The story of how Eliezer found a bride for Yitzchak, occupies a large section of the parsha of Chayei Sarah.
The primary theme of the passage is the concept of continuity: the great spiritual construction that Avraham had initiated must continue through Yitzchak. Avraham’s search for Yitzchak’s soulmate is the Jewish search for continuity. Any partner to the great endeavor has to meet the moral and spiritual standards of Avraham’s home.
But the episode also deals with an everyday concept that all of us experience, for ourselves and later for our children: a shidduch. In line with many Torah expositions on Parshas Chayei Sarah, we take the opportunity to discuss the concept of shidduchim, and to focus our attention on a halachic aspect of the shidduch that is often of great relevance: the question of lashon hara related to shidduchim.
Preliminary Shidduch Investigations
Before beginning a shidduch—meaning, before the parties to a shidduch meet with each other—the common practice is for the parties to investigate each other. In times gone by, and in certain circles even today, the investigation has greater weight in deciding the fate of the parties than their meeting. In those days, arranged marriages were really arranged, and the meeting(s) would only rarely make a significant impact on the result of the shidduch.
Even today, however, when in most circles the prospective partners meet and conduct their own investigation, the impact of early birurim cannot be understated. Before placing the time consuming and sometimes stressful burden of going out on dates, birurim are able to ascertain a basic suitability between the two, and to provide the background for the shidduch to go ahead.
The trouble that some face when making birurim, is that many are reluctant to speak. Ever since the Chafetz Chaim wrote his seminal work on the subject, and still more so in recent times (with conferences and seminars on the subject in schools and for the general public), the community has become deeply aware of the issue of lashon hara.
As we know, this does not mean that we are free, as a community, of lashon hara. However, when asked directly to say something negative about others, we are certainly prone to hear lashon hara alarm bells sounding in our heads. Rightly so. The sin of lashon hara is very serious. As the Rambam (De’os 7:3) cites from Chazal, the sin of lashon hara corresponds in its severity to the three cardinal sins of idolatry, licentiousness and murder. Lashon hara causes hate and discord among people and it distances us from Hashem. Chazal (Berachos 32b) teach that the sin of lashon hara erects an “iron curtain” that separates Israel from their Father in Heaven.
Yet, although one must certainly think twice before divulging sensitive or harmful information, this should not prevent a person from revealing information when it is correct to do so. The results of an overly cautious attitude, as many cases testify, can be very disturbing.
On the part of the person making the investigations, it is always important to preface a request for information with the statement: “I’m asking you the following questions in consideration of a shidduch with the person/family in question” (Chafetz Chaim 4:11).
The reason is that (as we will discuss below), certain information can only be divulged when the intent is for shidduch (or for other constructive) purposes. Among the basic conditions enumerated by the Chafetz Chaim for transmitting negative information is that the intention of the speaker should be pure. If he speaks out without knowing the intent of the question, he might (See Be’er Mayim Chayim 4:46) transgress the prohibition of lashon hara.
If the speaker violates the prohibition of lashon hara, the person asking the question will be guilty of, “placing a stumbling block before the blind”—the Torah prohibition of lifnei iver lo siten michshol.
The Chafetz Chaim stresses that even if a person believes the answer might not be the same if the respondent knows the purpose of the question, this is not a good reason to defer the concern of lashon hara.
A related point in making investigations is that one is not permitted to request information for shidduch purposes from a known enemy of the prospective shidduch or his family, or even from someone who is known to have had a dispute with them. Although this source may better reveal hidden negatives, it should still not be used, for fear that negative information will be exaggerated.
What Can and Cannot be Said?
On the part of the respondent, the Chafetz Chaim (Hilchos Rchilus Chapter 9) specifies five concurrent conditions that must be met before providing information for shidduch purposes.
- It is only permitted to transfer accurate information. Sometimes, we confuse objective fact with our subjective interpretation, which might not be the only possible interpretation of the subject’s actions. Firsthand information should be transmitted as such; secondhand information can only create a suspicion, and should be passed on accordingly. See below for more details on this.
- Exaggeration: The report must not be exaggerated or embellished. It is all too easy to add details, to fill in blanks, to create an effect by means of intonation, and so on. All these are forbidden, and one must be careful to communicate nothing but the truth.
- Intention: Information must be transmitted with the express purpose of aiding a shidduch. If the subject in question is somebody one dislikes, one must strive to banish hate from his heart, and to transmit the details strictly for the constructive purpose of the shidduch.
- Minimizing: One must not speak any more than is relevant for the specific case. If enough negative information has been transmitted for the shidduch to be called off, one must refrain from adding anything else. Moreover, unflattering details about a shidduch prospect should only be disclosed if there is a reasonable chance of the party requesting information heeding the advice. If the party in question will in any case go ahead, such as if the engagement has already taken place and the negative information is not deeply substantive, it should not be disclosed (Be’er Mayim Chayim, end of Rechilus, no. 8).
- Undue Harm: One must be careful that the negative information should not cause undue harm. For instance, if one is aware that the person to whom the information is confided is indiscrete, and will spread the details to others outside the sphere of parties involved in the shidduch, one may not tell him. When relating information, one should if possible remind the relevant party to be discrete.
How certain must one be of a particular detail in order to repeat it?
To say things as fact, one must know the information from personal knowledge, and not based on something one has heard from someone else. The Torah sees secondhand information as possibly inaccurate and it is, therefore, a dangerous source (see Chafetz Chaim 10:2; Rechilus 9:2).
However, there are instances where the halachah does rely on secondhand information, or even on a persistent rumor.
For instance, the Gemara (Megillah 25b) records that it is permitted to shame a person publicly if there are persistent rumors of his engaging in adultery. Likewise, a reasonable presumption (umdena) is sufficient to dismiss a community functionary, such as the administrator of the chevra kaddisha (Teshuvos Ramatz, Orach Chayim no. 15, quoted in Piskei Din Rabbaniyim, Vol. 5, p. 27).
To avoid lashon hara, the ideal is that a person should verify secondhand information on his own. Where this is not possible (as is often the case), and the conditions that permit relaying the information are met, one should convey it with a clearly expressed warning that it is based on hearsay, and one does not know personally whether it is true. This is permitted in order to save the other party from possible damage (end of Rechilus 10-11; Be’er Mayim Chayim 6:30).
Saying “I Don’t Know”
As noted above, it is only permitted to relay information that is significant to the case. In some instances, the significance will depend on the circumstances.
If a shidduch prospect has committed to a ten-year stint in Chicago, there would not, under ordinary circumstances, be an obligation to speak it out. However, if the other party wishes to make his or her home in Israel, the information becomes relevant, and it should be transmitted.
Sometimes, a person might be asked questions he deems insignificant for the prospective shidduch. For instance, a prospect’s mother might want to know if the girl is a “size zero,” or demands to know if the girl is under thirty, when she is in fact two months over, and the person answering knows that the fact can be a match-breaker.
In these cases, the best answer, is a simple and polite, “I don’t know.”
The claim to ignorance is only effective where it is credible. If the person answering is expected to know, yet claims he does not know, the impression left from not answering can be worse than just telling the truth. In addition, the Mishnah Halachos (Vol. 12, no. 278) writes that although one should not volunteer such information, when asked one should always answer honestly, for two reasons.
One reason is that even in matters that most people don’t care about, a person’s particular demands cannot be dismissed, and giving a false answer is in effect giving him bad advice. The second reason is that although saying, “I don’t know” can’t be considered bad advice, it is nonetheless untruthful, and one may not stray from the truth.
The accepted ruling, however, is that it is permitted, under appropriate circumstances, to evade a question by feigning ignorance.
The Obligation to Speak Out
In conclusion, it is worth repeating the warning issued by the Pischei Teshuvah (Orach Chaim 156):
“The Magen Avraham and the mussar books write at length concerning the prohibition of lashon hara. I have found it appropriate to write about the other side [of the coin]. There is a sin even greater than [speaking lashon hara], and one which is more widespread, namely, the sin of refraining from informing another about a situation in which one can save him from being victimized—all out of concern for lashon hara… One who behaves in this manner, his sin is too great to bear, and he violates the injunction, ‘You shall not stand by the blood of your brother.’”
Among the examples given by the Pischei Teshuvah is the case of a shidduch where somebody knows that one of the parties is, “an evil person, and it is bad to marry him.” Under such circumstances, a person sins by withholding the information and one is obligated to overcome the usually positive tendency towards silence by speaking out.
As noted, not every negative detail need be divulged. Much discretion is needed in this matter, and in cases of halachic doubt one should consult with an expert in the field. But as a matter of principle, just as we expect others to assist us with our own investigations, so we should be willing to help others, when the principles of lashon hara permit us to do so.