In this third and final installment of our three-part series on lashon hara, we turn to what is probably the most delicate issue of lashon hara—even beyond the issue of informing discussed in the previous article—lashon hara related to shidduchim.
Before beginning a shidduch—meaning, before the parties actually meet one another—the common practice is for the parties to inquire about each other.
In times gone by, and in certain circles even today, the investigation procedure bore more weight in deciding the choice than the actual meeting. Those arranged marriages were really arranged, and the meeting(s) would by and large not make a significant impact on the shidduch.
Even today, however, when in most circles the parties meet and are given the opportunity to do their own investigation, the importance of early birurim cannot be overstated. Before the time-consuming and sometimes stressful burden of going out, birurim can ascertain a basic suitability between the two, and provide an appropriate background for the shidduch.
If differences in disposition and ideology emerge, or medical and emotional problems—parents (or the parties themselves) can consider shidduchim options that appear more suitable.
Reluctance to Speak
The trouble that many face when making birurim, is that people they ask, are reluctant to speak.
Ever since the Chafetz Chaim wrote his seminal work on the subject, and still more so in recent times (which bring conferences and seminars to schools and to the general public), the community has become deeply aware of the issue of lashon hara.
As we know well, this does not mean that our community is free of lashon hara—unfortunately, we are far from it. 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. As we outlined in the first article of this series, the gravity of lashon hara cannot be overstated, and one must certainly think twice before divulging sensitive and potentially harmful information.
Yet, some hear the bells sounding a little too often, and therefore refrain from revealing information even when it would be correct to do so. The results—as no shortage of cases testify—can be quite grave.
In this context, 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.” [Emphasis added]
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 even to overcome a generally positive tendency towards silence by speaking out.
In the present article we will outline the guiding principles for navigating lashon hara issues in the context of shidduchim.
A person conducting an investigation related to a shidduch must preface his 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).
There are two reasons for this, both of them related to the prohibition of lashon hara.
One is that some information can only be divulged when the intent is for shidduch (or for other constructive) purposes. As mentioned last week, one of the 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 intention behind the question, he might thus transgress the prohibition of lashon hara.
True, the intention can often be guessed, but this is not always the case (for instance, where the topic comes up in the middle of a conversation), and it is always good to speak it out explicitly.
The second reason is that aside from the potential prohibition of the speaker, the person asking the question will also be guilty of “placing a stumbling block before the blind”—the Torah prohibition of lifnei iver lo siten michshol. By asking the question without informing him of the constructive purpose, a person (possibly) causes his friend to “stumble” on the transgression of lashon hara (because he will be transmitting negative details without proper intention).
The Chafetz Chaim stresses that although a person believes that the answer might not be of the same caliber if the respondent knows the purpose of the question, this is not sufficient 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 prospect or his or her family, or even from someone who is known to have had a dispute with them. Although such a source may be tempting for its likelihood to reveal any hidden negative information, it should still not be used.
What Can and Cannot be Said?
The Chafetz Chaim specifies five concurrent conditions that must be met before providing information for shidduch purposes. These are the five conditions:
- Consideration: The response must be carefully thought through. Is the information totally accurate? If it is the result of an interpretation, is this the only possible interpretation of the subject’s actions?
- Exaggeration: The report must not be exaggerated or embellished. It is all too easy, in transmitting a negative report, to add a couple of details, or even an intonation of the voice, for extra effect. Doing so is 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 whom one hates, one must strive to banish the hate from one’s heart, and to transmit the details strictly for the constructive purpose of the shidduch. The Chafetz Chaim writes that in such a situation it is incumbent on a person to at least temporarily eradicate negative feelings from his heart, so that he can transmit the information with the right intention.
- Minimizing: Only those details that are essential for achieving the implied end should be transmitted. If certain details will cause the shidduch to be called off, there is no need—and no permission—to mention additional details that are not required for the constructive purpose of stopping the shidduch. It is only permitted to report those negative details that are required for the purpose at hand.
- Undue Harm: The Chafetz Chaim adds that one must be wary that the negative information should not cause undue harm. For instance, if one is aware that the person to whom the information is to be confided is indiscrete, and will spread the details to others outside the sphere of parties involved in the shidduch, one may not tell him. It is a good habit for one to tell anyone to whom he is relating information to be extra careful not to spread the information further.
Our impressions are often influenced by many factors, including secondhand information that might not be reliable. Therefore, before giving an answer, one must carefully consider its veracity. [We will expound further on this condition below.]
A related point is that unflattering details about a shidduch prospect should only be disclosed if one believes that the party requesting the information is likely to act on the information. If the party is unlikely to act after hearing the new details—for instance if the engagement has already taken place and the negative information is not sufficient grounds for breaking the shidduch—the information should not be disclosed (Be’er Mayim Chayim, End of Rechilus, no. 8).
Where it is forbidden to transmit the negative information (for instance, where it will be spread), a knowledgeable person must find another means of ensuring that the negative information of the suggested shidduch reaches the party. It is imperative to ensure that the halachic stringency not result in a bad shidduch which can sometimes have tragic ramifications.
How certain must one be of a particular detail in order to repeat it?
In order to represent something as fact, one must know the information from personal observation, and not based on something he has only heard from someone else. The Torah sees secondhand “knowledge” as possibly inaccurate and it is, therefore, a potentially 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 permissible to publicly shame a person who is rumored to be an adulterer. Likewise, a reasonable presumption (umdena) may suffice 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).
For avoiding lashon hara, the ideal is that a person should verify any secondhand information on his own. Where this is not possible (and this is often the case), and the conditions that permit relaying the information are otherwise met, one should convey it but with a clearly expressed warning that it is based on hearsay, and one does not know personally whether it is true. As the Chafetz Chaim explains, this is permitted in order to save the other party from potential damage, but only provided the other party will check the matter out, and not just assume it to be true (end of Rechilus 10-11; Be’er Mayim Chayim 6:30).
Discretion in Withholding Information
As noted at the outset, it is forbidden to withhold information that can save a party from possible harm, and this is certainly true of details concerning a shidduch prospect, where revealing the details will lead the party in question to think twice or to reject the proposition. However, this does not mean that every negative detail should be automatically divulged.
The halachic considerations that render some information proper and some prohibited are difficult to define. Many problems exist only in the eye of some beholders, and perhaps not in the eye of the potential spouse. For example, someone raised in a calm, quiet home may interpret a higher level of emotion as anger or temper. However, to the parties involved in the shidduch this level of expressiveness might be well within the range of normal, and not at all worthy of note. Yet, there is also a level of anger significant enough to truly influence one’s ability to establish a peaceful home, and this level needs to be reported.
Thus, a fair degree of discretion and discrimination is required in considering what content is actually worthy of disclosure.
Moreover, nobody is perfect, and there are many minor faults that do not define a person’s personality, and probably will not adversely affect marital harmony. A person answering questions might see the way someone holds pens (or knives and forks) as wrong, or he may see the lack of a refined taste for music as a major flaw—but are they really?
This is the type of information that should not be divulged, unless it is directly asked for. Bad character traits, a lack of religious commitment, serious health problems, are matters that require divulging, and as noted above, not revealing them can be an infringement of the obligation not to “stand on your fellow’s blood.” For other aspects, careful judgement is required.
Saying “I Don’t Know”
In some cases, the significance of information will depend on the circumstances.
If a shidduch prospect has just committed to a ten-year job in Chicago, there may not, under ordinary circumstances, be an obligation to speak it out. However, if the other party wishes to make his home in Israel, the information certainly becomes relevant and it should be transmitted.
Sometimes, a person is asked questions where most people deem the answer to be insignificant for a prospective shidduch. For instance, the prospect’s mother wants to know if the girl is very thin or demands to know if the girl is under thirty, where she is actually just three months over, and the person answering knows that a full answer may be a match-breaker.
In these cases, the best answer, is a simple and polite, “I don’t know.” The author knows of cases where an “I don’t know” here and there have resulted in successful shidduchim and wonderful homes.
Yet, a claim to ignorance can only be effective where it is credible; if the person answering almost certainly does know, yet claims he does not know, the effect of the impression that he is hiding something can be worse than just telling the truth.
The accepted ruling is that it is permitted, in appropriate circumstances, to evade a question by feigning ignorance.
Because there is often much on the line in answering questions, where a person is in doubt as to his halachic obligation it is advisable to consult with somebody expert in the halachah.