Gossip in Noahide Law
An anonymous Bnei Noach wrote on a maillist a while back: "lashon hara is the one thing that will also keep us from having any community among B'nei Noach. And we do need community. In my mind I will elevate lashon hara to a position of evil somewhere near murder and robbery, because G-d will not help us if we refuse to speak with love, encouragement and kindness towards one another, within hearing, and beyond hearing."
Speaking gossip, slander, etc. is obviously damaging to the Bnei Noach community. But is it prohibited? And if so exactly how and in what manner is prohibited? Below are a collection of thoughts on the subject. The list is ordered according to the seven laws.
Rabbi Yirmeyahu Bindman
Cursing the Name. The power of speech distinguishes humanity from all other species, and this distinction leads to the specific human prohibition not to use speech for cursing the Creator, because it shows ingratitude for his kindness. This commandment pairs with the previous one, showing that the Divine rulership and the Divine love go together at all times and places, no matter how great the difficulties may seem. Jews and non-Jews are commanded in the same verse in this respect, showing how in the Messianic times all of humankind will join together in voicing praise for the Creator. All other misuses of speech, such as gossip, obscenity and lies, are indicated in this commandment as something to avoid, just as prayer and words of Torah are desirable so that speech will become truly Divine.
Rabbi Michoel Drazin
Not to commit murder. This page may also seem to be a no-brainer. But wait! The prohibition against murder also covers Lashon Horah, Evil speech. Gossip remains a major form of evil speech, as eventually (remember the game Telephone? Someone whispers something in someone’s ear, and by the time it gets around the circle it’s all out of context and all out of proportion), it ruins lives. Should a person commit suicide because of rumors or gossip, their blood is on your hands. Talebearing is another thing. Sometimes the words of our mouths arouse jealousy, and this can cause anger, enough so that one can desire to kill. Again, this blood is on your hands. Hence the Sages said Silence is better for the wise, and how much more so for fools, as it is said, Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise. (Pesachim 99a). Mishnah 17. Simeon, his son, used to say: all my days I grew up among the Sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence. Study is not the most important thing, but deed; whoever indulges in too many words brings about sin.(Pirke Avos 1:17) Mishnah 13. R. Akiba said: Jesting and light-headedness lead a man on to lewdness; Tradition is a fence to the Torah; tithes [form] a fence to wealth, vows a fence to self-restraint; a fence to wisdom is silence. (Pirke Avos 3:13)
Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky
Murder. "One who sheds the blood of man in the man, his blood shall be shed." (Gen. 9:6)
QUESTION: "In the man" seems repetitious and unnecessary.
ANSWER: The Talmud (Bava Metziah 58b) states that if one publicly embarrasses another, it is as if he spills his blood, because the one who is embarrassed blushes, and blood rushes to his face (as if trying to leave his body). Then his face pales as the blood rushes to other parts of the body, and it takes on the ashen, pallid appearance of a corpse. The difference between actual murder and embarrassment is that in murder, blood actually leaves the body, whereas in embarrassment, the blood changes location within the body.
Rabbi Bernard Fox
Murder. Maimonides in his code of Halacha – the Mishne Torah – in Hilchot Dey’ot explains that lashon hara is one type of prohibited speech. It is not the only form or speech about others that is prohibited. There are three types of speech that are prohibited. The first is rechilut. This is gossip. It need not be negative. It is merely the act of discussing someone’s affairs with a third party. Lashon hara is a special case of rechilut. It is negative gossip – speaking in a disparaging manner about someone. However, there is one interesting qualification that must be met. Lashon hara involves imparting disparaging information that is true. Lashon hara does not include making up outright lies. Spreading disparaging, false rumors is motzi shem ra. In short, gossip is rechilut; lashon hara is speaking about someone in a disparaging manner – albeit that the statement is true. Spreading false, disparaging rumors is motzi shem ra. We can now identify the mitzvah violated by lashon hara. According to Maimonides no mitzvah specifically prohibits lashon hara. Instead, the Torah prohibits rechilut and this includes the special case of lashon hara.
Nachmanides disagrees with Maimonides. He insists that there is a specific mitzvah prohibiting lashon hara. It is derived from our parasha (Behalotecha) and the Torah’s latter admonition – in Sefer Devarim – to guard ourselves from tzara’at and to remember this experience of Miryam. Nachmanides argues that our Sages regarded lashon hara as a serious sin. They went so far as to compare lashon hara to the spilling of blood. It is incomprehensible that there is no specific command prohibiting the behavior! He adds that the Torah prescribes a very serious punishment to lashon hara – tzara’at. We would expect that this serious consequence would be in response to the violation of a specific commandment. Based on these considerations, Nachmanides argues that lashon hara is prohibited by a specific commandment. It is either a negative commandment communicated in the admonition to avoid tzara’at or a positive command contained in the admonition to remember the experience of Miryam.
In summary, Maimonides and Nachmanides agree that lashon hara is prohibited. However, according to Maimonides, it is included in the general mitzvah prohibiting gossip. Nachmanides insists that there is a separate mitzvah that specifically prohibits lashon hara. More...
Rabbi Nissan Dubov (Lubavitch South London)
Justice. Noachides must ensure that they protect the rights of others, be they Jew, Gentile or Noachide. This protection comes from their acceptance of the law to establish courts of justice. A Noahcide should avoide insulting or damaging a person's reputation in public. Care should be taken not to repeat gossip which could be damaging to another. Concerns should always be taken up with the person concerned and never spoken about behind their back.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen Hazon
Stealing. The Sefer Ha-Chinuch is a classical work on the Torah's 613 mitzvos (precepts), and regarding the Torah's prohibition, "You shall not covet" (Deuteronomy 5:18), the author writes:"It is in force everywhere, at every time, for both man and woman. All humankind too is duty-bound by it, since it is a branch of the precept about robbery, which is one of the seven mitzvos that all in the world were commanded to keep."The Sefer Ha-Chinuch goes on to explain that the "Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah" are actually seven "categories" of mitzvos, and they therefore contain many details. There are some forms of negative speech that can cause people a monetary loss. For example, a person may gossip about a co-worker at work, and when the gossip spreads, the co-worker is fired from his job or loses an opportunity to be promoted to a better-paying position. One can argue that the person who gossiped has committed an act which deprived a person of his income - a form of stealing. Just like coveting is prohibited because it can lead to theft, so too, negative speech that can lead to a loss of money for someone is also prohibited, as this too is a form of theft." One would therefore need to consult with a halachic scholar as to whether speech that could lead to monetary damage is actually prohibited to Noahides as a form of theft.
Voluntary. Noahides, however, can voluntarily take on most of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah! (Maimonides mentions this in "The Laws of Kings" 10:10.) One of the mitzvos which they can't take on is the prohibition against doing the 39 categories of creative work on the Sabbath. It is actually forbidden for Noahides to refrain from all forms of creative work on the Sabbath, as this particular, strict discipline is meant for the People of Israel, who have a special role to fulfill as "a kingdom of kohanim (ministers) and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). But Noahides can certainly choose to voluntarily take on all the mitzvos of the Torah which govern our relationships with other human beings, including the Torah's prohibition against "loshon hara" - derogatory and/or harmful speech. In fact, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the noted 19th sage and biblical commentator, indicates that it is the Divine desire that all human beings choose to take on these ethical mitzvos.
Rabbi Hirsch finds a source for this idea in the following messianic prophecy which describes how the peoples will walk in "His paths":"And many people shall go and say: Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the House of the God of Jacob, and He shall teach us of His ways, and we shall walk in His paths. For from Zion shall go forth Torah, and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem." (Isaiah 2:3)It is written, "of His ways," and it is also written, "in His paths." Rabbi Hirsch points out that the Hebrew phrase for "of His ways" implies "from some of His ways." (Those familiar with the grammar of Biblical Hebrew will understand this better.) The phrase "of His ways" is referring to special mitzvos that enhance human sanctity and moral behavior - those mitzvos which also enhance Israel's role as a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation. Of these special mitzvos, the peoples of the earth will choose to undertake to fulfill "some" of them, but not "all" of them. This is because a number of these special mitzvos were given in order to enhance the priestly role of the People of Israel. However, the people also say that "we will walk in His paths." According to the structure of Biblical Hebrew, explains Rabbi Hirsch, this means "all of His paths." The Hebrew word for "paths" in this verse is "or-chosov." Rabbi Hirsch cites other various sources which indicate that this Hebrew word usually refers to social behavior - the way a human being acts with his or her neighbor. With regard to those mitzvos of the Torah that govern our social behavior - mitzvos of love and justice - the peoples will choose to fulfill "all" of them, states Rabbi Hirsch. And he adds:"The teachings of right and social justice, of righteousness and love, shall one day become part of the life of all humankind, without exception. Therefore Isaiah states, 'We will walk in His paths.' " (This teaching can be found in Rabbi Hirsch's in " The Collected Writings ", Vol. IV, pages 63 and 228.)
The Seven Precepts of the Children of Noah can therefore be viewed as the "starting point" of a Noahide's spiritual life. And a Noahide can continue to grow by studying and fulfilling all those mitzvos of the Torah that make one a more ethical and loving person. There is another halachic opinion which is related to our discussion. Rabbi Nissim Gaon, a renowned 11th century sage, writes in his famous introduction to the Talmud that human beings in every generation have an obligation to perform any precept which is suggested by "reason" and "the understanding of the heart." If the prohibition against "loshon hara" can be understood by reason and/or the understanding of the heart, then it may be that Gentiles are already obligated in these laws, according to Rabbi Nissim Gaon. This is a matter that needs to be decided by authorities on Torah law.
To summarize: According to the above sources, it may be that Noahides are obligated in part or all of the Torah's laws of ethical speech, and one should consult a rabbi who is familiar with these laws for a decision. And it is highly commendable for Noahides to voluntarily fulfill all the mitzvos of the Torah regarding ethical and loving behavior, including the mitzvos of ethical speech. As Rabbi Hirsch teaches, they will certainly fulfill these mitzvos in the messianic age. For the Torah contains teachings and precepts which enable all the Children of Noah to become ethical, caring, and loving people and thereby fulfill their potential as human beings created in the Divine image. May we therefore merit to experience the age when, "Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.
Rabbi Yeshayahu HaKohen Hollander (Jerusalem Court for Bnei Noah)
Voluntary. In English there are so many terms for talking badly about another person (Gossip, slander, libel, defamation, vilification). Slander is writing or publishing Libel in print, but English does not differentiate between defamation by true statements and by false statements. In Jewish law we differentiate between: 1. gossip = telling people about what other people said about them [or theirs] and is called rechilus, 2. true tale-bearing [telling bad but true things about people] is called loshon hara, and 3. false tale-bearing: [telling untrue bad things about people] is called motzei shem ra.
For Jews this these offences are considered serious. In many circles there are public lessons given about these offences. In general rechilus, loshon hara, motzei shem ra, are absolutely forbidden, except in a few limited cases. Jewish law details the rules and circumstances in which one may tell about bad acts of someone, for instance: a witness must testify in court. Warning about suspicions is allowed in certain instances. The difference between telling and warning is simple: When you warn you say "Look out, on the basis of these facts, I warn you that this person may do harm! ". Telling is saying: "This person has done X". The statement "This person intends to do the bad X" is ascribing evil to someone, and is Halachically very risky. In most cases it is prohibited. The warning must be something like: "I have personal knowledge [or: see for yourself] that this person is saying [or doing] what people say [or do] when they have bad intentions, as so-and-so have said [or done] in previous situations and then followed the saying with bad actions."
The prohibition is based on Leviticus 19:16, in the context of regulations about relations between people [verses16-18]. In this chapter, the phrase "the congregation of the children of Israel" is used several times. In Exodus 16 and 17 this phrase is used when people were complaining. In Exodus 35 in connection with the bringing of contributions for the Tabernacle; in Leviticus 16 – with respect to atonement; in Numbers 1 with regard to the physical arrangement of the Israelite camp in the wilderness; in chapter 8 – the separation of the Levite tribe from the rest of the children of Israel; in chapters 13 and 14 in connection with the sin of the spies, and those who followed them; in chapter 15 with respect to atonement [according to halachic tradition – for Idolatry]. From the context: verse 3 "and keep my Sabbaths" it seems clear that this is not meant to apply to non-Jews. So it does not appear to be directed to non-Jews. This prohibiton is NOT in the list of sixty-six commandments of Bnei Noah compiled by the contemporary Rabbi A. Lichtenstein.
The fact that verses 16, 17 and 18 uses the words "among thy people", "thy neighbor", "thy brother", "children of thy people" it is clear that Noahides are not subject to these commandments.
However, we see that the Torah views the various types of ill-talk about members of one's community as having a bad result to the community. Thus it seems it would be wise that Noahide communities adapt them – for the benefit of the community.