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Guarding the Tongue

Several years ago, when I took my Introduction to Judaism class, one of my classmates was facing a moral dilemma. She had a promising career working as a journalist. One of her recent assignments was to find the dirt on a celebrity who was accused of criminal and immoral behavior. No charges had been filed. The celebrity denied the charges. And one alleged victim was rumored to be settling the case civilly for a large sum of money. Her publication and other similar publications published photographs of the celebrity and speculated as to his moral character. My classmate was assigned by her employer to dig up as much dirt as possible on the celebrity. Her publication wanted to be the first to show proof that this celebrity was guilty of the charges.

Our instructor gave her a response that was direct and to the point. If you want to be a good Jew, you will have to quit your job. By publishing gossip about the celebrity, my classmate was violating a law basic to Judaism.

The Torah and the Talmud both instruct Jews to engage in Sh'mira ha- Lashon which refers to guarding one's tongue. Proverbs tells us, "Death and Life are in the power of the tongue." The Talmud includes the plea, "My G-d, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies." And Leviticus teaches, "Do not go about as a talebearer among your people." This principle forbids saying something negative about someone even if it is true, unless the person to whom one is speaking has a legitimate need for the information.

A Chasidic story underscores the damage which can be caused by hurtful gossip. A man went through the community spreading lies about the Rabbi. One day the man felt remorse and asked the rabbi to forgive him and indicated that he was willing to do anything to make amends. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open and scatter the feathers to the wind. The man did so and returned to the rabbi to let him know what he had done. The rabbi then instructed him, "Now go and gather ALL of the feathers." The man protested, "But that's impossible."

"Of course it is," replied the rabbi. "And although you may regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words than it is to recover every single one of the feathers." The rabbi was not overstating the damage. For the Talmud teaches us that destroying another person's name is akin to murder and like murder the damage is irrevocable.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Literacy, describes three types of gossip:

First is Rekhilut-This type of gossip involves talking about the minute details of another person's life. The damage done by Rekhilut is relatively minor, but it can led to worse types of gossip.

Second is Lashon ha-ra. Lashon ha-ra is negative but truthful information about someone else. It is against Jewish law to spread negative truthful information about others unless that person has the need to know the information.

Third is Motzi shem ra- This is the spreading of malicious lies. Motzi shem ra is the worst of the three and has the effect of murdering the good name of a person.

Rabbi Israel Salanter distinguished among different types of gossip in this way. Rabbi Salanter wrote that if a person says that the Rabbi does not have a good voice and that the cantor is not a scholar, then that person is engaged in simple gossip. But if a person says that the rabbi is not a scholar and that the cantor does not have a good voice, then that person is engaging in murdering a good name.

In his book, It's a Mitzvah, Rabbi Bradley Artson provides some suggestions on how to guard your tongue. I will list a few of them. He recommends not repeating jokes that degrade others. He recommends limiting negative comments about others to only one trusted person such as a spouse. He suggests remaining silent when others start to gossip. Another suggestion is to avoid praising someone to his or her enemy. This is because the enemy is then triggered into making a negative comment. Rabbi Artson urges that we pray each day that we avoid gossip. He offers the following prayer originated by the 19th century Rabbi, Israel Kagan:

Gracious and merciful G-d, help me to restrain myself from speaking or listening to derogatory, demeaning or hostile speech. I will try not to engage in L'shon ha-ra, either about individuals or about an entire group of people. I will strive not to say anything that contains falsehood, insincere flattery or elements of needless dispute, anger, arrogance, oppression or embarrassment to others. Grant me the strength to say nothing unnecessary, so that all my actions and speech cultivate a love for your creatures and for You.

May contain original copyrighted material, the use of which may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Any such material is provided solely for the purposes of research and scholarship without profit within the provisions 'fair use' as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. Original material copyright 1998 Michael Hudson Hudson. All rights reserved.

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