If we were to search for the first spark of loshon hora as it begins to develop in a person’s mind, we would find it in the part of the brain that makes judgments. Every day, many times a day, each of us observes other people’s actions, and we can choose to judge those actions positively or negatively. For many people, the first response is to judge negatively. The Chofetz Chaim tells us that when loshon hora results from negative judgment, it is a violation of the commandment to judge people favorably (Vayikra 19:15). Even if the person is a beinoni (an average individual, someone who is neither righteous nor wicked) and certainly if he is known as a G-d-fearing individual, we are obligated by the Torah to judge his actions and words in a positive way.
The Chofetz Chaim explains that judging favorably does not mean being naive. In fact, it means thinking on a more sophisticated level. In most cases, when we gather the facts and look beneath the surface, many of our negative impressions of other people’s behavior stem from misunderstandings or misjudgments. If we do judge negatively, and this judgment emerges in the words we speak, we have transformed the negative judgment into loshon hora.
Sometimes loshon hora results in economic damage. It can cause employees not to be hired, loans not to be issued and stores not to be patronized. If someone tells me that a certain clothing store is overpriced, it is almost certain that I will not shop there. A seemingly harmless remark has caused real financial harm to that storekeeper.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. There are times when it is allowed, and even mandatory, to warn others about possible economic harm. These will be discussed in the section on toeles (negative statements that serve a constructive purpose) later in this volume.
When economic damage is the outcome of loshon hora, the commandment “and your brother shall live with you” (Vayikra 25:36) has also been violated. This commandment instructs us to help our fellow Jew by finding him employment, doing business with him or loaning him money. The Torah’s intent, the Chofetz Chaim tells us, is to strengthen our fellow Jew’s situation so that he does not fall into difficult economic straits. To hurt someone’s financial standing through loshon hora is to violate this mitzvah.