This week’s article will delve into one aspect of the halachos of Shmiras Halashon. Does the prohibition of Lashon Hara only refer to sharing negative tidbits about others, or can sharing positive information also be Lashon Hara? If this is the halacha, why do we find individuals being praised in the Tanach or Gemara? Could the difference lie with the audience? Is there a difference if the story is true or slightly inflated? When is it forbidden to tell an admiring onlooker who the talented author/artist/creator is, and when can praising be a big mitzva? What is the punishment for excessive praise? Here we will also touch on the content of the praise – the difference between praise of character and commendation of talents.
At the end of this week’s parasha we learn about Miriram’s Lashon Hara and its consequences. She spoke about her brother Moshe Rabbenu and was punished by tzora’as. The Torah adds a warning – “Remember what the Lord, your G-d, did to Miriam on the way, when you went out of Egypt” (Devarim 24:9). We are enjoined never to forget this episode because it teaches the severity of Lashon Hara – even Miriam’s miniscule mistake resulted in a drastic 7-day punishment. The Sifri explains this clearly (Beha’aloscha 99): “And this is a fortiori: Miriam, who had no malicious intention, only to praise him [her intention was to pass helpful criticism, and she loved and appreciated Moshe Rabbenu], and not to diminish procreation but to augment it [the purpose of Miriam’s words was to improve Moshe Rabbenu’s relationship with Zipporah], and she only spoke between herself and her brother [only Miriam and Aharon knew of the details] – she so was punished — one who means to degrade his fellow and not praise him; to diminish procreation [i.e. harm marital harmony] and not augment it, and speaks between himself and others and not only amongst himself, all the more so.”
In this week’s article we will take a closer look at the prohibition – is only negative speech prohibited or could positive speech also be included? Why would such a prohibition be in place, and if it is –how come we find various sages who voiced public praise of others?
The Maharal’s Question
In this week’s parasha, Hashem called Aharon and Miriam away from Moshe Rabbenu and praised Moshe with the words “Please listen to My words. If there be prophets among you, [I] the Lord will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream. Not so is My servant Moshe; he is the faithful one in My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of the Lord” (Bamidbar 12:6-8).
Rashi explains: “Why did He draw them away to isolate them from Moshe? Because we relate only some of a person’s good qualities in his presence and all of them in his absence.”
The Maharal (Chiddushei Aggdos, Erchin 16a) wonders how we can relate one’s good qualities at all – isn’t it forbidden?
What is the source for the prohibition to speak of another’s good qualities?
The Gemara (Bave Basro 164b) tells of a defective get that was presented to Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. Rabbi Yehuda was under the assumption that his son had written it and voiced his dissatisfaction. His son, in attempt to deflect his father’s criticism, said he did not write the get – it was Rabbi Yehuda Chitta who had written it. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi chastised his son – “Stop speaking Lashon Hara!”
The Rashbam explains that he should not have said who is was that had written the get — he was only permitted to say that he was not the one.
The Gemara continues and recounts another episode where Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was learning in Sefer Tehilim and commented on the expert penmanship. His son, Rabbi Shimon, assuming his father thought he had written the scroll, corrected him – “It was not I who wrote the Tehilim — it was Rabbi Yehuda Chitta.” Again, his father admonished him for speaking Lashon Hara.
The Gemara asks what was the Lashon Hara in the second mention of Rabbi Yehuda Chitta – all he did was praise him! The Gemara answers that Rav Dimi, brother of Rav Safra said: “Never praise your friend, for as a result of the praise, his criticism will come up.” Here we learn never to praise another because once we start speaking another’s praise, the table is set for criticizing him as well. The Gemara uses the term “never” to denote the care one should exercise in this matter.
The Gemara (Erchin 15a) relates that when Rav Safra was on his deathbed, his brother Rav Dimi came to visit him. Rav Safra asked him to arouse his merits in heaven – to say that he performed every one of the halachos instituted by chachomim. Rav Dimi asked him if he was careful to refrain from praising others. Rav Safra, who hadn’t heard of the halacha, did not. “Had I known of the halahca, I would have fulfilled it.”
The Rashbetz (Magen Avos 1:17) explains the pasuk in Mishlei “He who blesses his friend in a loud voice early in the morning, is considered like he cursed him” as a source for the prohibition to praise people. [An additional explanation sees this pasuk as a prohibition to announce another’s good deeds – for example, how grandly he hosts guests, since this will cause more people to take advantage of his hospitality and cause the host a loss of money. Or, perhaps the government will hear of his riches and tax collectors will come after him.]
The Achronim pose several questions on this halacha:
1) Why do figures from the Gemara and Tanach praise people?
2) In mentioning this halacha, the Rambam seems to contradict himself: in one place he rules (Hilchos Deos 7:4) never to praise anyone, while elsewhere (Hilchos Deos 5:7) he wrote that a talmid chacham “speaks of his friend’s praise and never criticizes him.” This halachic ruling appears also in Yam Shel Shlomo (Yevamos 6:46) and Aruch Hashulchan (Orech Chaim 2:4).
3) Hashem Himself praised Moshe Rabbenu in this week’s parasha, as we saw in the above-mentioned question of the Maharal.
The Tosefta (Avoda Zara 1:3) mentions the prohibition of Avak Lashon Hara – slanderous “dust”. One example of this “dust” is discussing another’s good qualities. This is ruled l’halacha in the Rambam (Hilchos Deos 7:4); Rabbenu Yona (Sha’arei Teshuva 3:226); Yereim (191); Smag (Lo Sa’ase 9). This prohibition is included in the general prohibition of Lashon Hara.
The Zohar (Zohar Chadash, Rus 33a) describes the seven sections in Gehenom and who is punished in each section. The first section contains the souls of people who degraded talmidei chachomim in private but honored them in public; cursed a deaf person [i.e. the object of the curse didn’t hear nor did he hear of the curse]; passed by a synagogue while people were praying inside but did not join them; praised his fellow before people who hate him, and some say – recounted slanderous “dust”.
Rashi (Vayikra 19:16) explains that Lashon Hara is called holech rachil – walking around gossipmongering, translated by the Targum Onkelus as “winking”, because gossipmongers wink with their eyes to hint their evil meaning so only select listeners understand.
Lashon Hara, at its essence, is not only the words one utters with one’s lips. It also includes the meaning which may be transmitted in verbal and non-verbal means of communication.
Every beginning advertiser knows that direct advertising never works because it arouses the natural aversion to being bossed around – nobody enjoys being told what to do. In order to overcome this aversion, advertisers learn how to circumvent the subconscious and convince the consumer.
A coke advertisement should really make no sense – who would want to drink a black liquid so bitter that seven teaspoons of sugar are necessary to make it sweet? But when watching a tired person become refreshed after drinking an ice-cold cup of the brew, even the most passive onlooker is convinced that Coca-Cola is the drink to ingest at the end of a long, hard day or at any point of fatigue or boredom.
Similarly, the Torah not only forbids speaking negatively about another – it forbids sending even subtle negative messages, whether verbal or non-verbal.
The Kasav Ve’hakabala (Devarim 27:24) explains that this is the reason the Torah curses one who speaks of Lashon Hara: “Cursed be he who strikes his fellow in secret.” Lashon Hara is mainly when one hides his malicious intent (such as here, with avak Lashon Hara) – for example telling a horrible story and making believe not to know the protagonist, while in truth knowing exactly who it is. Or, for example – telling people: “You don’t want to know what ploni did. I want to maintain his honor” while leaving the horrible deed to the listeners wild imagination. Praising another before his enemies is another call for negative speech about his negative traits. In all these cases, the Ksav V’hakabala concludes – “he conceals the negativity, and its venom burns from under his tongue.”
Lashon Hara must never be transmitted, both directly and indirectly — indirect Lashon Hara often causes much more damage than direct Lashon Hara.
Praise the Enemy
The Zohar and Rambam, when mentioning this halacha, write that praising one before his enemy is forbidden. The Minchas Chinuch (mitzva 236); Rabbi Chaim Ganin, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem (Chukei Chaim, Deot 7:4); and Avodas Hamelech (Deos 5:7) understand that according to the Rambam only praising another in the ears of his enemies is forbidden, while praising before others is not only permitted but even a mitzva. The reason Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi reprimanded his son when he complimented the beautiful penmanship was because Rabbi Yehuda Chitta’s enemies were present on that occasion.
The Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishna, explains (Avos, 1:17) that this episode took place in front of many people. In a large crowd, the possibility that an enemy is present is greater. The Chida (Tov Ayin chapter 18:49) learns here that praising one in public is always forbidden because there will always be someone who hates the person being spoken about and hearing his praise will cause him to make negative remarks about the subject of the praise. The Yad Rama (Bave Basre 164b) writes that the reason praising is forbidden is because upon hearing his praise his enemies will criticize him.
The Maharal (Chidushei Agados, Erchin 16a) explains that praising another before a talmid chacham or a G-d fearing individual who always speaks positively about others is permitted. However, before others, it is forbidden. This explains why Hashem praised Moshe before Aharon and Mririam — there was no concern they would come to speaking negatively about Moshe.
Rashi (Erchin 16a) explains that the Gemara here refers to excessive praising. This is also the Sefer Yereim’s approach (191) – the prohibition is only to praise another excessively, while praise itself is not forbidden. This also explains how Sages in the Mishna and Gemara could express praise of others – excessive praise arouses the listener’s natural aversion from exaggeration, which will cause the listener to attempt to correct the speaker and downplay the praise. However, one who praises moderately does not arouse this aversion, and his words are accepted.
The Magen Avraham (156), when listing the halachos mentioned in the Gemara but not in the Shulchan Aruch, lists this halacha, noting that according to the Rambam this halacha only applies when speaking before one’s enemies, while according to Rashi it applies only to excessive praise.
L’halacha, the Chida writes that both explanations are true, and Rashi and the Rambam do not disagree with each other — both scenarios can cause listeners to speak negatively, and are therefore forbidden.
Speaking About a Tzadik
The Gemara (Megillah 25b) writes that it is permitted to praise one who has a “good name” (i.e. well-known for his piety), and one who does so will be blessed. The Maharsha (ibid) explains that the Gemara is teaching that there is no prohibition involved in praising such an individual. However, the Maharsha adds, this is only on condition that the praise is true and will not arouse the listener’s aversion.
The Shita Mekubetzes explains (Bave Basre 164b) that praising a person who sometimes acts positively and sometimes negatively is forbidden because it will cause others to criticize him. He adds that even if the subject is mostly a pious individual, he should not be praised excessively. Similarly, the Maharal explains (Chiddushei Aggdos, Bave Basro 164b) that praising one known for his righteous deeds is permitted. While Rabbi Yehuda Chitta was indeed a great man (he is known in the Gemara as “Rebbe”), as a scribe he was criticized because he made a mistake in the get. Indicating later that he was the scribe who wrote the Tehilim (where there is significant concern it may contain mistakes) may therefore arouse criticism of him as a scribe.
Sefer Chssidim writes (chapter 64): “And do not praise one before his enemy because he (the enemy) cannot tolerate hearing something good about him, and in simply hearing his name he will come to criticize him… and do not praise the wealthy before other rich people, or a scribe before another scribe… but for a G-d fearing individual to praise another G-d fearing person it is permitted because he is glad that others are G-d fearing, not jealous of them…”.
Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi – Explanations
Another explanation is that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s comment on the exquisite penmanship in the Tehilim may have contained concealed criticism – the Iyun Yaakov (on the Ein Yaakov, Bave Basre 164b) explains that the halacha of careful lettering only applies to a Sefer Torah, not the other sfarim. Therefore, a scribe who spent extra time creating beautiful script in a Tehilim, in which it is unnecessary, was wasting his time instead of spending it learning Torah.
The Chasam Sofer explains (6:59) that speaking about other people contains an inherent danger – it may cause people to speak negatively. However, mentioning a mitzva one did or his good middos is a mitzva, and its merit will ensure no harm is born of it. When Rabbi Shimon complimented Rabbi Yehuda Chitta for his penmanship, he was not commenting on a mitzva or his good middos but on his inborn talent. In this case there is nothing to protect him, and his words may cause Lashon Hara.
The Chida explains that both episodes (the get and the Tehilim) occurred on the same occasion. Therefore, in mentioning Rabbi Yehuda Chitta’s name as the Tehilim’s scribe he was reminding the listeners of the problematic get that had just been presented. The Rashash (Erchin 16a) explains that when Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi expressed his dissatisfaction with the get he had essentially become Rabbi Yehuda’s enemy. Therefore, mentioning his praise before Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi had become forbidden.
A talmid chacham always looks for the positive in others, and that is what he expresses. (Except for sinful people about whom people need to know in order to keep their distance.) One must exercise extreme caution in examining his words even if they are positive to ensure no negative consequences can result. Therefore, one may not praise another before his enemy, competitor, or even counterpart because people tend to look for defects in people that are like themselves. In addition, one may not inflate praise in a way that will cause others to try to correct the impression, and even saying that someone is an excellent scribe when he was not so good in the past is forbidden.
Application of this halacha depends on the context and subject of the conversation, as well as the non-verbal cues and body language used to communicate. Clear unbiased self-analysis is necessary to determine in each case if the words are permitted or, chas v’shalom, constitute Lashon Hara.