The Chofetz Chaim gives us many deep spiritual reasons which explain the destructiveness of loshon hora. But to study what loshon hora really does we must enter the mind of the mekabel, the listener of loshon hora. If the listener had a positive or neutral opinion of the subject before the fateful conversation, it is virtually certain that after hearing the derogatory statement (even without verifying its truth) he now has a lowered opinion of the person.
Simply stated, when one speaks loshon hora, one damages the reputation of a fellow Jew.
The Chofetz Chaim analyzes the ramifications of speaking loshon hora before a group. If a person speaks loshon hora before ten people, for example, he has done much more than harm his subject one time. He has damaged his reputation ten times!
The larger the audience, the more sins accrued. This is why loshon hora stands virtually alone in its potential for accumulating sins.
The Chofetz Chaim also cites the famous Talmudic case of “api tlasa,” in the presence of three, where derogatory information was spoken in the presence of three or more people. Because this halachah is widely misunderstood, the Chofetz Chaim deals with it early in this work.
The license of api tlasa exists only in very specific cases. A statement which would otherwise be forbidden because it might be loshon hora may be permitted if stated before three people. This is because a statement heard by three people will, in all likelihood, find its way to the ears of the subject. This factor allows us to assume that the statement, which has both a positive and a negative interpretation, was actually meant in a positive way, and therefore is not loshon hora.
Many people have fallen victim to loshon hora by erroneously thinking, “If I say something derogatory about someone in public it is not prohibited, due to the principle of api tlasa.” This could not be further from the truth. To the contrary, the larger the crowd when a statement is made, the more the subject’s reputation is damaged and the greater the transgression of speaking loshon hora.
Therefore, the Chofetz Chaim goes to great lengths to clarify this issue. He offers the following case:
A stranger arrives in town and asks a group of people where he can get food. Someone tells him, “Levi always has food cooking on his stove.” These words can be understood in opposite ways. Either the person is generous and always has guests, or he is always eating. Because this statement can be understood negatively, if it had not been spoken in front of three people, it would be classified as avak loshon hora (the dust of loshon hora) and would be forbidden. The law of api tlasa says that a person would not make a derogatory remark about someone if he knew that it would get back to the subject. When there are at least three people listening, we can assume that one of them will report the statement to its subject. Therefore, in the Chofetz Chaim’s example, we should assume that the speaker meant to say, “Levi is generous and always has guests.” However, in a case where the statement is definitely derogatory, the license of api tlasa does not apply.