SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Hilchos Lashon Hara 7:3-4
Consider the following scenario:
Speaker #1: “You have no idea what kind of tricks Devorah pulls behind the teacher’s back!”
Speaker #2: “Yes, I’ve seen some of her antics myself. If she ever gets caught, she’s finished!”
Speaker #3: “I once saw her put a spider on the teacher’s chair as class was about to begin!”
It seems obvious that Devorah is quite a troublemaker.
The halachah, however, takes a different approach. We are not permitted to believe any of the above statements.
The fact that three people seem to agree on Devorah’s misbehavior does not make it permissible to believe them. Each one is guilty of speaking lashon hara, and therefore her words cannot be accepted.
The Chofetz Chaim makes an interesting point. Speaking lashon hara is a terrible sin. Someone who intentionally commits such a sin can certainly be suspected of exaggerating or even lying. On the other hand, an average Jew has a chezkas kashrus, meaning that we assume him to be innocent until proven guilty. Why, then, should I assume that the words of these sinners are true? Wouldn’t it make more sense to assume that those who have spoken lashon hara are misrepresenting the facts and that Devorah, who until now had a chezkas kashrus, is innocent?
What if three people agree on the following?
“Pinchas has acted recklessly with other people’s money. It is foolhardy to do business with him.”
In this case, it is correct to consider the possibility that the report might be true and to take the necessary precautions. However, we are not allowed to believe the report, even though three people claim that it is true, and even though if it is true, they are correct in relating it.
One may wonder: Why are we not permitted to believe a report delivered by two or more people? We know that according to Torah law, two witnesses are the minimum needed to testify in beis din. We also know that the testimony of two witnesses is as powerful as that of 100. So, if two Jews state that they know firsthand about Pinchas’ reckless use of other people’s money, why can’t I believe them?
The Chofetz Chaim explains that if the two would offer their testimony in beis din, we would be permitted to believe them. Witnesses know that testifying in beis din is a very serious matter. If they are caught lying, they are labeled false witnesses and would be disqualified from testifying in the future. Therefore, when they do testify, we assume that their words are true until proven otherwise.
Our case, however, is where the testimony is being offered outside of beis din. Here, if the speakers are caught lying they would be called those who spread slander a serious matter, but not as serious as being labeled false witnesses by a Jewish court. Therefore, we are permitted to consider the possibility that their words are true and act accordingly to protect ourselves, but we are not permitted to believe their words as fact.
We are also not permitted to believe rumors or reports about Jews in the media, no matter how many news outlets report the information. However, we are permitted to inquire about the report and protect ourselves in case it might be true.
IN A NUTSHELL
Even when lashon hara is related by three or more people, we are not permitted to believe it as fact.
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