LASHON HA-RA (Heb. לָשׁוֹן הָרָע; lit. "evil speech"), the prohibition against slandering, slurring, or defaming one's fellow Jews, even when the derogatory remarks are true (Lev. 19:16; Rashi ad. loc.). The sages constantly stressed the severity of this prohibition, asserting that slander destroys three persons: "he who relates the slander, he who accepts it, and he about whom it is told" (Ar. 15b). They recognized the power of the spoken word to build or ruin human relationships, and considered the tongue the "elixir of life" (Lev. R. 16:2) and the primary source of good and evil (Lev. R. 33:1). It was even considered forbidden to spread discreditable comments which the slanderer would have told to the person himself (Tos. to Ar. 15b).
The Bible is replete with examples of righteous and wicked individuals who transgressed this prohibition. Sarah is accused of slandering Abraham when she spoke about his advanced age and inability to beget children (Gen. 18:12–15; tj, Pe'ah 1:1, 16a). Joseph was punished for the "evil reports" he spread about his brothers (Gen. 37:2; tj, Pe'ah 1:1, 15d–16a). Miriam was rebuked by God for slandering Moses (Num. 12:1–15). The spies were punished for their injurious reports concerning the Holy Land (Num. 14:36–37). The division of the kingdom of David is attributed to his paying heed to slander (Shab. 56a–b). Doeg and Ahithophel were accused of constantly desiring to hear "evil speech" (tj, loc. cit.). Jeroboam king of Israel (i Kings 12:20) was worthy of being counted together with the kings of Judah (Hos 1:1) because he did not give heed to slander against Amos (Amos 7:10–11; Pes. 87b). The murder of Isaiah by Manasseh was considered divine retribution for Isaiah's slurs against the Jewish people (Isa. 6:5; Yev. 49b). Haman was considered the most skillful of all traducers (Meg. 13b). Indirect slander was also forbidden, and the sages cautioned against speaking in praise of a person lest one inevitably be led also to mention the person's bad deeds and qualities (bb 164b). Equally objectionable under this heading is the implicit form of slander exemplified by the statement, "Do not speak of him; I want to know nothing about him," in which one expresses a disinclination to listen, not because of a distaste for slander, but because of the implied unworthiness of the subject (see Maim. Yad, De'ot 7:4). Although the hearer was cautioned not to believe slander, he still was permitted to safeguard himself cautiously lest the reports prove true (Nid. 61a). Defaming individuals who constantly caused strife and dissension is permissable (tj, Pe'ah 1:1, 16a).
The rabbis often emphasized the rigorous punishments for those engaging in "evil speech." They are immediately chastised by plagues (arn 19); and rain is withheld because of them (Ta'an. 7b). Croup comes to the world on account of slander (Shab. 33a–b), and whoever makes derogatory remarks about deceased scholars is cast into *Gehinnom (Ber. 19a). Slanderers will not enjoy the *Shekhinah (Divine Presence; Sot. 42a), and a bearer of evil tales is considered as denying God (Ar. 15b). Whoever relates or accepts slander deserves to be cast to the dogs (Pes. 118a), and stoned (Ar. 15b). The Talmud delineated the repentance for those wishing to atone for this sin. Scholars were advised to engage in Torah study, while simple persons were urged to humble themselves (Ar. 15b). The robe of the high priest and the incense aided in achieving atonement for this sin (Zev. 88b). Mar, the son of Ravina, on concluding his daily prayer added the following: "My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile" (Ber. 17a), a formula which has been added at the end of the Amidah. In modern times, Rabbi *Israel Meir ha-Kohen (Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim) gained wide recognition for his writings which stressed the gravity of the sin of lashon ha-ra.
Israel Meir ha-Kohen (Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim), Shemirat ha-Lashon (1952); Israel Al-Nakawa, Menorat ha-Ma'or, ed. by H.G. Enelow, 4 (1932), 337–70.