1. Speaking L"H to help others
If someone witnessed another person wronging his fellow, perhaps by theft or damage of property or injury - whether the wronged person is aware of the damage or theft or not - or by insulting or embarrassing him, and the witness knows that the offending party did not make amends (repaying the theft, repairing the damage, requesting forgiveness, etc.), even if he was the sole witness, he may discuss the incident with others in order to help the guilty party (i.e. to repent and correct his ways) and also to publicly disparage such evil behavior. However, the witness should take extreme care that the seven conditions that follow are met (to be enumerated in paragraph 2).
2. The 7 conditions to satisfy before speaking L"H
The speaker must have witnessed the incident himself, rather than knowing about it from rumor. (If he has only heard about the incident, then he must verify its authenticity firsthand.)
The speaker should reflect thoroughly, not hastily concluding something is theft or damage or any other offense, that the action in question is truly a violation according to halacha.
The speaker should first approach the transgressor privately, and rebuke him with gentle language (such that the transgressor would be inclined to listen), because perhaps this can have an impact and inspire the person to improve his ways. If the transgressor does not listen, then the speaker should alert the public of the individual's guilt.
The description of the sin should not be exaggerated [for "effect" or any other reason].
The speaker must have pure intentions ("to'elet," lit. "purpose"). As we will discuss later in paragraph 4, the speaker should not - Heaven forbid - enjoy his friend's (the transgressor's) disgrace, nor act out of a previous hatred he felt for the person.
If the purpose of speaking the Lashon Hara (e.g. causing the sinner to repent, warning the community to stay away from such activity) can be achieved in another way rather than speaking Lashon Hara, it is forbidden to speak Lashon Hara.
By speaking Lashon Hara, the transgressor should not be caused more damage than would be appropriate as determined by a court of Jewish law reviewing the case. This is discussed in detail in Hilchot Rechilut chapter nine. [An example would be if a thief would be obligated to repay the victim $100, but Lashon Hara caused him damages of $500.]
3. Speakers with the same sins cannot speak
All this applies if the witness is a better person than the transgressor. If, however, the witness is just as bad a sinner, sick with the same immoral behavior, it is forbidden to publicize the incident. A person with similar sins does not have the intention of revealing the unknown out of goodwill and fear of G-d, but rather to enjoy the disgrace of his fellow.
This is referred to in Hosea 1:4, "And I have accounted for the sins of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu." Jehu fulfilled a mitzvah (positive commandment) by cutting off the house of Ahab in Jezreel, for he was commanded by a prophet, and Jehu thereby was granted the kingship for four generations, as G-d told Jehu (Kings 2 10:30), "... as you have done to the house of Ahab according to what was in my heart, your fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel." However, G-d similarly meted punishment upon the house of Jehu because he committed transgressions as Ahab had done.
4. Constructive intentions
The fifth condition for speaking L"H, that one should have constructive intentions, is as follows.
Proper intentions include any of the following:
To help the wronged party. This is indicated by an audience which is capable of helping him.
Certainly if the people he tells can help the wronged party, it is proper to tell them, and
Even if that purpose won't be achieved, but he wantes others to avoid evil ways when they learn that people criticize those who commit such sins
and perhaps the sinner himself will repent from his evil ways and make up for his actions when he hears that people disparage him for such behavior.
Even in the third case the speech would not be considered Lashon Hara but rather constructive, so long as the speaker does not intend to enjoy the disgrace he puts upon his fellow. The speaker must speak out of a passion for the truth, and hope that through his words some constructive purpose will result.
If, however, the speaker realizes his words will not result in any constructive outcome, for example the group he would tell are "ba'alei Lashon Hara" (habitual speakers of L"H, such that they will indiscriminately repeat it), and that they have committed similar evils and thought nothing of it, one should be extremely careful not to speak to them. Not only will speaking to them provide no purpose, but it may also cause great damage. The listeners very likely will tell the guilty party what the speaker said, thus violating "Lo telech rachil b'ameicha" ("do not spread tales"). As a result of such talk, great disputes often ensue, and possibly even - G-d forbid - "malshinut" (a Jew reporting another Jew to non-Jewish authorities). Even if all other conditions are met, should there be the potential for Malshinut, Lashon Hara may not be spoken.
It makes no difference whether the victim (of the theft, embarrassment, etc.) requested the speaker's involvement or not. For if getting involved is permissible, that would be even if the victim didn't ask, and if it is forbidden - if not all conditions were met - it would not help had the victim asked.
Even if the victim is a relative [getting involved when not all conditions are met] would be forbidden. (Many falter in this area. When people hear that someone harmed their family member, even though they haven't verified the information or gotten the details, they immediately take action against the other person. They think they are fulfilling the commandment, "mi'bsarcha al titalem," do not neglect your brethren. Yet they are making a grave error, for there is no distinction between a relative and everyone else regarding the laws discussed above, for the commandment, "mi'bsarcha al titalem" was not meant to justify violating other commandments, Heaven forbid.)
5. Causing Rechilut is forbidden
Speaking Lashon Hara is included in the sins "bein adam l'chaveiro" (between people), and therefore if the seven conditions are met, it is permissible to publicize the lowliness of the gossiper. However, discussing the misdeed may only be done if the subject of the gossip is already aware of what was said about him. Otherwise, "everyone has a friend" (translation of Aramaic expression meaning "people talk"), and someone will tell the subject, which is Rechilut (actively spreading gossip), as we will discuss in Hilchot Rechilut.
It is certainly forbidden to inform the very person about whom Lashon Hara was spoken, even if one wants to do so out of a passion for the truth, for this is blatant Rechilut, and even if the disgraced is a respected Jewish leader who happens to be the witness' father or teacher.
6. When even Rechilut might be permitted
(This paragraph continues the idea from the one before, that a witness to L"H may not repeat the incident unless the victim (subject) knows about the talk.)
In certain cases, it is permissible to tell others about a sin bein adam l'chaveiro (i.e. one person wrongs another) even if the victim is unaware of the offense. This is when speaking about it will result in an actual positive outcome and also all the conditions above (in paragraph 2) are met.
"Actual positive outcome" requires definition so as not to cause misunderstanding.
One example would be if one recognizes the nature of someone as a gossip-monger, and he is embarrassing another person to his face and will similarly go to others and continue to denigrate him, and as we wrote above the bystander must first attempt to rebuke the gossiper, and he has rebuked him yet his words were not accepted. This situation is common among our many sins, for almost all of us falter with regard to Lashon Hara and particularly accepting Lashon Hara. It is likely that people will accept this person's Lashon Hara, and it will be difficult to later remove his words from their hearts, because the first to speak out in an argument is believed to be right. Therefore it is certainly proper that the bystander should go before those people first, and elaborate upon the severe dishonesty of the gossip-monger, and tell them how he is disparaging the subject without reason, about no wrongdoing whatsoever. Then, when the gossip-monger later approaches the group and tells his tale, they will not believe what he says, but rather they will chastise him. When he sees that the audience does not believe his words, and that his talk even brings embarrassment upon himself, he will be more careful in the future. For this purpose, it is certainly permissible because the soul of the subject will be saved from anguish and embarrassment, and also the souls of gossiper and listeners will be saved from the curse of Gehinom. Also, the mitzvah of "hocheich tochiah et amitecha" (rebuke your fellow) will be fulfilled.
7.Rebuke the transgressor first
Next we will clarify what we wrote under the third condition in paragraph 2, that the witness must first rebuke the transgressor before speaking L"H about the incident or situation.
This applies in general, but if the witness knows the individual will not listen to his words and will not accept his rebuke, he does not need to rebuke him.
However, the speaker must be careful to speak in front of at least three people. If he were to speak to only one or two people, it would appear as if he does not want what he says to get back to the subject, that he wants to flatter the subject and deceive him, and insult him in secret. It would also appear that the speaker was enjoying telling the Lashon Hara. In addition, the listeners would be suspicious of the speaker and say that the information is untrue and that the speaker is deceiving them, for otherwise he would first discuss the issue with the subject directly. If this would happen, his Lashon Hara would not achieve any constructive purpose as stipulated in paragraph 4.
Therefore, one must speak this L"H publicly - before three individuals - for this is considered equivalent to speaking in front of the subject, and the listeners will not suspect him, because an "adam kasher" (generally law-abiding individual) does not speak complete lies to a large group.
Nonetheless, the listeners are forbidden to accept the L"H and allow the subject to be disgraced in their eyes. As we explained in chapter 6, even if the information isn't absolutely false, there may be extenuating circumstances or an unknown detail which sheds an entirely different light on the matter. Therefore, it is forbidden for them to conclude that the information indicates something negative against the subject, yet they may listen to it so that they may investigate it further and if it is true then rebuke the subject and he might heed their words, as well as the other constructive purposes discussed above in paragraph 4.
8. When the speaker fears retalliation
All this applies if the witness is not afraid of retalliation by the subject, but if one does fear such consequences, it may be permissible to be lenient and speak to another about the incident, even in front of fewer than three people.
9. A speaker who is always righteous in his speech
(Note: the next paragraph almost never applies!)
If the speaker is publicly recognized as one who does not shame another, and anything he says about someone who is not present he would also say if that person is present, and he is also known as someone who only speaks the truth, it is permissible for him to relate an incident or transgression that someone has committed against his fellow, provided that the speaker knows that the subject will not accept his words of rebuke, even before fewer than three people, because the listeners will not suspect him of deception or disgracing others. Rather, they will recognize him as one pursuing the truth, helping the fallen, and publicly declaiming evil deeds. However, in this case, as well as in paragraph 8, all the conditions listed at the beginning of this chapter must be met, except for first rebuking the subject or relating the incident publicly.
10. An extra requirement for L"H regarding bein adam lamakom
Both speaking L"H about someone who commits a sin "bein adam l'chaveio" (between man and his fellow; e.g. helping the poor), or about one who commits a sin "bein adam lamakom" (between man and God; e.g. Sabbath observance) are treated equally, with one exception: for sins between man and God it is not permissible to talk about the person, even if all the conditions in paragraph 2 are met, unless the speaker sees that the individual has intentionally and eagerly committed this sin numerous times, and also that the action is commonly known to be prohibited.
11. The affected party should not speak
How much must one beware not to permit himself to speak L"H about a situation in which he was personally harmed, either monetarily or in terms of his honor. Even if he knows that what he says is true, and all the other conditions are in place, there is no way that his intentions will be completely constructive. While proper intentions would be to denounce evildoers and thereby encourage others to avoid such behavior, or perhaps that the sinner himself should see others disparaging him on account of his actions and he would therefore be inspired to repent from his evil ways, he would only want to disgrace the individual because of the wrong that was done to him, and the more that his audience would seem to believe his story, the happier he would be.
[Note: As we have discussed, the listeners in any conversation - even permissible - should NOT believe or accept the L"H, but only hear it for further investigation.]
12. L"H about things that weren't wrong
All the more improper is discussing an incident in which the subject didn't even wrong the speaker, but merely did not do the speaker an expected or appropriate good deed (e.g. lending him money, giving him charity, inviting him as a guest). If he were to tell others in order to disgrace the thoughtless individual, he would be in blatant violation of the laws against speaking L"H (see also 5:1 earlier in this section).
To our great disgrace, many err in this matter. If one is not received by someone according to his desires, when he gets to the next town he disparages the leaders of the previous town because they did not help him to the extent that he expected. It is even worse when he speaks badly about the entire town [that it is as inhospitable as Sodom, etc.], because L"H is forbidden even if it is true [and in this case it is an exaggeration!] and about one person; how much worse when the L"H is about an entire town of Israel, clinging to their belief in G-d: what a grievous sin.
13. When the affected party can achieve a constructive purpose
Even so, it appears to me [the Chafetz Chaim] that if one evaluates that if he tells others what a horrible injustice another has done to him they could then help him (to recover stolen money, for example), that he may speak to them and ask their assistance.
In some situations a constructive purpose may be achieved even if not in financial matters (but rather oppression or embarrassment and the like). For example, if he knows for certain the manner in which an individual plans to embarrass him regarding a certain subject or situation, and he tells some important people or relatives to the subject [i.e. the one plotting against him] and explains the truth of the situation, and they see for themselves that the speaker [i.e. the potential victim] is right, perhaps they will prevent the individual from causing trouble. Even if the incident already took place, and the speaker has already been shamed (oppressed, etc.), if he recognizes that by not telling an authoritative figure or relative of the individual, then the individual will harm him further, he may tell them to prevent it.
In all of these such cases, even if the subject will be embarrassed by the discussion, the speaker may tell selected individuals who may help the situation, provided that his own intentions are to protect himself from financial or other harm.
14. The 7 conditions: a detailed review
One must be very careful when using this permission [to speak Lashon Hara for a constructive purpose] that none of the seven conditions mentioned at the beginning of the chapter are lacking, because if one does not use great caution he can easily be caught in the snare of his evil inclination and because one of "Baalei Lashon Hara" (habitual speakers of Lashon Hara).
For this reason, this paragraph will elaborate on each of the conditions. Provided that the speaker knows that his friend has not yet repented from the transgression, and the speaker has a constructive intention, as we have discussed, he may speak about the person provided that all the consitions are met:
Condition 1: Firsthand knowledge of the incident. The speaker must have witnessed the incident himself, not repeating what he heard from others. For even if the speaker was truly harmed, he doesn't know that the person in question did the damage.
Condition 2: A violation according to Jewish Law. The speaker should not hastily conclude that the action is an actual case of theft, injury, emotional torment, defamation, etc. Rather he must first consider according the guidelines of the Torah whether a judgement would be with him and that the other person is a thief, injurer, defamer, etc. [according to Jewish Law]. This condition is generally more difficult than all the others, because there is no person who sees himself as at fault - everyone sees himself as righteous and just. If someone errs in this regard he is considered a Motzi Shem Ra (one who spreads false rumors about another) which is a more severe prohibition than speaking Lashon Hara.
Condition 3: Rebuke the subject first. If the speaker thinks that if he discusses the matter with the offending party directly, there will be a positive outcome, he must speak with him before publicizing the issue to others.
Condition 4: Entirely true information. The speaker should be most cautious that the story is true, without any introduction of falsehood, and no exaggeration beyond the facts. Also, he should not leave out any detail that could be interpreted as a defense for the other person. Even though it doesn't vindicate the subject, fi the listeners would know about this favorable piece of information the subject wouldn't be as disparaged before them, and when the speaker leaves the information out the subject is very disgraced before those hearing it, it would be a great violation to leave it out. The guideline is not to describe the offense as worse than it was for if one does he is speaking Lashon Hara and vilates several prohibitions discussed above in the introduction.
Condition 5: Constructive intentions. That he should have constructive intentions is the principal upon which the permissibility of his speech is based, as discussed in paragraph 13.
Condition 6: No other way to achieve the goal. If he can achieve the purpose through other means, such that he does not need to speak about the subject, it is forbidden for him to relate the information. Even if he must tell the information yet he can downplay the offense so the subject is not disgraced as much before the listeners, and the purpose that he hopes will come out of his informaing others will not be diminished, it is a mitzvah to downplay it and not expose the full extent of his crime to the listeners, since even in this manner the speaker will achieve his goal.
Condition 7: Not more than Halachic punishment. That the subject should not be damaged by the Lashon Hara to a greater extent than a judgement against him would extract, were witnesses to testify on the matter in a Jewish court.
15. Plan before speaking
Now see, dear reader, how carefully one must evaluate a situation before talking about it, for at the moment that he speaks he is in grave danger of transgressing the laws of Lashon Hara, if he does not guard himself with regard to all the conditions, and in particular the second [that the issue is truly objective wrong] and the fourth [that the information should be completely accurate].
In this regard we can say, "Life and death are in the power of the tongue." If one does not think before he starts speaking about an issue, and consider how to divulge the information, he will certainly falter, Heaven forbid, because when he does communicate the matter his anger will get the better of him and incite him to say more than he should.
Therefore one must firmly impress upon his soul instructions as to how to let the information out of his mouth before he begins to speak. This is in order that the speaker will not overstate the other person's transgression, and also so that the he will maintain constructive intentions, as we discussed above in paragraph 13.
16. L"H as revenge
From all we have written we can see the enormousness of error in which people fall into constantly, if someone thinks that another is speaking Lashon Hara against and disparaging his friend, when he confronts the person, "Why are you speaking Lashon Hara about him?" the person will immediately reply, "Because he spoke against me to ____ and ____!"
This is a big mistake for several reasons. (1) While someone told him [about the other's Lashon Hara against himself], it is forbidden to believe [the report] because of the prohibition against accepting Rechilut. And as we have written several places, how could it be permissible to go and speak against him because of this? (2) Even if it were true that the other person spoke against him, it is prohibited (because of the prohibition against taking revenge) to therefore go and speak Lashon Hara against him, and also as we have written in paragraph 14 above (regarding the requirement to speak with constructive intentions).
17. Identifying a culprit
If something improper occurs, and Reuven approaches Shimon and asks, "Who did this?" even if it is clear that Reuven suspects Shimon, Shimon may not say who is guilty, even if he witnessed it himself. Instead, he should reply, "I didn't" [unless this will definitely implicate someone else, in which case the Be'er Mayim Chaim questions the permissibility of such a statement].
Unless this is the kind of incident - even if he weren't asked and even if there was no suspicion against him at all - that he should tell Reuven in any case [i.e. for a constructive purpose], such as something "bein adam l'chaveiro" (between individuals) and all the conditions in this chapter are met, or something "bein adam l'makom" (between man and G-d) and all the conditions are met from chapter 4, paragraphs 5, 7 and 8, Shimon may tell Reuven about it.
Not implicating someone else is according to the minimum expectations of the law. It is appropriate for spiritually-minded individuals to go beyond this expectation and not exclude themselves from suspicion when that may result in the implication and subsequent embarrassment of someone else. Further we find in Sanhedrin 11 stories of several Sages who accepted blame upon themselves in order that the real sinner not be exposed, and also in Sefer Chasidim (chapter 22) - "If one is in a group of people, and something improper is done, and no one knows who did it, he should say, 'I am the one who sinned' even though he didn't...."