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The Hebrew term lashon hara (or loshon hora) (Hebrew לשון הרע; "evil tongue") is the halakhic term for derogatory speech about another person. Lashon hara differs from defamation in that its focus is on the use of true speech for a wrongful purpose, rather than falsehood and harm arising. Speech is considered to be lashon hara if it says something negative about a person or party, is not previously known to the public, is not seriously intended to correct or improve a negative situation, and is true. Statements that fit this description are considered to be lashon hara, regardless of the method of communication that is used, whether it is through face-to-face conversation, a letter, telephone, or email, or even body language.
Lashon hara (lit. "evil tongue") is considered to be a very serious sin in the Jewish tradition. The communicator of Lashon Hara (and rechilut) violates the prohibition of "Lo telech rachil b'ameicha (Leviticus 19:16)."
By contrast, hotzaat shem ra ("spreading a bad name"), also called hotzaat diba, or motzi shem ra (lit. "putting out a bad name") consists of untrue remarks, and is best translated as "slander" or "defamation". Hotzaat shem ra is worse, and consequentially an even graver sin, than lashon hara. And the act of gossiping is called rechilut, and is also forbidden by Jewish law.
The noun lashon, "tongue", followed by the definite article ha and the adjective ra, "evil". The Hebrew noun lashon means "tongue", and as in many languages, "speech" or "language". The phrase is generally translated as "evil speech". The term corresponds to the idea of an evil tongue in other cultures, such as the Latin mala lingua, the French mauvaise langue, and the Spanish mala lengua.
The term lashon hara does not explicitly occur in the Tanakh, but "keep thy tongue from evil" (נְצֹר לְשֹׁונְךָ מֵרָע) occurs in Psalm 34:14. The Torah contains a general injunction against rekhilut (gossip): "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD" (Leviticus 19:16). In addition, the words "ye shall not wrong one another" (Leviticus 25:17) according to tradition refer to wronging a person with one's speech.
The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) lists lashon hara as one of the causes of the Biblical malady of tzaraath. In Sotah 42a, the Talmud states that habitual speakers of lashon hara are not tolerated in God's presence. Similar strong denouncements can be found in various places in Jewish literature.
In Numbers chapter 12, Miriam gossips with her brother Aaron. She questions why Moses is so much more qualified to lead the Jewish people than anyone else. God hears and strikes her down with tzaraath. Miriam had to stay outside of the camp for a week due to the tzaraath. During this time, all of Israel waited for her.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan wrote two major halakhic works on the evil tongue: Chafetz Chaim ("Desirer of Life", Psalms 34:13-14) and Shmirat HaLashon ("Guarding the tongue"), both 1873. The Chafetz Chaim lists 31 speech-related commandments mentioned in the Torah. An English translation, Guard Your Tongue, (2002) anthologizes the teachings of these two books.
The expression Baalei Lashon Hara lit. meaning "masters of evil tongue", and refers to habitual speakers of Lashon Hara. The serious prohibition of communicating lashon ha-rah relates foremost to somebody who incidentally did so. Someone who makes it his habit to talk lashon ha-rah about others ("did you hear ...", "do you already know ...", etc.) is called a ba'al lashon hara. By repeatedly communicating so, lashon hara became an integral part of this person, and his/her sins are far more severe, because this person regularly creates a Chillul Hashem, meaning a "desecration of the name of HaShem" (Leviticus 22:32). Lashon Hara and also Rechilut and Motzi Shem Ra are not accepted social tools in (orthodox) Judaism, because such behavior cuts the person who does in this manner off from many good things in the world around them. It is often phrased, that one should stay away from people who communicate Lashon Hara because any other day onself will almost certainly become object of derogatory communication by the same people.
There are times when a person is supposed to speak out, even though the information may be disparaging. Specifically, if a person’s intent in sharing the negative information is for a to’elet, a positive, constructive, and beneficial purpose, the prohibition against lashon hara does not apply if the lashon hara serves as a warning to prevent the possibility of future physical harm or, if the truth, to exonerate the subject of any wrongdoing he or she may originally be accused of. Hotzaat shem ra, spouting lies and spreading disinformation, is always prohibited.