SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Hilchos Lashon Hara 3:1-2
Chutzpah. This Yiddish word has found a place in virtually every standard English dictionary. It is usually translated as “brazenness,” but truthfully, the word loses something in the translation.
The Torah recognizes chutzpah for what it truly is — a terrible midah (character trait) that destroys the personality of the person afflicted with it, and causes great emotional pain to its victims.
You are probably wondering: what does all this have to do with lashon hara?
The answer is simple. Sometimes, chutzpah is what drives a person to ridicule others.
In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim does away with another misconception. Sometimes, when a person is told, “Don’t say that — it’s lashon hara,” he responds, “Why is it lashon hara? If he was standing right here, I’d say the same thing!”
The person’s reasoning is: “Whatever I would not hesitate to say about Reuven in front of Reuven is not lashon hara.”
The Chofetz Chaim explains that this is false:
In one sense, speaking about someone in his presence is worse than speaking about him when he is not present, for aside from the sin of lashon hara, [when he speaks in his presence] he clothes himself in the [ugly] midos of azus and chutzpah (shamelessness and brazenness) and is more likely to cause quarreling through this. Also, this often results in the person becoming embarrassed.
The Chofetz Chaim then cites a teaching of our Sages which, on the surface, seems to say that one is permitted to say something negative about someone if he would not hesitate to utter this statement in the person’s presence. The Chofetz Chaim explains that this teaching is referring to a specific case of avak lashon hara, a statement which is not actual lashon hara, but might be forbidden nonetheless because it smacks of lashon hara.
An illustration (cited above in Day 30) is where someone comes to town seeking a place to eat. A passerby tells him, “Go to the Starmans down the street — they’ve always got a fire burning on their stove.”
As we have already explained, the passerby may have been disparaging the Starmans, saying that they are always cooking because they are always eating. Or, he may have meant that the Starmans excel in the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, hospitality, and are always cooking for the many guests whom they host.
It all depends on the passerby’s tone of voice and facial expression.
If the passerby were speaking in the Starmans’ presence, he undoubtedly would have said his remark in a way that clearly was complimentary. Therefore, if he chooses this manner, it is permissible even not in their presence. However, if he chooses the second manner, his words are labeled as avak lashon hara.
IN A NUTSHELL
Negative statements are lashon hara even though one would not hesitate to say them in the subject’s presence. When he is not present it is worse, for it causes the speaker to be liable for the verse “Cursed is one who attacks his neighbor in secret” (Devarim 27:24).
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