Legitimizing lies

While most of us are aware that it is forbidden to speak loshon horo (and almost everyone nevertheless sometimes falters in this area), many are unaware that it is forbidden to listen to loshon horo and accept it as fact.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles, | updated: 07:25

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

           As we would expect, Parshat Mishpatim begins with many ordinances, beginning with the laws concerning a Jewish slave and moving on to tort law. Shortly after these, the Torah commands, “Do not accept a false report, do not extend your hand with the wicked to be a dishonest witness.” Rashi explains these words to mean that “it is a negative commandment addressed to one who accepts shema shov/ malicious talk/loshon horo, and to a judge that he should not listen to the words of one litigant until his fellow litigant comes to plead his case.”

           First, although shema shov has here been interpreted as malicious, evil talk, a more literal translation would be vain/baseless/valueless report. Rashi cites this as being the source not only for prohibiting speaking loshon horo, but especially for listening to loshon horo. Further, although “witness” may imply a court setting, why does Rashi connect this prohibition most especially to judges as well as to ordinary people?

           While most of us are aware that it is forbidden to speak loshon horo (and almost everyone nevertheless sometimes falters in this area), many are unaware that it is forbidden to listen to loshon horo and accept it as fact. While sometimes it may be necessary to hear some negative information to protect oneself from personal or financial harm and act upon the possibility, one may not accept or believe that information as fact until proven in a court of law, admonishes the Chofetz Chaim, the authority who devoted his life to teaching and explicating the nuances of prohibited and permitted speech. The prohibition of listening to loshon horo holds even if the information is true. In fact, speaking falsely about another is called differently, motzi shem ra, interpreted as libel. (I’m not a lawyer, but I believe in secular courts, one cannot sue if the information is true albeit the information has harmed the litigant. How different from our laws. CKS)

           What is so terrible about listening to gossip, especially if it’s true? Rabbi Kluger, in Marpeh Lashon explains that the Chofetz Chaim sees two aspects at play, even when the information is true. Besides the actual prohibition against listening to the communication, there is also a tinge of falsehood in every one of these reports. After all, we are all human with the capacity of imagination and of forming conclusions.

           We tend to interpret what we see based on our personal experience, notes the Sifsei Chaim, Rabbi Friedlander z”l . Not knowing the entire picture, or the other’s perspective causes us to tell half truths, the essence of a lie, even if that was not our intention. Is that Jew going into the non kosher establishment to use the bathroom or ask for directions? Is our neighbor entering a cab on Shabbat because he is having heart palpitations? Further, our speech is often peppered with exaggeration and hyperbole (something as simple as, “Everyone knows...” Everyone? Really?) is our natural speech pattern. How much harm can be done through exaggeration or through not having all the facts?

           Even if a report is true and has been confirmed by two different people, it must still be considered false unless validated in a court of law. Without that, writes Rabbi Kluger, you are accepting the words of one who is transgressing a negative command of the Torah as clearly as if he were eating non kosher food. His words are shov/valueless, worthless, without legitimacy. By listening to his words, you are validating them and providing them with legitimacy.

           This word, shov, appears in only a total of three times in the Torah, all in the Aseret Hadibrot/Ten Utterances at Sinai, continues Rabbi Kluger. In both Parshat Yitro and in Parshat Vaetchanah Hashem commands not to take His Name lashov/in vain, and in Parshat Vaetchanan, the prohibition against bearing false witness is written as eid shav/vain, baseless witness rather than as eid shaker/false witness. Rabbi Kluger clarifies the connection for us: Just as you are not to use God’s name for a worthless oath (“I swear that I’m here,” while standing here), so one should not speak of another with no positive purpose. By juxtaposing these citations as one of the only instances of using the word shov, the Torah is teaching us that one who listens to negative reports of another is as if he is accepting negative reports about Hashem Himself, and certainly one who speaks negatively of another would fall into the same category.

           According to the Gemarrah (Shavuot 39a) the whole world moved and trembled as Hashem uttered, “Though Shalt not take the Name of Hashem lashov/in vain,” continues Rabbi Kluger. Doing so, using Hashem’s name for nothing, would create a vacuum that would make the world return to the stage of void and nothingness prior to creation. The one who accepts and believes words of loshon horo is putting the world in the same danger of returning the world to that original void state. Listening to loshon horo tears apart the very foundation upon which the world rests.

           Further, every Jew has a presumption of innocence and purity unless proven otherwise in a court of Jewish law. When confronted with someone speaking loshon horo, our response should therefore be, “Don’t waste my time; what you say is worthless.”

           Rav Hirsch z”l understands this prohibition to be targeted mainly toward judges, although it extends to all human beings. Rav Hirsch understands this prohibition to mean that judges are to take all precautions necessary to render proper judgment. This means the judge is not to listen to one litigant in a court case before the arrival of the other litigant lest he begin to form an opinion before hearing all the facts of the case.

           Vayovenu Bamikra now makes the connection between judges and ourselves. A judge knows that another side of the story is coming. Even so, he is cautioned against listening to one side before the other side arrives and has the opportunity to object during the opposing testimony. How much more so must we avoid listening to one sided information that will taint our judgment. (A lawyer will sometimes approach an opposing witness with a question he knows will be objected to. While the judge will instruct the jury to disregard that information, the jury has already heard it. It remains in their consciousness and they cannot disregard it. CKS)

           Rabbi Pliskin, quotes Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz z”l who records that we often form our first impressions too quickly for them to be accurate. Much like magic tricks, we do not see the full picture and accept what we see as “truth”. We do not have time to analyze all the facts. Rabbi Kluger now explains that a similar judgment happens when one litigant appears before a judge and testifies in the absence of the other litigant. Not having any opposition, he may exaggerate or embellish ever so slightly so that the testimony is so tainted that it is false. But the judge has already assimilated this information. Even though the judge is aware that there is a second side, he is already influenced. It is necessary to hear the other side immediately. How often do our children complain about what their siblings or friends have done, and we automatically accept their self serving, tainted “testimony” as we confront the accused. We prejudge people by what we hear about them, and we’re not even aware of it.

           One of the beautiful things about Judaism is that we are aware that our power of speech differentiates us from the animal kingdom. While we use our speech in positive ways, to learn Torah and to pray, we are capable of equally using speech in negative ways. If a judge must be so careful in accepting the language of others, how much more careful must we be, not only in conversation with others, but also in words we read or hear on the media. For example, every journalist approaches what he witnesses from his own bias, and, since it is impossible to record every detail, he chooses to record those facts which support his view. (If this is true when the facts, although biased, are true, what are we to make of “fake news”? CKS)

           A first impression is nearly impossible to change. After someone forms an opinion, he becomes stubborn and finds it difficult to admit he was wrong, writes Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz z’l It was this ability to see the other point of view, even presenting it before their own, that entitled Beit Hillel to have most halachic decisions follow their point of view instead of the differing opinion of Beit Shammai, for it showed that Beit Hillel was open to hearing and accepting dissenting opinions.

           How difficult is it to admit ourselves wrong? Chananyah ben Azur was a false prophet. Yirmiyahu prophesied that Chananyah would die for this sin before the year was out. Although he died on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, he had instructed his family not to bury him until after Rosh Hashanah. So deeply was he entrenched in preserving his truth for the people.

            In contrast, at the time of Joshua, Achan violated Joshua’s decree that no one should take any bounty from the spoils of Jericho. In a moment of inspiration, Achan confessed his sin before the entire nation, elevating himself. According to tradition, Joshua authored the Aleinu prayer. The first letters if the first three words of the second paragraph form the name of “AchanAK(ch)ain Nekaveh/therefore we put our hope in You Hashem our God, that we may soon see Your mighty splendor,” thereby attributing this thought to Achan who was able to publicly acknowledge his error.

           Shov is translated variously as futile, empty or false. Why does Rashi use the translation of false in this command? Rabbi Wolbe z”l explains that truth and falsehood are measured more by their intent than by the actual words. Hashem twisted the truth in Sarah’s words so as not to harm the relationship between Avraham and Sarah. Creating peace transformed that falsehood into truth. On the other hand, when a litigant gives his testimony in the absence of his opponent, his intent is to skew the perspective of the judge so that the judge will rule in his favor. Even if all his facts are true, the litigant’s intention renders his testimony as false and futile.

           Our Sages tell us that three are symbolically killed when loshon horo is spoken, the speaker, the listener and the subject of the conversation. Rabbi Fogel in Siach Yosef  quotes Chazal that tells us that the worst of the three is the listener. Rabbi Fogel  quotes R. Miller z”l who explains that the speaker probably has some personal agenda for speaking these negative words while the listener has nothing to gain. He simply enjoys listening to evil reports and putting others down.

           From the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov we get a frightening and profound insight into the connection of loshon hora with the last part of the verse, “Do not extend your hand to be a venal (vain) witness.” When a person dies, the Satan is waiting to testify negatively about this person. But the Satan knows you need two witnesses to testify in a court of Jewish law. So he waits patiently for someone to speak loshon horo about this person. Then the two can join together to condemn this soul. Therefore, be careful with what you say and don’t join with the Satan in giving negative evidence. If you must speak negatively, condemn the trait or the particular behavior, not the person.

           Human speech is such a powerful tool. Let us train ourselves to speak and listen positively instead of negatively so that we will not stall, but hasten the redemption.





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