By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The headlines on Jewish newspapers and websites are often filled with bad news and tidings. Person X passed away from COVID-19. Car runs over a border guard. Company X faces financial ruin.
And yet, we know from our recent daf yomi study (Pesachim 3b and 4a) that one should not be the bearer of bad news. Doing so invokes the pasuk of Shlomo HaMelech in Mishlei (10:18), “U’motzi dibah hu k’sil — one who voices bad news is a fool.” The Gemara relates three episodes where bad news is told over but only by manner of a hint. The Gemara applies the aforementioned verse.
Should websites, therefore, refrain from reporting such things? And if they do report them, should they do so indirectly, only alluding to them?
I recall my saintly father-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Hirsch, zt’l, and his illustrious chavrusa of over half a century, Rabbi Chaim Polskin, zt’l, telling each other that they had a levayah to attend that afternoon, but without telling the name of which of their friends had passed on. They only found out at the levayah itself. Such was their observance of this ideal.
Before we attempt to find the answer, it is important to identify the various reasons why we should not be the bearer of such news. The Chasam Sofer in his chiddushim on the page (“Rav”) asks the question, pointing out that, at the end of the day, the bad news ends up being conveyed anyway through the hint.
The Chasam Sofer explains that Hashem watches over the broken-hearted, to heal them and comfort them, as Dovid HaMelech explains in Tehillim (51:19), “Lev nishbar v’nidkeh Hashem lo sivzeh — Hashem will not deject a broken and crushed heart,” and (Tehillim 91:15), “Imo anochi b’tzarah — I am with him in despair.” However, the Chasam Sofer points out, every negative tiding has upon it a ruach of tumah, a spirit of impurity, and Hashem does not mention His Holy Name on evil (see Sifrei Ki Seitzei 254; “V’nishmarta mi’kol davar ra” also includes bad tidings, and v’shav mi’acharecha).
The withdrawal of Hashem’s Shechinah that is brought about by mentioning the evil tiding thus causes the removal of the healing and comfort that Hashem generally provides. Hinting to it, on the other hand, does not drive the Shechinah away.
Rashi, however, on Pesachim 3b “Ahadrei,” indicates that the reason for it is because if people were to find out immediately and directly, the information would unduly shock them.
The prohibition or, perhaps more accurately, custom, is discussed in Shulchan Aruch as well (Y.D. 402:2). His language is somewhat ambiguous; in the beginning he writes that one is not obligated in informing another of a death, but it would seem that it would be permitted. Yet, he concludes that one who does so is called a k’sil.
There are exceptions to the prohibition which would lead to differences in halachah. In many communities, a car drives slowly around the neighborhood announcing a levayah. This is done for kavod ha’meis, for the honor of the deceased, and most poskim permit it.
Another exception mentioned by the Rema is if there are sons who can say Kaddish for the deceased. The exception is not permitted, however, on a yom tov so as not to bring anguish on a holiday. The Maharam Schick in his responsa (O.C. #26) writes that this is an obligation based upon the verse “Do not stand idly by your brother’s blood.” If you are obligated to save another person during his lifetime, you are certainly obligated to save him after his demise, and Kaddish elevates the soul.
For Websites and Newspapers
Rabbi Dovid Tahari, a Sephardic posek from Beitar Illit, in his sefer titled Zichron Yitzchok (p. 327), suggests that the prohibition does exist in regard to writing. His proof is that in the illustrations in the Gemara, they could have just imparted the information through writing. The fact that they didn’t is indicative that there would have been a prohibition as well.
One can object that the import is that they had met up, and, generally speaking, writing then was only done with ink and quill, something that was not exactly common when one meets up with someone.
Rav Yitzchok Yosef (Yalkut Yosef Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Vol II Siman 338 Chapter 3) also rules that it is prohibited to inform in writing as well.
When one considers the reason of the Chasam Sofer, it would seem unlikely that the Shechinah would be driven away from a distance, and it would thus be unlikely that, according to him, it would be prohibited on that account.
On the other hand, according to Rashi, it is highly likely that it could shock the reader even at a distance. This is perhaps borne out by an incident that occurred on February 3, 1959. The famed American musician Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, and his wife, Maria Elena, who was pregnant at the time, suffered a miscarriage when she heard of his death on television. His mother collapsed when she heard the news.
The incident forever changed America because from that point on, authorities and media no longer report deaths until the family members of the deceased have been informed. (See Time magazine article by Claire Suddath, “The Day the Music Died,” February 3, 2009.) That was the turning point that changed the policy. The minhag in the world at large is like Rashi.
One could perhaps draw a distinction between that case and websites and newspapers in that the bad news in 1959 was heard on television, whereas the negative information in newspapers and on websites is read.
The fact that it may be a minhag rather than a halachah can also be grounds to be more lenient. It is this author’s view, however, that the websites should be more sensitive to this halachah and should only allude to the bad tidings, unless there is a clear-cut “kavod ha’meis” such as encouraging people to attend funerals.
It should be further noted that Rav Yisroel Salanter, zt’l, the founder of the Mussar movement, wrote that during an epidemic or pandemic, people have a tendency to get more depressed. Because of this, he advises that people not engage in overly depressive activities during such times.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.