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“Keep it a Secret”: Halachos of Protecting Trust and Privacy


This week’s article will focus on two basic halachos that we learn from the first pasuk of Chumash Vayikra – the Chumash which we will begin reading this week: calling out to someone before beginning to speak with him, and the prohibition to reveal a secret. What are the conditions for revealing classified information? What is the nature of the prohibition – is it a full Torah prohibition, or basic human decency? Can non-damaging secrets be disclosed? Do secrets have expiration dates? Why is it prohibited to disclose another’s secrets? What the halachic take on medical confidentiality? If keeping the secret will harm another person, which prohibition overrides – the prohibition to disclose a secret, or the prohibition to stand by when another person suffers damage? Some halachic rulings are issued to individuals, with instructions not to repeat. What is the status of such secrets? Of this and more, in the coming article.

Respecting Privacy

This week we will begin reading Chumash Vayikra. This Chumash is also called Toras Kohanim, as its main focus is on the halachos of Korbanos and service in the Mikdash.

Interestingly, the first words: “And He called to Moshe [ויקרא], and the Lord spoke to him [וידבר] from the Tent of Meeting, saying [לאמר]:” (Vayikra 1:1) are the source for two halachos in Hilchos Derech Eretz. The Gemara (Yoma 4b) learns from this pasuk the obligation to greet or call out to a person before speaking to him; and the prohibition to pass on information without receiving explicit permission from the information’s source. These two halachos will be our topic this week.

Calling or Greeting

While there are grammatic and contextual differences between calling, speaking, and saying, there is no intrinsic difference in the action they connote in English — all refer to oral communication, and provide no indication as for the content. However, in Hebrew, speaking – דיבור connotes decisive and unequivocal speech. The words דיבור comes from the root of “דבר” – a thing. It is what it is, and there’s no arguing about it. While the information might give its listener joy and pleasure, the content of the message is clear-cut. A father calling his son to relay the code to his safe-deposit box gives over the information clearly. This is דיבור.

The word לאמר, or saying, is part of a dialogue, where the listener is open and ready to change his opinion. This conversation is fluid and flexible, and the information can be shaped to fit the recipient. This word was used in this pasuk in order to instruct Moshe Rabbenu to pass on the halachos Hashem is teaching him, to the Jewish Nation.

קריאה or calling out, is used before speaking, when we wish to attract someone’s attention and set the stage for further communication. At times, calling out might contain a certain massage as well.

Chazal tell us that when one wants to tell someone something precise — rules, regulations, or information, one must first call out to the addressee. Call him by his name signals to the listener that he, as a person, is appreciated – a person with the unique personality that his name signifies. Despite the content being decisive and unequivocal, we appreciate the person we speak with and his unique personality, and his ideas and insights are valuable.

The Prohibition to Forward Information

Why are all these “speaking terms” all mentioned in this one pasuk? The Gemara explains it is to teach us the two halachos which we will discuss in this article and mentioned above. Here, we will begin with the second halacha: the prohibition to pass on information. Is forwarding tidbits of information considered gossip, even if the facts are true? This halacha is particularly relevant today because of the ease one can press the ‘forward’ button on electronic communications. Every Jew is encouraged to stop and consider the following halachos before doing so.

The Chaffetz Chaim (in Klal 2:13) stipulates that if someone gains access to another individual’s confidential commercial or business details, he is obligated to keep this information secret and not to disclose it to others, even in the absence of a specific request to keep it confidential. The potential leakage of such information could lead to detrimental consequences for one’s business or commercial endeavors.

Nonetheless, if an individual willingly shares his commercial information in the presence of three or more people without explicitly requesting confidentiality, it is permissible to pass on this information to others. The reason is because this scenario implies that the individual is not concerned about the secrecy of their information. However, this halacha is subject to specific conditions:

For example, if the individuals in whose presence the information was disclosed are known for their discretion or are close friends who would refrain from spreading the information to protect their friend’s livelihood, then one is prohibited from disseminating this information further, even if it was disclosed in a group of three or more.

Furthermore, when passing on such information, it must be conveyed exactly as the owner presented it, without any embellishment or addition that could potentially harm the owner. Additionally, it’s crucial to ensure that the recipient is trustworthy and will not distort the information to portray the owner in a negative light or damage the reputation of the business. Even if the owner made the information public, sharing it under these circumstances is prohibited.

Harmless Gossip

The Chofetz Chaim (Klal 2:13), clarifies that the prohibition applies specifically to information that could potentially harm or damage its source if disseminated. However, harmless pieces of information that were shared openly and without a request for confidentiality may be relayed to others. As a result, the Rambam (in Hilchos De’os 7:5) does not mention a prohibition unless the information has the potential to cause harm or distress to its source upon becoming public knowledge.

This halacha seems to contradict the lesson mentioned at the beginning of this article, which was quoted from the Gemara – that it is forbidden to repeat anything without receiving explicit permission to do so, even if there is no harm or damage involved in passing it along. Although, obviously, causing harm to G-d is impossible, Moshe Rabbenu was still forbidden from relaying his prophecies without receiving explicit permission indicated by the word “לאמר” – “to say”.

This Gemara is cited as the as the law by the Smag (negative mitzva 9); Hagahos Maimonios (Hilchos De’os 7:8); Magen Avraham; Shulchan Aruch Harav (156) — but is glaringly absent from the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. The Chafetz Chaim, who points this out, asks the obvious question: Why?

He provides two possible answers:

  • The halacha, as it appears in the Gemara, is a law of basic conduct, a halacha from Hilchos Derech Eretz — not a full halachic obligation. Therefore, the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch do not mention it, as they only mention halachos which are full obligations. This is explained in the Meiri (Yoma 4b): “The pasuk teaches us a Derech Eretz, therefore the poskim who mention laws of proper conduct also list this as one of the halachos.”
  • In case the source of the non-damaging information specifically summoned the recipient to convey it privately, it is considered confidential, even if the source did not explicitly request confidentiality. However, if the information was freely offered without any indication of secrecy, the recipient is not obligated to treat it as confidential and may relay it to others. By Hashem summoning Moshe into the Mishkan to relay the mitzvos and also making a miracle that the voice could not be heard outside the Tent of Meeting, it would have appeared that the information was passed on in secrecy, which is the reason it was forbidden to be passed on, had Hashem not explicitly given permission to do so. (Maharshal, glosses on the Smag, negative mitzva 9).

While according to the first explanation relaying the message is not a prohibition but rather proper behavior, according the second explanation – where there is indication that the information is not meant to be passed on, repeating it is a full prohibition.

The Chaffetz Chaim deduced his ruling (9:6) from these explanations, and therefore, ruled that one who was told something confidentially may not tell it to others, unless he was given explicit permission to do so.

Secret Expiration Date

Do secrets have expiration dates? If something was told as a secret, when can it be retold, if at all?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 31a), tells of Rav Ami’s disciples, who were entrusted with a secret and kept it confidential as instructed. However, after 22 years, one of the students deemed the secret no longer relevant and divulged it. In response, Rav Ami criticized the student for revealing the secret, and showed him the door. In his punishment, he demonstrated that secrets must be kept indefinitely, regardless of their perceived relevance over time.

This story suggests that the passing of time does not nullify the obligation to keep a secret. While circumstances may change and the relevance of a secret may diminish over time, the duty to uphold confidentiality remains paramount.

Reason for the Prohibition

Rabbenu Yona explains (Sha’arei Teshuva 3:225) that maintaining the confidentiality of information entrusted by a friend is of utmost importance, even if the act of revealing the secret does not involve prohibited speech for the following reasons:

  • Disclosing such information can potentially harm the individual and disrupt their plans. This principle is derived from the pasuk: “Plans are foiled for lack of secret” (Mishlei 15:22).
  • Revealing secrets is a departure from modesty, and violates the secret’s owner’s wishes. Of this Shlomo Hamelech writes: “You shall not mingle with one who divulges secrets, one who gossips, or with one who entices with his lips” (ibid 20:19).
  • One who cannot contain himself and reveals secrets, even if there is no prohibited speech involved, will eventually become a regular gossipmonger, one of the four horrible classes who have no control over their lips. And furthermore, Shlomo Hamelech writes: “He who reveals secrets is a talebearer, but one who is of faithful spirit conceals a matter” (Mishlei 11:13) – don’t pass you secret to a gossipmonger, because no secret is safe with him.


Rabbenu Yona provides three reasons for the prohibition to retell a secret:

  • Respecting the wishes of the owner: Transmitting a secret violates the owner’s property rights and goes against his wishes, which is considered harmful to the owner. Therefore, it is forbidden to disclose a secret.
  • Upholding modesty: Revealing secrets contradicts the principle of modesty, which honors others’ privacy. Even if information is shared voluntarily, it must not be passed on without permission, regardless of potential harm.
  • Struggle against negative tendencies: Safeguarding our speech from Lashon Hara and Rechilus is a significant challenge. Keeping secrets confidential requires battling our natural inclination to gossip and pass on information. Certainly, sharing secrets with someone who gossips indicates total lack of self-control and inability to protect confidentiality.

The Chofetz Chaim rules (Hilchos Rechilus 8:5) that revealing a secret one’s friend told him and warned not to reveal, is strictly forbidden. His source is from the above mentioned Gemara and from Rabbenu Yona, which indicate that revealing a secret is a full prohibition of: “You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people” (Vayikra 19:16).

Rav Nissim Karelitz (Shmiras Halashon, Chapter 5) writes several rules concerning the prohibition of revealing secrets:

  1. If someone agreed not to divulge information that was shared with him in confidence, he is bound by his word, even if later on he heard the information from another source. For example, if a person learns secret recipes while working in a kitchen and later finds them in a published cookbook, he is still prohibited from revealing the recipes due to his prior agreement.
  2. The prohibition extends to sharing the information, even with trusted individuals like one’s spouse, if the owner of the secret did not explicitly permit its disclosure.
  3. If there was no explicit request of confidentiality, revealing information that will not harm the source, such as sharing a private recipe with one’s spouse who will keep it confidential, is not prohibited.
  4. In cases where it is understood that the information is a corporate secret, maintaining confidentiality is required even without explicit demands. However, if the information became known to the individual through other means, revealing it is permitted since no promise of confidentiality was made.

Revealing Information from Internal Meetings

According to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 31a), it is forbidden for a dayan to disclose information about internal meetings, even if his opinion was in the minority. One who violates this rule transgresses the prohibition of rechilus.

A dayan was faced with a dilemma after presiding over a divorce proceeding where the reason for the divorce was the husband’s inability to procreate. Later, a woman approached him to inquire about the divorced husband’s suitability as a match. The dayan sought guidance from the Chazon Ish regarding whether he could reveal the confidential information learned in the Beis Din about the husband.

While it was prohibited to disclose such information, the Dayan also couldn’t in good conscience recommend the marriage without full disclosure. The Chazon Ish advised him to inform the inquirer that the Beis Din proceedings are confidential and cannot be divulged under any circumstances. Therefore, he could not offer advice on this matter (Chut Shani 5:1). Rav Nissim Karelitz adds that one may say “I don’t quite see it as a match”, and thus not reveal any confidential information. He stresses that revealing confidential information even l’toeles remains forbidden.

Medical Confidentiality

Rabbi Nissim Karelitz includes medical information shared by a patient with their doctor in the same category as secrets heard in Beis Din, as it is given under the premise of medical confidentiality. Therefore, revealing such information is forbidden, even if it would benefit the owner. Consequently, it is forbidden for a therapist to disclose secrets learned from a client unless given explicit permission. However, a therapist may provide others on his team with general guidelines for dealing with the client. This approach upholds the principle of confidentiality while still allowing for appropriate support and care.

Confidentiality vs. Damage

In situations where there is a clear and immediate danger that must be prevented, such as murder intents, or intentions to steal, or when a person poses a threat to others the prohibition of “You shall not stand by the shedding of your fellow’s blood” (Vayikra 19:16) takes precedence. (Both mitzvos appear in the same pasuk: “You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people. You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood. I am the Lord”). This obligation requires the holder of the information to disclose it to the appropriate authorities or individuals to prevent harm or danger to others. In such cases, the obligation to save lives overrides the prohibition against revealing secrets.

However, Rav Nissim Karelitz emphasizes that it is impossible to issue a blanket ruling in these cases. Each situation must be evaluated individually, as revealing the secret may not always be sufficient to avert the danger or damage. Therefore, it is essential to present each case to a competent rabbi for guidance and advice. This will ensures that the appropriate action will be taken while balancing the obligation to protect confidentiality with the duty to prevent harm.

Hiring Administrative Assistants For Highly Confidential Positions

May a doctor or Beis Din appoint an administrative assistant to manage files and schedule appointments, if he will be exposed to clients’ private information that was entrusted to the doctor or rabbi? Rav Nissim Karelitz (Shmiras Halashon 5:1) rules that if it is impossible for doctors or Dayanim to remember all the information on their own, hiring someone to handle filing is permissible. This individual is considered part of the team that was exposed to confidential information. However, selection of this individual must be done with utmost care.

A Do-Not-Publicize Ruling

In some instances, individuals seek guidance from a rabbi and receive an answer, with the explicit instruction from the rabbi not to publicize his response. Is it prohibited to share this information with others?

Rav Nissim Karelitz (Shmiras Halashon 5) states that a halachic ruling is not considered a secret, and therefore revealing it does not constitute disclosure of confidential information. However, disclosing such a ruling to others is considered harmful and is forbidden because this request indicates that the ruling was tailored to specific circumstances, and the reason the Rabbi requested confidentiality is to prevent others from mistakenly following suit.

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