This week’s parasha, Metzora, is primarily concerned with the laws of various skin diseases. Jewish tradition holds that the main reason for a person to contract these skin afflictions is for the sin of evil speech. The term metzora, loosely translated as “leper”, is said to be a contraction of motzi ra or motzi shem ra, “one who brings out evil” or gives someone a “bad name”. The Sages described lashon hara, a general category referring to all kinds of negative speech (even if true), as the gravest of sins.
The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments on the parasha (on Leviticus 13:59) that the word “Torah” is used in conjunction with words like tzaraat or metzora five times, alluding to the fact that one who speaks lashon hara is likened to one who has transgressed all five books of the Torah! The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) famously states that one who speaks lashon hara “kills” three people: the subject of the evil speech, the speaker, and the listener. The same page states that lashon hara is equal to the three cardinal sins: murder, idolatry, and adultery. Other opinions (all supported by Scriptural verses) include: one who speaks lashon hara is considered a heretic, deserves death by stoning, and God personally declares that He and the speaker of lashon hara cannot dwell in the same space.
Having said that, the Talmud’s definition of lashon hara is quite narrow. It doesn’t include general tale-bearing, but specifically refers to slandering another person. It also states that lashon hara is only applicable when two people are speaking in private, secretly. If one slanders before three or more people, then it is evident that he doesn’t care that the subject will know he said it. It is like saying it publicly, or to the person’s face directly, which does not constitute lashon hara. (It is still a horrible thing to do, of course.) This is why God says (Psalms 101:5) that “Whoever slanders his fellow in secret, him I will destroy.” It is specifically when done in secret that it is such a terrible, cowardly sin.
Since Talmudic times, the definition of lashon hara has broadened considerably. It has come to include rechilut, “gossiping”, saying negative things about another person that are true, saying them publicly, and even to suggest or imply something disparaging about another, without naming a person specifically. When it comes to gossiping, one can find an allusion to its severity from the Torah itself, which states “You shall not go as a talebearer among your people, neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16). In a single verse, the Torah juxtaposes gossiping with failing to prevent bloodshed. One can learn from this that one who listens to gossip (specifically where another person is spoken of unfavourably) without trying to stop it is like one standing idly while the “blood” of another is being shed.
One question frequently asked about this is whether lashon hara applies between a husband and wife. We saw that the Talmud states lashon hara is especially horrible when spoken in secret between two people. Does this include a married couple as well? On the one hand, we want to distance ourselves from negative speech as much as possible, at all times. On the other hand, we expect a married couple to be allowed to speak freely between one another as they wish. After all, they are two halves of one soul and considered a singular unit.
The Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1839-1933), generally considered the greatest authority on lashon hara, forbids such speech even between husband and wife. However, many other great authorities before and after him (including Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, 1910-1995, and the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Isaiah Karelitz, 1878-1953) ruled on the contrary, and permitted a husband and wife to speak about whatever is on their mind, particularly if something bothers them. Technically, even the Chafetz Chaim is lenient in a case where a spouse is in distress and needs to get something off their shoulders.
Still, all agree that we should limit negative words as much as possible, and certainly keep gossip to a minimum. Of course, when negative words have a constructive purpose, it is not considered lashon hara at all, whether between spouses or fellows. This is the case if a person undoubtedly knows, for example, that a particular contractor or salesman is dishonest, and tells a friend in order to protect them from harm.
Repairing Evil Speech, Repairing the World
In the days of the Temple, the kohanim would bring about atonement for the nation through sacrifices and various offerings and rituals. The most important time for atonement was Yom Kippur, and the greatest atonement ritual of the day was when the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, would enter the Holy of Holies (just once a year) and fill it with incense smoke. What was the ultimate purpose of this? The Talmud (Arakhin 16a) states that it served to atone for lashon hara! This was especially necessary because, elsewhere, the Talmud (Bava Batra 165a) states: “Many transgress the law of stealing, few transgress the prohibition of adultery, and all transgress lashon hara.” Everyone is guilty of negative speech, at least to some degree. How do we repair this sin, especially when we don’t have a Temple today?
The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) states that if one is a Torah scholar, they should learn more Torah, and if one is not a Torah scholar, they should strive to be more humble. Like all the other statements, support is brought from verses in Tanakh. King Solomon said “A healing tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4). The Sages see the use of the word tongue (lashon) as alluding to lashon hara, and therefore if one wants to heal their lashon hara, they should cleave to the Tree of Life. What is the Tree of Life? King Solomon himself said in another place (Proverbs 3:18) that the Torah is a Tree of Life! Therefore, to rectify the sin of lashon hara one should study Torah.
Upon closer examination, we see that Torah study is actually the perfect remedy for lashon hara. When a person speaks lashon hara they are using their tongue in a negative way and infusing bad energy into the world. When a person learns Torah (which is traditionally done vocally), they are using their tongue in a positive way and infusing good energy into the world. The balance is thereby restored, measure for measure. On top of this, the purpose of Torah study is ultimately to make a person better. The Torah is the best tool to counter the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, as God Himself declared: “I have created the evil inclination, and I have created the Torah as its remedy” (Sifre Devarim, 45). Thus, a person who learns Torah simultaneously neutralizes the evil speech they have spoken and refines their inner qualities so that they will not participate in evil speech in the future.
On that note, there are two kinds of people when it comes to lashon hara: those that like to speak it, and those that love listening to it. The latter often quell their conscience by telling themselves that they never speak lashon hara, God forbid, but only passively, faultlessly, hear it. As we’ve seen above, the listener is almost as culpable as the speaker. Thankfully, there is a remedy for this, too. While many don’t necessarily learn Torah directly from a sefer or on their own, today we have unlimited potential to learn Torah by listening to lectures. These are shared widely on social media, and through digital devices, on apps, and over the radio. Every person today is a click away from Torah learning.
This takes us back to the Talmud, which stated that a Torah scholar can repair lashon hara by learning, while one who is not a Torah scholar should become more humble. The big question here is how can a person just “become more humble”? Humility is one of the most difficult traits to attain! We might even say that the Talmud should have required the Torah scholar—who is constantly learning, growing, and working on themselves—to “become more humble”, not the other way around! How can we make sense of the Talmud?
To prove the point about the non-Torah scholar, the Talmud uses that same verse from Proverbs: “A healing tongue is a tree of life, while perverseness through it will break the spirit.” The plain reading of the verse is that a person who uses their tongue for positive, healing purposes is likened to a Tree of Life, while one who uses their tongue for perverseness is destroying their soul. The Sages take the latter half of the verse to mean, on a simple level, that one who uses their tongue for perverseness should “break their spirit”, ie. become more humble, in order to rectify the sin. There is also a deeper way to read that same verse.
To solve the puzzle, one needs to re-examine what “it” (bah, in Hebrew) refers to. The simple meaning is that “it” refers to the tongue, and one who speaks perverseness through it (the tongue) will break their spirit. However, the verse can just as easily be read so that “it” refers to the Tree of Life. If so, the verse is read this way: “A healing tongue is a tree of life while perverseness, through it [the Tree of Life] will break the spirit.” What is it that will “break” one’s spirit and cause them to become humble? The Tree of Life itself!
Therefore, it is specifically the learning of Torah, the Tree of Life, that brings one to more humility. With this in mind, if we go back to the Talmudic statement of our Sages, what they are saying is: The Torah scholar should rectify their sin by learning more Torah, as they have yet to attain the proper level of holiness, while a non-Torah scholar should learn by listening to more Torah, for this will have the same effect of bringing a person to humility, and rectifying lashon hara.
At the end, this rectification is what will bring Mashiach. In Kabbalistic texts, the generation before Mashiach is in the sefirah of Yesod, which is concerned primarily with sexuality. It is not a coincidence that this is one of the major global issues today. The time following Mashiach’s coming is that of the final sefirah, Malkhut, “Kingdom”. One of the most famous passages from the Tikkunei Zohar is “Patach Eliyahu”, customarily recited before the prayers. There we are told that “Malkhut is the mouth, the Oral Torah.” While Yesod is the sexual organ, Malkhut is the mouth; it is Torah sh’be’al Peh, the Oral Torah, literally “Torah on the mouth”. The key path to realizing Mashiach, Malkhut, is by rectifying the mouth, which is done through the study of Torah.*
As we prepare for Pesach, we should remember the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah, ch. 32) which states that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of four things: for not changing their names, not forgetting their language, not engaging in sexual sins, and not speaking lashon hara. The same is true if we wish to bring about the Final Redemption. Not engaging in sexual immorality is a direct reference to Yesod, while the other three all deal with the holy tongue, with proper speech and Malkut: using holy names, speaking the Holy Language, and making sure to speak only positive words.
*More specifically, the first rectification is that of the “lower mouth”, Yesod, a tikkun that will be fulfilled by Mashiach ben Yosef. This is followed by the tikkun of the upper mouth, Malkhut, fulfilled by Mashiach ben David (of whom the Prophet says he will slay evil with his mouth, Isaiah 11:4) bringing about God’s perfect Kingdom on Earth.