The Jewish Laws Of Proper Speech

I’m listening to some classes on lashon hara (forbidden speech according to Torah) on and I am disappointed by how ignorant they are. presents Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman as an expert in this topic.

Fourteen minutes into one speech, he says: “The Chofetz Chaim is the classic authority on this topic.”

Anyone who tells you that the Chofetz Chaim is the classic authority on lashon hara is foolish and you should not listen to him on anything related to Torah.

No Orthodox rabbi I’ve consulted is aware of any Beit Din that has punished a journalist for publishing something true (or punishing anyone who has said something true privately or publicly).

The Chofetz Chaim is an 1873 book by Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan that assembles stories on proper speech throughout the Jewish tradition and turns them into laws. In other words, the rabbi takes homilies and turns them into laws. He takes aggadata (legends) and turns it into halacha (laws). This is not how Jewish law works. It’s how flowery sermons work because you’re seeking to manipulate the emotions of the masses.

When the Chofetz Chaim book came out, leading rabbis made fun of it, but today it is treated in Orthodox life by the ignorant as the classical Jewish guide to proper speech.

Here is how the Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan is described by his son: “Father had no personal friendships with anyone all the days of his life.”

Orthodox rabbi and historian Dr. Marc B. Shapiro said in a 2008 lecture for Torah in Motion on “The Lives of the Gedolim”:

“If you read my blogs, you’ll see that I am a relentless exposer of the fraudulence not just in the chareidi world but in the Modern Orthodox
world. It all needs to be exposed. But that doesn’t mean that every simple person needs to know… As Rav Kook says, if they come into our world and try to affect us with their fraudulent stories, it needs to be exposed. But if they want to live by these bubbemeisers (old wives tales), that’s a way of life. I’m like Rabbi Slifkin in this regard. Only if it threatens to interfere in the wider community.

“It’s hard to know what lashon hara
(gossip) is. You don’t really know what lashon hara is. I have read many letters of gedolim and they are full of negative comments about other rabbis, which you would say is lashon hara. As anyone knows, they badmouth them all the time. If you asked the rav, he would say it is notlashon hara. The Torah says you have to expose chanafim (hypocrites, flatterers).

(“The admonition to expose hypocrites is stated in Yoma 86b where it is derived from [the legal category of] Chillul HaShem,” emails Marc in reply to my question.)

“We are supposed to expose hypocrisy. I would say that if you asked all these rabbonim who say terrible things about other ones and were great talmidei chachamim, if you asked them, they would say it is not lashon hara, but he’s a fraud and I have to expose him. It could be that he’s not a fraud and that it’s just a personal dispute.

“I don’t think it’s lashon hara to talk about a dispute that the whole world knew about and it was in all the newspapers… If a certain rav did a bad thing. There’s a rav, not a gadol of the first calibre but of the second calibre, but he had a child out of wedlock when he was about 17 and in yeshiva. About 20 years ago, one of the Israeli newspapers exposed him and published the birth certificate. I think that’s a terrible breach of privacy. He made a mistake when he was young. I don’t think it’s anyone’s business. I would never expose something like that. If I knew about it, I would probably choose not to write about him because how could you write about him and not talk about it?

“If there was a case like this where he abandoned the girl and wanted nothing to do with them and then he became a big scholar, a Talmud Chacham, a posek, I don’t think that’s lashon hara. This would be an example of exposing the hypocrites.”

“I try to balance Jewish values with secular values. As a secular historian, you go into a grave and dig up the body if you need to. They dug up Zachary Taylor’s body to see if he was poisoned. I would have no problem as a secular historian if I was writing about a figure like Einstein, but among gedolim, I do not do that. I can honestly say that I’ve never had to make that choice with Rabbi Yaakov Jechiel Weinberg. I would rather not write about somebody than have to cover something like that up… Certain great rabbinic figures, I would treat differently than other figures. If that is not in correspondence with historical [analysis], what are they going to do? Take my tenure away? Life is not only about historical craft.”

According to Wikipedia: “Yisrael Meir (Kagan) Poupko (Dziatłava, 1838 – Radun’, 1933), known popularly as The Chofetz Chaim, was an influential Lithuanian Jewish rabbi of the Musar movement, a Halakhist, posek, and ethicist whose works continue to be widely influential in Jewish life. His surname, Poupko, is not widely known.”

The rabbi’s most famous book is known as the Chofetz Chaim (Desiring Life) and it is against gossip. Like many leading rabbis, Yisrael Meir became known by the name of his leading publication.

In his first lecture on R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk for Torah in Motion, history professor Marc B. Shapiro says: The Mishna Brura (the most influential commentary today on daily Jewish law for Ashkenazi Jews compiled by the Chofetz Chaim) only became canonical in the last 30 years.

R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk attacked the Chofetz Chaim at a rabbinic meeting in 1910. R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk said the meeting was only for congregational rabbis.

Various rabbis made fun of the book Chofetz Chaim. The Chazon Ish is said to have made fun of the Chofetz Chaim book on gossip. “Even if these stories are not accurate, that they are told in the yeshiva world shows that this is an ethos that great rabbis shared.”

Chazon Ish said the Chofetz Chaim did not know what he was talking about in this book.

According to his critics, the Chofetz Chaim created halacha (Jewish law) out of mussar (ethical exhortations, frequently extreme). That he took aggadic (stories) things and turned them into halacha. That he took ethical statements and turned them into Jewish law.

“I don’t know today if anyone would have the courage to say something like that [to make these criticisms of the Chofetz Chaim book].”

Marc Shapiro corrects my flawed early version of this blog post: “I was asked what the Chazon Ish thought of the book called Chofetz Chaim, which is a book about Lashon Hara. That is what the Chazon Ish is said not to have liked, not the person known as the Chofetz Chaim. The Chazon Ish thought the world of the person the Chofetz Chaim, and also his book Mishneh Berurah. But he wasn’t such a fan of the BOOK Chofetz Chaim.”

According to the Chofetz Chaim, no gossip is permitted, even between husband and wife. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach thought differently.

Today, the Chofetz Chaim is the last word in these matters and that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would have the temerity to tell yeshiva students that they don’t have to listen to the Chofetz Chaim, that’s a bit difficult in the yeshiva world today and so they removed it [from a haredi publication of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach].

According to Rabbi Jacob Emden, you could say Lashon Hara (gossip) about anyone who was your enemy. I guess this is a justification for all the Lashon Hara he tells in his own books.

There are all sorts of heterim (permissions) for Lashon Hara. The Meiri says that if you say it publicly, it is not Lashon Hara. There are all sorts of views out there by great rabbis. Then the Chofetz Chaim codified Judaism’s teachings on gossip and made it appear as though Judaism had a universal prohibition on speaking ill of others.

If you read the writings of the great rabbis, almost all of these gadolim violate the laws of the Chofetz Chaim (Desiring Life). Of course, these great rabbis do not think that they are saying Lashon Hara. They believe the target of their enmity deserves it.

* Related link.

* From Principles to Rules and from Musar to Halakhah: The Hafetz Hayim’s Rulings on Libel and Gossip by Benjamin Brown

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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