Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra‘ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Two sentences after the Torah’s mandate of Lifnei iveir lo titein michshol (which includes the prohibition of misleading another, even through the passive withholding of vital information; [Talmud Bavli Moed Katan 5a] see previous study), the text delineates an equally powerful, far-reaching directive: Lo telech rachil b’amecha, “Do not travel as a gossipmonger among your people.”
From this commandment and other sources in the Torah the rabbis identify three levels of prohibited interpersonal speech as falling under the general prohibition of rechilut (gossip).
1. Motzi shem ra, slander: The most severe form of prohibited interpersonal speech: the intentional spreading of damaging untruths about another individual.
2. Lashon hara, evil speech: The spreading of damaging information about another individual, even if the information is true.
3. Rechilut, gossip: The sharing of any personal information about another individual outside of that individual’s presence, if there is the slightest chance that the information shared will result in the creation of ill will.
Rabbinic literature is replete with references concerning the tragic effects of unfettered speech (see Tazria-Metzora 3, Approaches D, E). The prevalence of this phenomenon (we are almost all guilty of the transgressions of prohibited speech) combines with the terrible damage that can be wrought upon the lives of others to make the ongoing effect of these sins particularly devastating.
What should our posture be, however, when the prohibition against rechilut conflicts with the prohibition of lifnei iveir; when information is requested of us, the sharing of which might be damaging to one individual while the withholding of which might be damaging to another?
What if, for example, I am requested to give a job reference concerning an acquaintance and the information to which I am privy will be harmful to the candidate? What if I am asked by a friend concerning a budding romantic relationship and, again, the information that I would share would be less than flattering?
The responses of halacha to these commonly occurring dilemmas are complex and vary on a case–by-case basis, as the law struggles to reconcile the conflicting demands of these two significant mitzvot.
Four commonsense rules, however, can be helpful as a guide in all cases.
1. Explore the motivations: What is the impetus behind our intent to share this information? Are we motivated in any way by jealousy or personal animus? Are we fully aware of the underlying forces that drive us to speak?
2. Study the facts: Are we certain of the veracity of information that we intend to share? What is the nature of our sources? Too often, damaging hearsay is repeated as fact, with devastating consequences.
3. Examine the relevance: Is the information we plan to share relevant to the situation at hand? Are we limiting our response to the necessary information or are we adding and embellishing beyond the essential facts?
4. Seek halachic counsel: Many of us tend to request halachic guidance only in areas of ritual concern such as kashrut and Shabbat. Jewish law, however, is meant to serve as a guide in all arenas of life, particularly when it comes to our ethical and moral behavior.
Seeking appropriate halachic counsel before we speak about others is a sensible, often necessary step. Words, once spoken, can never be fully retracted.
On the other hand, the failure to share warranted information can cause irreparable damage to the unsuspecting. The burden of our intended action or inaction should, therefore, weigh heavily upon us. Decisions should not be made in haste, but only after due deliberation. Consultation with the proper halachic advisor can help grant perspective, allowing the wide-ranging experience of Jewish law to inform those decisions.
Great caution must be exercised when the prohibitions of lifnei iveir and rechilut collide. The welfare of others hangs in the balance.