Weighing the Evidence

SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIMLaws of Loshon Hora 7:10

       In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim examines the concept of Devarim Hanikarim, recognizable signs, as it applies to the laws of loshon hora. From a Talmudic interpretation of a story in Scripture (Shabbos 56a) we learn that at times loshon hora may be accepted as fact when there is circumstantial proof which supports it.

       The Chofetz Chaim addresses the possibility that we might take this to be a blanket allowance for believing negative information about someone whenever we feel that the situation points to his guilt. The Chofetz Chaim notes that this principle applies only to cases of toeles, where there is a constructive purpose being served. An example would be where a father has strong basis to suspect that the bad reports concerning his son’s friend are true. While a parent is permitted to warn his child to avoid bad company without such evidence, he may do so with greater conviction when his suspicions are supported by strong evidence.

       The Chofetz Chaim reminds us that this allowance, like the ones which preceded it, does not apply to common loshon hora where people pointlessly discuss misjudgments, mistakes or negative personality traits of others.

       The Chofetz Chaim also tells us that one is guilty of listening to loshon hora merely by turning his attention to hear someone degrade a person for having faults which the listener knows personally to be true. Consider the following:

       A particularly unpleasant person works in your office — someone who is never friendly and is always ready to instigate trouble. You have witnessed these traits personally dozens of times, suffered through his tirades, and now possess all the evidence you need to form your opinion of him. If you walk by a group standing at the water cooler and the topic of the day is this person’s awful behavior, the Chofetz Chaim warns: “Don’t bend your ear to listen!” The fact that you have evidence which confirms their loshon hora is meaningless. This is not a case of toeles; therefore, their words are forbidden, as is listening to them.

       The Chofetz Chaim says that a Jew should have no interest in hearing his fellow man being degraded. Rather, he should live by the words of Rabbeinu Yonah: “The correct path is to conceal the sins [of others] and to praise a person for the good which can be found in him. It is the way of fools to seek out the blemishes and mistakes of others and to criticize them; they never speak others’ praises or find the good in them” (Sha’arei Teshuvah §217).

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