The 5 Towns Jewish Times

When Two Ideals Collide: Identifying Lashon Harah

Hands pulling on rope during game of tug-of-war

by Rabbi Yair Hoffman

One Torah ideal is the concept of Lo Saamod al dam rayacha – do not stand idly by your brother’s blood – a mitzvah in the Torah.  Another ideal is to avoid speaking negatively about another – Lashon Harah.

Tzom Gedaliah is a fast day that commemorates a tragic time in our people’s history, one that the Gemorah (Rosh HaShanah 18b) equates with the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash itself – a very jarring thought.

And yet perhaps even more jarring, are the words of the Panim Meiros on the Yerushalmi in Horios (3:5). The Panim Meiros states as follows: Gedaliah caused his own death.

He was himself to blame, not only for his death, but for the deaths of many others.

How so? When people erroneously forbid information from being disseminated on account of thinking that it is Lashon Horah, terrible tragedies result. When people think it is absolutely forbidden to pass on necessary information, others cannot take protective measures. At times this too can be devastating.

Gedaliah Ben Achikam was one of the Gedolei HaDor of his generation. It is a perhaps little known fact, but he was also a Navi. Indeed the Gemorah (Rosh HaShana 18b) explains that Hashem Himself (Zechariah 8:19) equates the death of this great Tzaddik with the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash! Rarely if ever do we find such testimony as to the stature of any individual.

The future of Klal Yisroel was in the hands of this great Tzaddik and Gadol. His decisions were of paramount importance. Notwithstanding his greatness and piety, and the fact that he was a prophet of Hashem, Chazal tell us that he made a crucial error in halacha and in its application.

Gedaliah refused to take protective measures against Yishmael, when he was warned by Yochanan Ben Korayach of Yishmael Ben Nesanya’s malevolent intent (Yirmiyahu 40:16).

The consequences were quite grave indeed. Gedaliah and all his men were brutally murdered (Yirmiyahu 41:2).

The Gemorah tells us (Niddah 61a) that Gedaliah Ben Achikam misused the halachic concept of Lashon HaRah and applied it erroneously. It was a tragic error that resulted not only in his death, but also in the loss of Klal Yisroel’s independence as a nation. Indeed, the repercussions of his error are still felt to this day.

The repercussions are felt in two ways. Firstly, they are felt in exact ramifications of his miscalculation – that the nation of Israel ceased to be an independent nation. But secondly, we still have not learned from his example. To this day, there are many well-meaning people who misapply the notion of Lashon HaRah in ways that can cause Klal Yisroel to err and err again. We thus violate the Torah Mitzvah of lo Saamod al dam rayacha.

This is not to say that we should ignore the halachos of Lashon HaRah. Heaven forbid. But we must realize that there are times when we should and must sound warning bells.  We may not exaggerate, but we must warn.

The results of Gedaliah’s inaction were so grave that the Mesilas Yesharim (chapter 20) notes that the Gemorah (Niddah 61a) considers it as if Gedaliah himself had killed all of his people! This is a remarkably thought-provoking notion.

At times, the sin of incorrectly “sounding the lashon horah warning” and ignoring  information so grave that one who does so is considered the actual perpetrator of the repercussions that have transpired on account of the silence, whether it be theft, molestation or even murder.

The conclusions from this are quite clear.

Firstly, the greatest of our leaders can and have erred in regard to this fine line between protecting Klal Yisroel and violating lashon Horah. There are times that it is crucial and imperative that information be given to ward off potential harm to others.

At the same time, there are situations where it is forbidden for people to believe the information, even though they may act upon it to protect themselves. There are also times when the information should not disseminated. No matter what, however, the decision should be made in consultation with Talmidei Chachomim who are attuned to the need to protect others.

Incorrectly sounding the “lashon horah bells and warnings” when disseminating the information is the right thing to do is a very serious offense. In Gedaliah ben Achikam’s case, it is akin to murder itself.

The unfortunate reality is that history repeats itself. In the past some media have responsibly reported information to warn others. The information ranged from warning about financial charlatans who prey on people in our community, about molesters who prey on children in our community, and about other dangers that can and have resulted in Chilul Hashem.

Today is a day instituted by Chazal to remind us about avoiding the tragic error of ignoring warnings and shooting the messenger. The errors of ignoring warnings were made by none other than the Gadol HaDor – a navi – Gedaliah Ben Achikam.  Certainly there is a profound lesson for all of us to be learned from here.

Chazal place the blame of the tragedy on Gedaliah himself. Yochanan Ben Karayach’s warning about Yishmael Ben Nesanyah should have been listened to. We should all take heed of this important lesson.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com