The most commonly misunderstood halacha in gossip is probably that of gossip le’toelet – speaking negatively for a benefit. Unfortunately, it is common for people to speak gossip and immediately claim that they are doing so le’toelet. Therefore, it is important to list the details of this halacha clearly, so that one will be able to think before speaking if what he is about to say is allowed or not.
Shaarei Teshuva (III 216-217) writes that the main reason that gossip is forbidden is because by speaking negatively about another one causes him damage or will embarrass him. It is even worse if one speaks the truth negatively about another (as the Chofetz Chaim writes, lying about another is a different prohibition – motzi shem ra). Since when it is true others are more likely to believe it, there will be more damage and more embarrassment for the victim of the gossip.
For this reason, one may speak gossip in various circumstances when there are particular intentions, including:
- to highlight the evil that another does or did, in order that others will not copy him.
- to save the victim of a crime, such as enabling a stolen object to be returned to its owner or to fix damage that was done.
Even if the benefits from the gossip are for the speaker or listener, or another person, one may still speak or listen to it for the following purposes (among others):
- to find a suitable place to live
- to see if a suggested shidduch is appropriate
- to verify if a proposed business partner is reliable
- to choose an appropriate school or cheder
In such cases, the questioner will often have to ask several people about the proposed school/shidduch/business partner, and he must tell them that he is asking purely for the benefit listed above. The speaker must not exaggerate, and may only tell that information pertinent to the benefit expected – both qualities and shortcomings.
One may also listen to gossip about another in order to be able to influence the person spoken about to do teshuva. Similarly, one may listen to negative information about another in order to be able to refute publicly that said about him and defend him.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman writes (Kovetz Hearos 70) that all of the prohibitions concerning interactions between people (bein Adam lechavero) involve destructive actions. However, bringing benefit to others obviously does not cause destruction, and hence there are many circumstances where one may perform what is ostensibly a prohibited action in order to bring about the benefit.
It is permissible to perform brit milah on a child. Normally, to draw blood from another is prohibited, but in certain cases it is permitted (or even a mitzvah) to bring about a certain benefit. One may give rebuke or use hurtful words (ona’at devarim) for the benefit of the listener. Similarly, even though in general it is forbidden to speak negatively of another, when it is for a benefit – leto’elet – then it is permitted. It is essential to remember though, that one’s intention in all the above is purely for the desired benefit, not to take pleasure in hurting another.
The Seven Conditions for Speaking Lashon Hara for a benefit:
In order to be allowed to speak lashon hara about another for benefit, one must:
1) Personally witness the other’s action, or be 100% sure what he is saying is true.
2) Have no way of judging the other favorably.
3) Attempt to give gentle rebuke directly to the other.
4) Not exaggerate, and should not add reveal more of the other’s negative actions than necessary.
5) Only have pure intentions to achieve the desired benefit. He may not also look to gain revenge or be motivated by hatred of the other.
6) Be sure that the benefit can only be achieved by speaking lashon hara. If there is an alternative method of achieving the benefit, that method must be used.
7) Not cause damage to the other any greater than the amount he is genuinely liable for.
The Chofetz Chaim emphasizes that one should try to stop disputes even by speaking lashon hara about the disputants. It is important to remember, as above, to check that one’s intentions are genuinely for the benefit of the community (so that they will stop fighting), and not motivated by hatred or jealousy towards one of the disputants.
One of the most common areas in which lashon hara is spoken for a benefit, sometimes in an inappropriate and forbidden manner, is when discussing children. It is certainly a mitzvah for a teacher or parent to be able to consult with others in order to find ways to help a child through difficulties, since there is a clear benefit for the child. Nevertheless, the listener should not take what is being said as the indisputable truth – rather, as we have mentioned, he must accept its veracity enough to try to help and/or protect others from potential harm.
One has to remember that all the seven conditions of speaking lashon hara letoelet still apply (as mentioned before), and it makes no difference whether one is speaking about a child or an adult. One may not cause suffering to or inflict damage on a child by speaking lashon hara, even if it is one’s own child, and certainly not about someone else’s child, even if they are related. An older child might say to his parents that his younger sibling took the cookies, or a Rebbe might listen to one child speaking about another. The examples are many, but the rule still applies: the conditions of speaking lashon hara for benefit must be fulfilled in these cases just as in other situations.
Thus, if an older brother wishes to tell his parents his younger brother took the cookies, he must first know with first-hand certain knowledge that his younger brother indeed took them, not relying on suspicions or hearing from others. Second, he should try to speak to his younger brother himself in order not to have to tell his parents. Third, he must not exaggerate. A child will commonly say about another, “He’s always taking the cookies,” – one may only say that which is true and is relevant to the present situation. (Parents may also stumble in this regard, saying, “He’s always so impolite.” Again, this is unwarranted, and therefore, forbidden exaggeration.) Fourth, the child’s intentions must be purely for the benefit of his younger brother, something which is obviously difficult to ensure. Even for adults this is a tough challenge. Fifth, if he knows that his parents will give his younger brother a harsher punishment than he deserves, he may not tell them.
There was an occasion when some bachurim damaged another’s property, and their Rav made the bachurim tell him who had actually caused the damage. Since he wanted to bring benefit to the perpetrator by rebuking him and making him pay for the damage, he held it was a permissible instance of lashon hara letoelet. The Teshuvos veHanhagos (Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlit’a) concurs. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that the Rav may not act thus unless the bachurim would fulfill all the conditions, including that they must intend purely for the benefit of the guilty party. Since this is unlikely even for an adult to do so (when monetary damage is involved), he would forbid the Rav from asking the bachurim for that information since it would make lashon hara cheap in their eyes.