by Lois Tverberg
“No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil,
full of deadly poison.” James 3:8
The Hebrew term that is used for gossip is Lashon Hara (La-SHON Hah-RAH). It means literally, “the evil tongue”. Jews define it as defaming a person in the eyes of others by revealing details about them that put them in a negative light. Lashon Hara is different from slander, which is telling lies about others. While everyone recognizes that slander is wrong, fewer will say that it is also wrong to speak negative truth about others. Lashon Hara is telling your co-workers all about how the boss messed up his presentation, or pointing out to your husband how poorly the worship leader sings. This habit is what tears down friendships, demeans others, and undermines trust. There are, of course, a few times when a person needs to relay damaging information, but outside of that, this kind of negativity is frowned upon in the Jewish community.
Many rabbinic stories focus on the damage done through Lashon Hara. One is told about a man who gossiped about a rabbi, causing much damage to his reputation. The man repented and came to the rabbi to ask for forgiveness. The rabbi told him to take a pillow and open it and cast it to the wind. When he had done this, he asked him to now go gather all the feathers back into the pillow again. The man said, “But that is impossible!” and the rabbi replied that, in the same way, it was impossible to repair all the damage that his words had done.
The rabbis point out that other actions close to Lashon Hara should be avoided as well. For instance, to read a newspaper editorial article that you don’t like and then show it to someone just so they will scoff at it is called the “Dust of Lashon Hara” (Avak Lashon Hara). It also includes sarcastic comments about another person, like, “She is such a genius, isn’t she?”, or innuendos like, “Don’t mention so-and-so — I wouldn’t want to say what I know about her.” Even to laugh or sneer when someone else gossips is considered avak lashon hara, because it communicates your negative feelings. It is difficult to change lifelong patterns, but we must learn to avoid damaging others through our subtle comments and even body language. As James says,
“We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.” James 3:2
(1) This is an excerpt from the longer En-Gedi Director’s Article, Taming the Tongue. Articles about Jewish ethics of speech are available at this link .