CHOFETZ CHAIM

Below is an abstract of a book by Rabbis Shimon Finkelman and Yitzhak Berkowitz about Rabbi Yisrael Kagan's (Chofetz Chaim's) laws of proper speech.  

 

Humanity is not in a good spot presently regarding language:  "Words have been devalued to the absurd...we have forgotten the capacity of language to become an echo chamber in which sacred reverberations linger." (Rabbi Ariel Evan Mayse)  Used properly, words are "hyphens between heaven and earth" (Rabbi Abraham Heschel). 

 

The Chofetz Chaim's laws are a tool for "polishing the mirror of the soul and raising up the holy sparks hidden in ordinary speech."  His mindset is expressed by Benjamin Zander, director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra:

 

 

 

 

 

 

_______________________________________________________

 

 

"The mouth expresses the content of the heart. Once articulated, a thought is no longer a private matter. Words give finality to the thoughts they are expressing. Speech reveals the hidden self: one's ideas and personality. Speech takes these hidden elements from within the person and, through words, brings them into the open.  If one removes negativity, gossip, slander, and divisiveness from one's vocabulary, one automatically improves one's own life and the lives of everyone in one's environment. When a person is careful about his speech, he becomes careful about his actions, too. His overall self-discipline increases in his treatment of other people.

 

Make speech your craft. Study, train, and be alert. Become an expert in not making statements that cause ill feelings (e.g., “I dislike…, I didn’t enjoy…, I didn’t appreciate…”) Reflect upon your speech regularly, become fluent in the fine details of proper speech, and sincerely strive to be righteous.

 

Shmiras Halashon ("guarding one's tongue" -- שְׁמִירַת הַלָּשׁוֹן) removes anger from our hearts and eliminates strife. Everyone seeks peace. Everyone wants pleasant relations with friends and a calm, peaceful heart. Peace is the ultimate goal. Shmiras halashon is a means of pursuing peace with others. Within the heart of one who guards his tongue, peace and contentment grow. Less negativity in his outlook and less strife with others automatically imbue his heart with tranquility. By refraining from speaking ill of others, one ensures he will not be the object of their enmity. To the contrary, others will like him and not speak ill of him. It is through one’s ways of peace and unity that others are inspired to act likewise.

When one follows kind, gentle words back to their source, one finds them embedded in the best aspects of human personality: humility, a willingness to avoid disputes, a focus on the good, and love. Shmiras halashon directs one to replace the dark with the light, the low with the lofty. Seeing the good in others and in life is the engine that drives shmiras halashon. When one observes shmiras halashon time after time, day after day, one inevitably evolves into a better person. That's because in every interaction one is focused on not causing others pain, instead becoming a lover of people, cultivating a sense of unity. It informs his decisions about what he says and what he thinks. Eventually, it becomes who he is. The mouth provides one with the capacity to activate the soul.

By focusing on the good in others, one illuminates it and highlights it for everyone to see. Moreover, the same wit and insight that can be used to critique another person and violate his sense of self can also serve the purpose of building it, reflecting back the best within him.

 

Shmiras halashon refines the speaker and brings into full bloom the traits of kindness, compassion, and mercy. It brings lasting happiness and a joyful, appreciative view of the world because one trains oneself to focus on the good. Grant people the benefit of the doubt. If there is any way to interpret actions as not involving transgression, do so. We all make mistakes. Overlook and forgive.

 

Without lashon hara, there is still much to be said. The words that remain are those that can be spoken gently, relating positivity and friendship. Each word you speak has the potential to become a vehicle of kindness. Words are conductors of tremendous positive power that can uplift and encourage. They can make a person feel sincerely acknowledged, needed, and appreciated. Words can convey understanding, support, and concern. Shmiras halashon can be performed in almost every conversation, every day of one's life. So shmiras halashon requires constant vigilance. Act compassionately by using words for good.

The longer one purses shmiras halashon the easier it becomes. Bad habits can be broken. Awareness coupled with a bit of zealousness goes a long way. A primary reason why people speak lashon hara is despair of being able to live by shmiras halahon. They are convinced it’s impossible to live by these laws. One should not grow frustrated if, after resolving to avoid forbidden speech, his evil inclination got the better of him. He should not despair. Rather he should persevere. Life is an oingong struggle with one’s evil inclination. Never be discouraged by failure. Don’t dwell on past sins. If you fail in the afternoon, strengthen yourself to do battle once more tomorrow. Have resolve. Toil and be on guard. Be careful. Shmiras halashon requires effort. However, you have free choice to decide the what the nature of your speech will be. Strive to fulfill shmiras halashon to the best of your ability. Accomplish whatever is in your power to accomplish. Do not cease from pondering ways by which to improve your spiritual pursuits. Don’t be content with mediocrity. Improve.

Lashon hara (לָשׁוֹן הָרָע) refers to four destructive forms of communication:

  • causing pain directly to someone ("onaas devarim" -- אוֹנָאַת דְּבָרִים)

  • informing someone of a negative statement made about them by another person ("rechilus" -- רְכִילוּת)

  • conveying derogatory things about a third person

  • conveying false derogatory things about a third person ("motzi shem ra" -- מוציא שם רע)

 

Lashon hara is not just speech, but also writing, body language, and photography. There is no distinction between lashon hara that is explicitly stated or merely inferred.

 

The toxicity of lashon hara is easy to grasp. One need only examine the aspects of human nature that fuel it: arrogance, anger, jealousy, a critical attitude, and a negative outlook. The potential is there for anyone who lacks basic sensitivity to cause pain and animosity in many everyday interactions. One who speaks lashon hara destroys three: the subject of his words, his listener, and himself. The sword can kill only through direct contact with its victim, while the tongue can bring about the ruination of someone who is miles away.

 

The root causes of lashon hara are anger, negativity, arrogance, despair, scoffing, and simply thinking there are no speech rules. Search within yourself to discover which of these traits are at the root of your lashon hara. Rid yourself of these deficiencies. Anger and negativity are the most fertile soil in which lashon hara grows. Without anger and negativity, there are no negative thoughts to articulate. Flee anger like one would flee a fire. In the heat of rage one has total disregard for speech. Judge others favorably, view others with compassion, love and, understanding. Lashon hara causes division, while shmiras halashon's goal is to see the good in others by seeing their common bond. Negative people complain and find fault at every opportunity. They assume every wrong to be deliberate and are certain it was done with malice. Whoever is afflicted with negativity will speak lashon hara regularly, for he will view whatever others say or do as intended against himself. He will forever feel the need to relate the wrongs which others have done against him.

Lashon hara requires a discontented, critical, and cynical attitude toward life. It coarsens the character and breeds unhappiness in the speaker, damaging one's perception of the world.  A speaker of lashon hara trains himself in bitterness and complaining. In his eyes, he is surrounded by irritating, flawed people who make his world a disappointing, uncomfortable place. He makes it a habit to gaze at every flaw. His perceptions fill his heart with anger and disdain, and his mouth gives form and life to those feelings.

Lashon hara diminishes its victim in the eyes of others. People pick up cues as to their own worth through the way others treat them. That is why, when lashon hara reaches back to its victim, the harm it does is so severe. For the disparaging words to reach back to the victim, it isn't necessary that there be a direct report of what was said and who said it. It can become obvious in an indirect way, by the changed manner in which others treat him. The vision of himself is altered. Another person has reached inside and robbed him of some aspect of his self-image.

When one person hears lashon hara about another, his vision of that person is instantly altered. He now knows something about that person that reduces his estimation of him. The listener's capacity to see the good has been damaged. Whatever one says about another person may very well be repeated in the presence of that person, cuasing pain and embarrassment.

Lashon hara reflects the belief that everyone and everything should conform to one's own standard. It is driven by the egocentric need to assert the superiority of one's own way of doing things. But one should expect differences in thought as readily as differences in appearance.

 

RULES

Don’t relate derogatory information focusing on a person’s current or past shortcomings.

  • This rule applies even when the subject says he doesn’t mind. Lashon hara is shameful in itself. Being given permission to speak lashon hara is irrelevant.

  • Humor is no excuse. Many a humorous situation is actually quite painful and embarrassing to the person invovled. Much humor is just arrogant scoffing and speaking degradingly of others. A scoffer is guilty of causing others to join him in his ridicule, scorn, and mocking.

  • A derogatory statement is lashon hara even when the information is common knowledge. It may not be repeated.

  • Subjective questions about people warrant no response.

  • Be clear in your verbiage, since ambiguous statements can be misinterpreted as being derogatory (e.g., “he's a well-meaning fellow”)

  • Derogatory information about a group is a more serious form of lashon hara for it reflects on multiple people.

  • If you’ve spoken lashon hara and it’s caused damage, then confess to the subject, ask for forgiveness, feel regret, and resolve not to do it again.

 

It is ok to speak lashon hara for a constructive purpose.

  • Destructive speech is lashon hara; constructive speech is not.

  • It is ok to speak lashon hara when suffering emotionally, in order to unburden oneself and relieve stress. But this applies only to especially difficult situations and not to the daily circumstances of life.

    • It is likewise permissible to speak—and listen to—lashon hara when helping someone else who is suffering emotionally and needs relief. When an individual is experiencing extreme sadness or anxiety and is need of someone with whom to share frustration, it is an act of kindness to lend a sympathetic ear and listen to his troubles.

  • One may speak lashon hara when attempting to assist a person (e.g., discussing a person’s faults with him in order to help him improve.) Remaining silent when disapproval is called for deprives the other person of opportunity for self-improvement. Get involved and educate him with love, care, and sensitivity.

    • Don’t rebuke someone if it will only serve to anger him. That will not change his ways and, instead, only cause more lashon hara to occur.

    • If you must speak lashon hara about someone, don’t exaggerate. Relate only as much information as necessary.

  • One may focus on the shortcomings of a person who causes strife. The purpose is to encourage others to dissociate from the person.

    • Protect people from falling victim to the person’s behavior: physical, psychological, or financial harm. Forewarn a person of someone else’s intent to harm.

    • Help others learn from the person’s mistakes. When teaching or offering guidance, one may use real-life illustrations of improper behavior in other people. Emphasize consequences. Teach others not to learn from his ways.

    • Isolating wicked people can help restore tranquility by not giving them opportunities to cause strife.

  • Even if you must speak lashon hara, choose the least blatant means by which to communicate it. The least negative course is the one to follow.

 

Don’t be careless when praising.

  • A common form of lashon hara is where one sincerely praises another person but, in doing so, alludes to a shortcoming (e.g., “who would've believed that he would reach that level?” clearly suggests something negative)

  • Be careful in praising a person in a situation where someone (e.g., a competitor) is likely to temper such praise with criticism. It is common for the latter to respond by mentioning the person’s shortcomings.

 

One may alter the facts (white lies) for the sake of peace.

  • Do not lend support to either party in a feud. Do not maintain a dispute, foster animosity, or cause added hatred. Make peace and soothe anger. Where ill feelings exist, it is forbidden to strengthen existing animosity or remind someone of his negative feelings toward another.

  • Don’t mention an incident or other piece of information that might remind the listener of a situation where he was wronged. It might reawaken ill feelings.

  • If one is embroiled is a feud, extricate yourself from it. Remove yourself from strife. Resolve the matter, no matter how many attempts it takes.

 

Don’t succumb to social pressure and associate with speakers of lashon hara.

  • Avoid idle conversation, especially in large groups, which often are filled from beginning to end with lashon hara. Accustom oneself not to sit among groups who engage in idle discussion. Leave their company and do not desire to be with them.

    • Withdraw from people who anger easily, who scoff, or who are arrogant. Your sensitivity to shmiras halashon is weakened through association with such people.

  • Merely paying attention to lashon hara being spoken gives it some degree of credence and is a violation. Don’t listen to negativity being expressed by others. It is wrong to serve as a listener. End the conversation, change the subject, or use facial expression to show disapproval. If need be, ignore the person or just walk away.

 

Do not believe, on the basis of hearsay, lashon hara about others.

  • Circumstances must be carefully investigated. Perhaps the information is entirely false or a key detail has been omitted. Verification of facts is crucial. Don’t rely on the objectivity of an observer. Talk to the subject. It could dispel suspicion.

___________________________________________

 

Rabbi David Wolpe offers advice about how to respond when one hears inappropriate speech: