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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

If everyone knows, is it still lashon hara?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 45

In most modern countries, if you go around telling tales about another person, ruining their reputation, you can be sued for defamation.  In the US, there is one major exception to the law – if you defame a ‘public figure.’  Once people have subjected themselves to the public eye and they’re already being talked about, American law allows people a little more latitude concerning what is said about them.

Does Jewish law have exceptions for public figures?

Beraisa 1. If one declared his field hefker (ownerless), he may retract his declaration for up to three days.
Beraisa 2. If one declared his vineyard hefker, but then arose in the morning and picked the fruit, he is exempt from tithes, i.e. the declaration was considered binding such that he has now laid claim to a hefker field that is tithe-free.
The Gemara asks: Why is he exempt from tithes?  Why is the case of Beraisa 2 not considered a retraction like as in Beraisa 1?
The Gemara answers: In Beraisa 1, he disowned the field before two witnesses; in Beraisa 2, he disowned the vineyard in front of three.  And Rabbi Yochanan quoted the teaching of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak that any property disowned in front of three people is considered hefker, but in front of two is not considered hefker.
The Ran explains: When three people hear something it becomes public knowledge.  Therefore, the owner can no longer retract his declaration.

The law of public knowledge originally appears in tractate Arachin, where the Talmud teaches that if one repeats information that was already disclosed to three people, it is not considered lashon hara (gossip), because it is already public knowledge.   Nevertheless, Rambam codifies this law, as follows: If the matter was spoken before three people, it is already public knowledge, and it is no longer considered lashon hara unless you intentionally were seeking to further spread the rumours.

According to Jewish law, it doesn’t matter how many people know – you still have to abstain from spreading rumours.  Certainly, if something is public knowledge and you casually reference the matter, there’s room for leniency.  But if your intent is to cause damage to someone else’s reputation, it doesn’t matter how many people know, it’s prohibited! 

Even public figures have feelings.  Even public figures have reputations to maintain.  Just because everyone else is talking about somebody, it doesn’t make it okay.  Jewish values keep to a higher standard than secular values.  Any time you want to say something about someone else, ask yourself whether your comment will be positive or negative.  Ask yourself whether you would say it if they were standing right in front of you.  If it’s negative and you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it!  It’s lashon hara no matter how many people already know! 

Always speak positively.  Even public figures don’t deserve to be dinner-table talk.  May you merit being a constant fountain of positive energy and never feeling the need to be the National Enquirer!