By Mordechai Lewis
Have you ever wondered why at the end of Shemonah Esrei we first ask Hashem, “Guard my tongue from evil… and then request from Him, ‘Open my heart to Your Torah…’”? Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohein Kagan says, “These two requests flow naturally from one another. One’s Torah maintains its value only when one guards his tongue; otherwise, the Torah is considered worthless. We therefore first pray that we may merit to speak properly and only then do we ask Hashem for the merit to study His holy Torah” (Shemiras HaLoshon volume 2, chapter 1, “כתיב במשלי – הגה”ה”).
Why is this so? Because someone who disparages someone else (i.e. loshon hora) or if he tells someone the bad things someone else said about him and bought strife between the listener and that other person (i.e. rechilus), he loses the little Torah he acquired (Shemiras HaLoshon volume 1, Sha’ar HaZechirah, chapter 7, ‘בוא וראה עוד כמה’). In addition, he writes that one’s prayers are not accepted above if he speaks lashon hara. As Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai says, “If one has transgressed lashon hora his prayer does not go up in front of G-d because there rests on it a spirit of defilement” (Zohar volume 3, Metzorah, page 53a, ‘רִבִּי יְהוּדָה אָמַר’).
- Doesn’t the Gemara (Sotah 21a) say that Torah study protects one from punishment and saves him from sinning?
Yes, however, there is one exception to this Gemara:
“… Someone whose mouth is always open (talking) and does not take care (to guard what comes out of his mouth) – even if he learns all six orders of Mishnah and all of Shas several times over, when he arrives On High he will not find even one single Gemara that will protect him because each one, each page of his Torah learning has dragging behind it a spirit a repulsive force of impurity and defilement that hangs over it…” (Shemiras HaLoshon volume 2, epilogue, chapter 1, ‘והנה אם האדם בזה’).
The Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohein Kagan (Ibid. chapter 9, ‘ובאמת לפלא’) continues: “It never ceases to amaze me how people are looking for mystical charms and blessings from our great sages for success and livelihood. But what possible value is there in these amulets and blessings if, G-d forbid, this person routinely violates the sin of loshon hora and the sin of rechilus? The Torah (Devarim 27:24) specifically promises this person that he will be cursed: ‘Cursed (‘arur’) is the person, who secretly hits his fellow Jew,’ where Rashi explains this as pertaining to loshon hora (see Shevuos 36a).
If people would listen to me, I would advise them even further: They should be especially careful to avoid this sin and not to in any way actively cause any ‘bad’ to their fellow Jew, especially in the realm of theft or violence or oppression and deception and other similarly ‘bad’ actions (most certainly these reasons are a major catalyst towards the loss of a person’s wealth, to the point where he is left with nothing… Nevertheless, if my advice is followed then obviously, this person’s assets will be blessed far more than using any mystical amulets. Everyone knows that the curses in the Torah are always preceded by Hashem’s blessings: ‘blessed is whoever does not hit his fellow Jew – and all of Israel answered Amen to this’ (Sotah 32a). Most assuredly this blessing will come true and will endure (Shemiras HaLoshon volume 2, chapter 10, “ואם היו שומעים”).
…There is yet another great and holy benefit that evolves from disciplining one’s language. That great benefit is peace! [Regarding peace, see Mishlei 17:1; Shoftim 6:24; Avos 1:18; Uktzin 3:12; Berachos 8a; Gittin 59b; Artscroll Bava Metzia 59a, note 30; Bamidbar Rabbah 11:7; Tanchuma, Tzav #7; Shoftim #18; Sifra, Bechukosai 1:8 “שמא תאמרו”; Zohar 3:10b; Avos D’Rebbi Nosson 28:3 and Rashi to Vayikra 26:6 “ונתתי שלום”]. If one is very careful about one’s speech he will remove from himself the jealousy of others. People will like him and will confide secrets to him. People will not gossip about this person because they hold this person in high esteem. It is said in the name of the Ari z”l that measure for measure, as you are discreet about other people, they will be discreet about you…” (Shemiras HaLoshon volume 1, Sha’ar HaZechirah, chapter 11 “עוד יש מעלה”)
- Why is Torah study equal to all the mitzvos and speaking loshon hora equal to all sins combined? (see Shabbos 127a; Yerushalmi, Pei’ah 4a “אפילו כל העולם כולו אינו …” and Iggeres HaGra, “ולכן אני מזהירך … ומה לי להאריך בזה העוון”)
The Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohein Kagan explains:
“Other commandments involve limbs such as the hands or feet. Deeds accomplished with the more physical parts of the body do not have the same spiritual impact as those executed with one’s thought and speech, which is more spiritual in nature. When G-d created Adam, the Torah says that ‘He blew into his nostrils a spirit of life and the man became a living soul’ (Bereishis 2:7). Onkelos translates the phrase ‘living soul’ as ‘speaking soul.’ Thus, speech represents the spiritual aspect of a human being (Shemiras HaLoshon volume 1, Sha’ar HaZechirah, chapter 7, “והוא כעין מה שאמרו חז”ל”). Since they both entail speech, Torah study is the ultimate mitzvah, while loshon hora is the ultimate sin” (ibid. chapter 1).
The Gemara states that a person is incidentally punished for loshon hora sin in this world, but the worst part of his punishment will be reserved for him in the World to Come [see Yerushalmi, Pei’ah 4a “נפרעין מן האדם בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא… ולשון הרע כנגד כולן” and Shemiras HaLoshon volume 1, Sha’ar HaZechirah, chapter 3 “עוד נוכל לומר”]. Our Creator gives us beneficial advice, “If it is your desire to be protected from purgatory then stay away from loshon hora and you will merit reward both in this world and in the World to Come” [see Shemiras HaLoshon volume 1, Sha’ar HaZechirah, chapter 11 “גם הוא נצול על ידי” and Zachor L’Miryam, chapter 14, “איתא באגדת חז”ל”. For “He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from trouble” (Mishlei 21:23)].
Picture the following scenario:
Reuven needs to buy something and he has no cash or credit card on him. Shimon, his friend, lends him his credit card. Reuven buys what he needs. Then he thinks to himself, “I’m sure he won’t mind if I buy a few more things.” Reuven then decides to fulfill what it dictum of “One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah” (Avos 4:2). Basically, he buys one thing after the other, until Shimon’s credit card is maxed out. Reuven comes to Shimon and says to him, “I’m now in debt. Can you pay it off?” …
When we speak loshon hora about someone else, we take his aveiros (transgressions) upon ourselves and he takes our mitzvos! [(Rabbeinu Bachayei, Chovos HaLevavos, Sha’ar HaKniah, chapter 7 “והשלישי כשיתפרסם ענינו”). See The Power of Speech by Yehuda Cahn, pages 31-38, for an explanation]
Bear in mind, one who speaks loshon hora alone transgresses 31 Torah prohibitions and gets 3 curses (see seifer Chofeitz Chayim, Pesicha L’Hilchos Loshon Hora U’Rechilus, Mekor Chayim, לאוין and עשיין). Now, he also acquires the other person’s sins. Any thinking and rational person should ask himself, “Is that really a good bargain?!”
- What is the global effect of one person speaking loshon hora?
The Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohein Kagan says, “When a Jew speaks loshon hora against his fellow Jew and brings up complaints against him, He thereby brings about accusations in Heaven against the Jewish people and he empowers the Accuser to indict the Jewish people. This sin brings plague, sword and murder to the world. Woe to those who awaken this evil force, who do not guard their tongues and pay no heed to this! They do not realize that the ways of Heaven reflect the ways of the world, both for good and bad. Through evil talk, the Great Serpent (Satan) is aroused to voice accusation against the world” (seifer Chofeitz Chayim, hakdamah “וְנִרְאֶה פָּשׁוּט” and in Shemiras HaLoshon volume 1, Sha’ar HaZechirah, chapter 2 “ואם מדבר לשון הרע” citing Zohar in Parshas Pekudei 264a).
We know that there nothing that stands in the way of teshuvah, returning to G-d [see Devarim 30:10, Mishnah Berurah 128:129 and Rambam, Mishnah Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 3:14] Yet, regarding other transgressions, Hashem can eventually forgive a person except for loshon hora [see Shemiras HaLoshon volume 1, Sha’ar HaZechirah, chapter 2 “והנה כאשר נתבון” quoting the Zohar in Shelach 160b “דְּלִישָׁנָא בִּישָׁא” (google “Feathers In The Wind by Rabbi Shafier”). For an explanation of this Zohar, see The Power of Speech by Yehudah Cahn, pages 34-35. Regarding doing teshuva for loshon hora, see Seifer Chofeitz Chayim, Hilchos Issurei Loshon Hara 4:12 and for rechilus, see Hilchos Issurei Rechilus 4:3].
For this reason, the Vilna Gaon comments as follows: Until the day he dies, each day man must impose restrictions, to discipline himself… through restraining his mouth and his desires; that is true teshuvah! All the benefits of the World to Come evolve from this (a lifetime of self-discipline). Shlomo HaMelech alluded to this in Mishlei (6:23), ‘A mitzvah is a candle (a weak candle) and Torah is illumination (a much brighter light) … but the pathway for life is (self) imposed discipline.’ This is greater than all of the fasting and lashes in the whole world (combined) [Shemiras HaLoshon volume 1, Sha’ar HaTevunah, chapter 2 “גם דקדקו חז”ל בלשון קדשם” quoting the Vilna Gaon].
However, the person who consciously closes his mouth, who refrains from loshon hora, will earn in the World to Come the radiance that is stored away for those people who are tzaddikim… For every moment man keeps his mouth closed, he earns the merit of receiving a holy radiance [whose benefit] is far beyond the comprehension of any angel or being (Sha’ar HaZechirah, chapter 11 “גם עבור כל עת ששומר”). Therefore, Dovid HaMelech warns us, that whoever wants an everlasting life in the World to Come and wants to see good in this world should guard his tongue from speaking evil (see Mishlei 6:23; Shemiras HaLoshon volume 1, Sha’ar HaZechirah, chapters 10 and 11).
Practically speaking, the prohibition of loshon hora applies whether one disparages the other person by speaking about him or by writing about him (google “Think Before You Click! by chofetz chaim”). Additionally, there is no difference whether one speaks the loshon hora explicitly or merely hints it (see Hilchos Loshon Hora 1:8). It is considered loshon hora regardless of how the information is conveyed (i.e. facial expressions, body language, or any other means of insulting or belittling someone).
The Torah prohibits loshon hora that is spoken even light-heartedly or as a joke. Since the speaker’s words are, in fact, derogatory, this type of speech is forbidden even though it does not stem from hatred and the speaker has no intention to disparage the other person (Hilchos Loshon Hora 3:3). Moreover, the prohibition of loshon hora can apply even if the speaker does not specify whom he is speaking about [ibid. 3:4. In addition, if one’s intention is merely to “make the truth known,” not to denigrate the subject, his words are still forbidden as loshon hora (ibid. 5:1)]. It is forbidden to speak loshon hora about any Jew to one’s parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, a spouse or in-laws” (see Hilchos Loshon Hora 8:1 – 4; see also 12 and 13).
An American self-help author once said, “Think twice before you speak because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another” [google “the power of words by torah live” and “40 Thousand Words by chofetz chaim”].
Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk identifies loshon hora as one of the mitzvos which people do not take seriously, causally trampling with their heels [(see Noam Elimelech Al HaTorah, Shelach 17:6 “שישגיח על עבירות שאדם דש בעקביו… לשון הרע”). Google “The Lost Light by torah live”]. Likewise, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohein Kagan says, “People have become used to saying whatever happens to come out of their mouth, without first considering that perhaps what they say is considered rechilus or loshon hora” [Sefer Chofetz Chaim – English Translation, page 18 (Israel Bookshop Publications)].
It’s important to note that every person is granted a certain amount of words to speak during his lifetime, except for that which pertains to Torah and mitzvos (see Derech Pekudechah, page 162, “שקבלנו מרבותינו בפסוק” and Sefer Darkei Tzedek, page 10, #54). Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai says, “Every word a man utters rises upward, splitting heavens to reach its destined place” [(Parshas Metzorah 55a “וְתָּא חֲזֵי, כְּתִיב”) see Yeshayahu 51:16]. Conversely, harmful talk creates a world of falsehood and brings about destruction in the high worlds. Woe to those who see but do not understand what they see (Zohar volume 3, Tzav, page 31b “דְּהָא לֵית לָךָ טַב וּבִישׁ”). As Amos says, “He [i.e. Hashem] recounts to a person the words he spoke” (4:13).
Nonetheless, we are all human and make mistakes. As Shlomo HaMelech states, “There is no man so completely righteous on earth that he (always) does good and never sins” (Koheles 7:20). Hence, “If your yeitzer hara vanquished you today and you used language that was forbidden. Tomorrow, stand up again, strengthen yourself and again do battle against the yeitzer hara and be triumphant over him. Even if G-d forbid, the yeitzer hara should again battle you and win, still, you must get back up and strengthen yourself to battle against him again and most certainly you will (eventually) be victorious. Anyone who seeks to sanctify himself will receive assistance from HaKadosh Baruch Hu to overcome his yeitzer hara and defeat him because Heaven will always help those who try to improve themselves [(Shemiras HaLoshon volume 1, Introduction, “כן דבר ממש”). See also see Sukkah 52a and Chovos HaLevavos, Sha’ar Cheshbon HaNefesh 8:3 “והאחד ועשרים”].
- What’s the solution? In the end of the preface (hakdamah “גם לבד זה”) to Seifer Chofeitz Chayim, he states:
“If you toil very much in the Torah’s words, HaKadosh Baruch Hu will remove the yeitzer hara from you. I thought to myself that perhaps if people study this seifer [google “The Laws of Lashon Hara and Rechilus”] and seriously consider its contents – which have been compiled from all of the works of the Rishonim that deal with this subject – then the yeitzer hara will not as much power with regard to this sin [Chidah says, ‘The only way a person will be saved from his yeitzer hara is through learning halacha’ (פתח עינים חלק ראשון, עירובין, פרק ו’, דף ס”ד עמוד א’ “ויבא” ובספר חובת השמירה, פרק ג’ “ודע עוד”)]. If one takes a small step toward refraining from this sin, then eventually he will able to refrain from it completely, for this sin is one that is governed to a large extent by habit. Indeed, Chazal say that one who seeks to improve himself is granted Heavenly assistance…” (Yuma 38b).
With Hashem’s help, by taking the Chofeitz Chayim’s advice to guard our tongue; may we merit soon that our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with glad song, upon Him bringing us back to Tzion! (see Tehillim 126:2).
This article is dedicated in memory of Dovid ben Uri, Kayla Rus bas Bunim Tuvia, Sarah bas Henoch Avraham, Shmuel Dovid HaLevi ben R’ Yosef Moshe HaLevi zt”l, Altah Soshah Devorah bas Aryeh Leibush, Mashah Tzivyah bas R’ Shlomo Zalman and as a merit for a complete recovery of Chayah Malka bas Bas-Sheva, Shmuel ben Channah Menuchah, Shlomo Avraham Moshe ben Rivkah Shaindel and Beilah Chayah Rechamah bas Eidel.