It is only permissible for the original three listeners to repeat what they had heard.
Someone who merely heard this Loshon Hora from one of the original three is not included in this dispensation. Only the original three who actually heard the Loshon Hora being said can repeat it. If the original listener, however, repeated the Loshon Hora in front of another three people, they now have the status of three that heard Loshon Hora. Subject to the rules discussed here and above, they would now also have the heter of apei tlosa.
3 - It is not permissible to add even one word to the original Loshon Hora that was said.
Since the entire premise of apei tlosa is based on the idea that this Loshon Hora will inevitably be spread, this can only be the case if the exact Loshon Hora is repeated as heard. If even one word is added, this becomes new Loshon Hora and is therefore not subject to this dispensation. There are several applications of this rule:
Any intonation or gesturing that was not part of the originally spoken Loshon Hora is prohibited.
Any commentary offered on the part of the one repeating the Loshon Hora is prohibited.
Repeating the Loshon Hora in a context where there is an implication of negativity that was not part of the original statement made.
In addition, by one adding his own commentary or “spin” on the original Loshon Hora, he is clearly indicating that he has accepted the original Loshon Hora and believes it.
4 - It is only permissible to repeat the Loshon Hora somewhere that this information could feasibly spread.
If the original Loshon Hora was said in a certain town or location, one may not repeat it in a different locale that does not normally hear the news and gossip from the town where the Loshon Hora was spoken. In our times where it is the norm for people from all around the world to talk with each other, it is difficult to give this rule strictly geographical limitations. Rather, the Loshon Hora can only be repeated to people that the original three listeners have a line of communication with and can readily assume the word will spread to.
An exception to this rule is when the matter being discussed is of a nature that it is normal for it to spread beyond geographical or social boundaries. If the original Loshon Hora pertained to something so out of the ordinary or so egregious, it is considered to be the norm for it spread more than “ordinary” gossip would spread. In such a case the dispensation of apei tlosa would extend its reach farther than usual.
5 - If the new listener is the type of person who will believe the Loshon Hora to be true, it is not permissible to repeat it.
As mentioned above, it is not permissible for the original three listeners to believe what they heard. What was spoken was true Loshon Hora and is therefore subject to the prohibition of believing Lashon Hora. Therefore it is not permissible for them to repeat this Loshon Hora – even if all the above parameters are met – if they are saying it in the presence of someone who will believe it to be true.
Some Practical Applications of the Rules
1 - Discussing someone’s past. Reuvain discussed in front of three people the fact that Shimon used to not be so religious, and that he even violated major halachic laws like Shabbos and Kashrus. Now Shimon is a model Jew and devotes his life completely to the service of Hashem. It is forbidden for the listener to mention in a negative way the information divulged by Reuvain to anyone who knows Shimon. Even though none of this information is pertinent to his life now and the speaker is merely stating the facts that he heard, the fact that this speaker is indicating that he finds this information to detract from Shimon’s otherwise sterling character, this may cause others who hear it to look differently at Shimon. This is considered to be “adding something” not originally stated by Reuvain, as the current speaker’s opinion regarding this information comes through in his relaying of the facts.
2 - Discussing a class or lecture. Even though a lecture was heard by many people, it is not permissible to say anything negative about the class to anyone. The fact that three people were present for the class does not help. Since comments regarding a lecture are subjective and depend on how the attendee felt about the content and delivery, we have no guarantee that there were others there that shared the exact same opinion as the one who now wishes to discuss the lecture in a negative way. We therefore have no right to assume that exactly what this listener is saying about the class is being spread by others as well.
To merely repeat what the speaker had said is permissible. However, to add any commentary regarding what the listener thought about what was said (in a negative way) or to bring it up in a context that will highlight something negative about the lecture or the lecturer is not permissible.
The same parameters apply to discussing songs found on Jewish music albums, music bands that play at affairs or other forms of entertainment or artwork or the like.
3 – Repeating something discussed at a family gathering. If Reuvain happened to be with a different family and heard them discussing sensitive family information, even though he heard this said to more than three people, it would not be permissible to repeat it. It can not be assumed that the others present would spread this information around.
Rabbi Rosenstein is a full time member of the Kollel and a frequent contributor to Halacha Encounters.
 Tehillim 120:3
 See Sha’arei Aharon
 Sefer Chofetz Chaim 2:10
 2:10 and Be’er Mayim Chaim 1-2
 Bava Basra 39a
 2:8:19. Perhaps those who originally spoke the Loshon Hora will afterwards regret what they have done and resolve to never repeat this Loshon Hora again. If that were to happen, there would only be two people (the two who heard the Loshon Hora) who would be spreading this, and not the requisite three.
 2:7-8 Even if it becomes clear that one – or even two – of the other listeners did not heed the request of the original speaker and they are in fact repeating what he asked them not to, it is nonetheless forbidden for the third listener to repeat to others what he heard.
 BMC 2:6-7
 BMC 2:9 Even if when relating this Loshon Hora, one of the original three states clearly that he had originally heard this said in front of two other people (i.e. he explains that this Loshon hora is subject to the heter of apei tlosa), it is still not permissible for the person who heard it from him to repeat. The reason, the Chofetz Chaim explains, is that an eid echad is not believed under such circumstances where there is ischazeik isurah.
 See Sefer Chelkas Binyomin 2:9:17 who explains that this is what the Chofetz Chaim is referring to in 2:9.
 Chelkas Binyomin 2:6:14 and Nesiv Chaim 2:6:11
 BMC 2:6:14
 Chelkas Binyomin 2:9:17
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