There is a time when you are allowed to believe lashon hara as truth in a situation where rumors spread by numerous people which don’t stop for at least a day and half across the city that someone who is known to be bad because he does a sin out of spite of Hashem that every Jew knows is a sin, like adultery, murder, robbery and the like and now there’s rumors he did it again or did something else wrong. For example, if a person is known to be an robner and rumors go around the city that he did it again or that this time he killed someone, then people are allowed to believe and even take action against him like insulting him and speaking bad about him and his family like if a child was born out of wedlock with a married woman. These rumors can only be believed if they were started by multiple people and they were not people who are known to hate him. Because if they are his enemy then we don’t believe rumors that they start even the rumors don’t stop, like it goes viral over the internet, still they are not believed if started by known enemies, those that dislike him because it just might not be true. However, if random people or those who know him respectfully start talking about crimes he has done and the rumors continue then it’s permissible to believe them, repeat them and act upon them. The reason for this is because the Torah says you can’t speak lashon hara which would include accepting it only upon those Jews who are considered part of “your nation” but if they decided to remove the Yoke of Heaven and do these outlandish crimes then they aren’t part of “your nation” anymore. They are still Jews but halachas don’t apply to them like not speaking lashon hara and you don’t have to rebuke them because there is only a mitzvah to rebuke those part of “your nation” but if they decided to rebel then you shouldn’t rebuke them because they won’t listen at the verse in Proverbs says: “Don’t rebuke a scoffer.”
There are two reasons why you can’t believe slander/lashon hara even if you hear two or more people saying the same thing.
1. Is that if it is said for no good reason then the speakers are bad people and how can you believe what a bad person said verses the person being spoken about who is assumed to be a kosher person.
2. Is that even if what they are saying is to warn others of impending danger that doesn’t give anyone the right to believe what they are saying as truth, only two witnesses in court who are official witnesses are believed unequivocally.
Any other time one can and should only be cautious take the proper precautions to protect yourself and research and investigate the matter to see if it is really true or not.
The Gemara in Pesachim 113b says that a rebbe if he feels he could trust his student as if he is two in order to stay away from someone who is doing inappropriate things according to the student. The Chofetz Chaim explains that this is a special circumstance where the relationship between rabbi and student is so close and trustworthy that this student is like two witnesses testifying in court and is therefore unequivocally believed but in general two people or more are not believed for what they say if it is lashon hara since slander usually leads to, comes with lies or at least leaving out information or exaggerating so in normal circumstances it cannot be believed no matter how many people say it it can only be taken into consideration as a concern, investigated and take proper precautions.
Even though there is compelling evidence that the lashon hara heard is definitely true you still can’t decide that it is for sure true without doing you own investigation even if the person being spoken about is right there in the room and stayed quiet. That is no indication whether what is said is true or not. Maybe the person decided it’s better to stay silent then to exacerbate a fight or he thought there is no point speaking up because no one will believe him anyway.
A proof to the ffact that silence is not an admission when it comes to lashon hara is from a halacha in Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 178:9) that if one witness testifies in court that a woman was adulterous and the husband believes him as two witnesses then he should be concerned and divorce because he has a right to make himself forbidden to her. But we don’t absolutely believe this one witness to cause her to lose her kesuba even though a woman proven to be adulterous does lose her kesuba. Also, if he doesn’t trust what the one witness said he doesn’t have to divorce his wife, even if his wife was silent when the claims were laid out against her. Even according to the Maharshal brought down in the Beis Shmuel there who says her silence is an admission that’s only in this case where such a claim deserves an answer if not true since it has such severe repercussions but in general an insult or claim does not have to be answered, in fact the gemara in Chullin 89a says that the world is worth being in existence because of those who are quiet when an argument ensues.
So if a single person who testifies in court of such a serious matter as adultery, which if he is lying he is putting his whole integrity on the line, destroying the life of this woman, and having her husband divorce, and she was quiet but still the Shulchan Aruch says we can’t decisively believe what he said, all the more so anyone else who speaks lashon hara even if he has the Chutzpah to say it in front of the victim that still does not give the listeners a right to believe it. Why should you believe a bad person who does the sin if lashon hara over the assumed kosher status of the one spoken about?! Even if he had a right to speak to warn others of a possible threat still those listening must only be concerned and investigate.
Furthermore, even if the victim being spoken about is a person who always speaks up and defends himself against any attack, like for example someone like President Trump, but this time he is quiet still that is not an indication that what was said was true because there can be any number of reasons of why he was quiet as stated earlier. The Rema (Even HaEzer 2:4) says that if A person was called a mamzer/bastard to his face and was quiet that is not an admission and even if he was called a mamzer/bastard and he defended himself then right afterwards was called a challal/illegitimate kohen and was silent that still isn’t an admission. It makes no difference whether it was claimed in a heated argument or not, and if it wasn’t during an argument then the best people can do is just be suspicious and do research if need like for shidduch purposes, etc.
The Chofetz Chaim concludes in his footnote that all this is obvious but he feels he spell it out so that people won’t people tricked by their yetzer hara/evil inclination to believe any slander no matter how compelling the initial evidence is, without an investigation.
We can’t be duped into believing that lashon hara is believable just because it was said in a group or in front of the victim’s face, or if a person claims he would say it in the victim’s face. This gain of trust is the trick of trust is the trick of the yetzer hara, evil inclination because why should the speaker of lashon hara be more trusted and believed just because it seems like it makes sense since why would he stick out his neck and claim something in a group or in the guy’s face if it is not true, but on the other hand this guy being talked about was assumed to be a good upstanding, trusted character until now so how can we decide he isn’t just based on word of mouth of someone else. Even testimony of one witness in court, which is a stronger reason to trust his word is only believable to cause the litigant to swear for some monetary matters, nothing more than that. You are only allowed to be concerned and investigate the matter there is no reason to believe what is heard no matter how believable it sounds and seems to be until you investigate and know for sure it is true. Even if the person who says it can make an excuse that of course what I am saying must be true because why would I say it to his face or in a crowd, even though that isn’t a good excuse to speak lashon hara but it is certainly not a good excuse to accept lashon hara because the people listening still don’t really know if it is true or not.
The Chofetz Chaim says in halacha 11 that the extent of not accepting lashon hara is that you can’t hate them in your heart even if you hear one witness testify in court. That can only enforce a vow in court but no one can believe the claim against someone even in court. Certainly, to no pay up any obligation because of the rumors you heard is absolutely forbidden, for example if there are rumors that a bodyguard for an important person stole thousands of dollars that does not mean he should stop getting a salary. He must be paid until an investigation proves he’s guilty. It doesn’t make a difference how small or big of a sin the rumors speak about whether it’s incest, murder or anything else, you can only be concerned and investigate to seek out the truth while taking proper defensive action but you can’t hold anything in your heart against the person. The Chofetz Chaim in a footnote point out a prevalent problem that occurred in his day and might even continue even today where there are people in the community who are known to be poor and are supported by tzedaka. If someone spreads rumors that they are really doing this as an act just to shnoor from others but they don’t really need the money that does not mean anyone can just give less them what they normally give until it’s proven that the allegations are correct. Until then he has an assumption of being poor and just as we don’t require any stranger who asks for money to prove he needs it so to this person who we assumed until now need financial help should not be denied just based on rumors.
The Chofetz Chaim concludes the 6th chapter in halacha 12 by saying that if anyone did accept lashon hara as truth then he must put in all his effort to change his mind and once he does that then it’s as if he never sinned, just as when a thief returns what he stole it’s as if he didn’t steal. Of course he must admit his wrong doing, video, and accept upon himself to never do it again like any other sin that require the proper repentance process. This is all that has to be done if he just accepted what he hears and didn’t tell anyone but if he told others then he must either ask forgiveness from whom he spoke about or (which might be a better choice, according to Rav Yisrael Salanter in order to not make the person feel bad when he finds out lashon hara was spoken about him) he should convince those he spoke to that what he said was false.
The Chofetz Chaim says there are many details defining what being concerned over lashon hara might mean which will be discussed in more detail in the last chapter, but the general rule is that you can take proper precautions to defend yourself or others but under no means are you allowed to take any actions against him, whether physically hurt the potential threat or disgrace and embarrass him in any way as long as it is unclarified.
The Chofetz Chaim brings down a responsa from the Mahari”k (chapter 188) which is a live illustration of going beyond being concerned. There a story a poor old Jew named Reb Aharon Ruskia who a woman spread rumors that he was adulterous with her and people ran him out of town by publicly embarrassing him and not even allowing him to get an aliyah in shul. When the Mahari”k heard about this he was furious and said it’s a great sin to believe this cursed woman! A person who embarrasses and denigrates a descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, treating him lightly in your eyes, is considered disgusting in the “eyes” of Hashem and will be greatly punished! There is no worse embarrassment then what was done to Reb Aharon, the way he was treated by not giving him an aliyah. Furthermore, the Gemara in Bava Metzia 58b proves from the episode of King Dovid and Batsheva, when Doeg and Achitofel tried talking out and embarrassing King Dovid in public, that embarrassing someone in public is worse than adultery. For King Dovid said, even if I was adulterous (which he wasn’t) then that deserves the capital punishment of strangulation but still he would a get a share in the World to Come but one who embarrasses another in public has no share in the World to Come (if he doesn’t repent before he dies.) Therefore, you have to be very careful and thoroughly check out the matter before you come to conclusions that a person did a wrongdoing which deserves such severe punishment like public excommunication.
Being concerned for what you heard does not mean to be on the offensive and taking action against the would-be perpetrator, it only means to be on the defensive. One must be very carefully when telling others of a possible threat to be sure they will just listen and take precautions on the defensive because if you see they will go on the offensive then you cannot warn then since the whole reason you are allowed to warn then is because of the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” just as you would not want any harm done to yourself then you should inform others who might be in harm’s way. However, if you know the people you will tell will go on the offensive and hurt or embarrass the would-be offender then why should his blood be any redder than their blood and the mitzvah of “Love your neighbor as yourself” will apply to the possible offender because he might be a threat to others, but they are definitely going to be a threat to him so it’s better. It to tell them anything.
Bottom line you can only be concerned about lashon hara you heard to be on the defensive but not to act on the offensive.
There is a difference between being concerned and taking proper precautions about something you heard and having a doubt about someone after you heard something about him or her. A concern and a doubt are two different things which must be differentiated. You can have concerns but you can’t have doubts just because you heard rumors or lashon hara.
This is illustrated from a gemara on daf 61a which tells a case of two Jews from the Galilei who rumors had it were murderers. They came to Rabbi Tarfon and asked him to hide them from the Roman Government. Rebbe Tarfon told them I can’t hide you be I have to be concerned that maybe you are murderers and the government will be out to get me for hiding criminals but I will not turn you in and my advice to you is to go hide yourselves because I can’t have a doubt that you might be murderers since every Jew has an assumption of being kosher good people until proven otherwise. This is the difference between a concern and a doubt. The Rosh asked a question how can we even be concerned that the rumors or lashon hara might be true and allow harm done to someone like if he was caught by the government?
The Chofetz Chaim has a few answers to that question in this footnote and towards the end of footnote 28. One of them is that it comes out one can only be concerned when what he hears will effect him or others like in this gemara that if these people were murderers then by protecting them it might put others in danger so can’t actively protect them but can’t turn them in because maybe they aren’t murderers. But let say the case last week of the guy who rumors say he ate non-kosher out of spite of Hashem then can’t be concerned about the rumors and not give him charity if he needs or redeem him if he is captured since it is just rumors even if he was known to be bad in other ways but just not so bad.
Another way of answering for Rebbe Tarfon was that the only reason why he didn’t save them was because he knew they can save themselves but if they couldn’t then he would have to protect them even if the government might go after him because the Torah says “don’t stand over the blood of your friend” you have to help any Jew in need even if they are suspect of doing really bad until it’s been proven they actually did it. This happens to be a very sensitive subject which might clarify how Jewish institutions seem to protect or hide would be Jewish criminals but until they are proven to be guilty of wrongdoing then we have to assume he is innocent even if he has a shady past we have to assume he has slipped so low until proven otherwise and you can’t even have doubts. However at the same time they and everyone should be concerned that the rumors or allegations might be true in order to take precautions to protect yourself and others from potential danger on any level.
There is a very strange dichotomy on how to approach lashon hara if heard and could be useful. The Chofetz Chaim says though it’s forbidden to accept lashon hara according to the Torah it is permitted or even obligatory to be cautious for what you heard in order to protect yourself or others from possible harm but at the same time you also must believe in your heart that this person is no different than any other Jew and has a chezkas kashrus, he an upstanding good Jew even though someone said something bad about him. This has major ramifications in halacha for example, if someone says that he saw someone eating non-kosher out of spite, meaning he had two steaks in front of him, for example, one kosher and one non-kosher and he put aside the kosher and ate the non-kosher one that shows he doesn’t care about Hashem’s mitzvos as opposed to someone who’s a glutton and just likes non-kosher food because it tastes good. Now if there were two witnesses that testified in court that this person sinned to spite Hashem not just because he liked eating non-kosher food and the court makes a decision and declared that this is Jew is outside of “your nation” then though he is a Jew still but there are certain laws that don’t pertain to him, for example if he lost an object you found you don’t have to return it to him, if he asks for tzedaka you don’t have to give him, or even if he is captured you do have to redeem him. But this status only applies if it was declared in court, but if you just hear someone tell this story and it was never taken to court then the person must still be treated as a normal Jew all halacha applying to him. This is true even if he is known to be on the fringe and was known to do other songs but not bad enough to be out of ” your nation” you still can’t believe the story and treat him differently though you could take note of any concerns and take precautions if you think this person can harm you or others.
The rule of thumb is anything which constitutes speaking lashon hara is also the sin of accepting lashon hara. There is no difference whether you are listening to someone talk about someone else’s misdeeds, or his family’s misdeeds whether it’s past or present or just name calling either way there is a prohibition of speaking and accepting lashon hara. However it is possible that a person who is listening to “lashon hara” will get a sin but the speaker won’t. This is in the situation where the speaker should speak up to try to help a situation but the listener is forbidden to decisively accept what he hears as truth until he does his own research and finds out himself, he just has to be concerned of the problem mentioned.
The Yad HaKetana (hilchos Deos 9:8) says that even if a person says something negative which is the truth it is still called a lie and a waste. Why is it a lie if it’s true? He says if there is no basis or purpose to what is said then granted it’s a waste but it’s even a lie since there is no purpose or even a negative purpose to say it. The Chofetz Chaim has another reason of why a true negative statement is a lie which is the effect of what you say could be a lie because if for example you speak negatively about someone’s family or what he did in the past but he’s a good guy and did teshuva now so Hashem loves him and he has a clean slate therefore it’s a lie to make people think otherwise.
This halacha discusses the importance of judging favorably instead of accepting lashon hara especially towards the rabbis or those who are righteous and G-D fearing. The extent one should go to judge favorably a sage, rabbi or Jewish court is expressed in the example the note gave.
If a person storms out of Jewish court guilty as charged and goes over to his friend to tell him what happened and in the process of proving his innocence he lashes out at the court claiming they don’t know how to poskin and saying quite a bit of nasty words about them. Even though it sounds like he has a very good case of innocence the person listening still should try to calm down the guilty party and surely not accept anything that he says, for several reasons.
1. It is known, based on a Shach in hilchos Shechita, that baal habatim think differently than Torah sages. So, what they perceive to be logically true might not be what the Torah mandates in halacha.
2. The court can only judge what is presented in front of them and it is possible that a fact which is added, I now might not have been mentioned in litigation so the court poskined based on what they heard and there should not be any claims against them.
3. Even if the case was wrong there is a gemara in Brachos 7b that says there are times where it is decreed in Heaven that someone should lose a court case for whatever reason or maybe the other litigant has a better mazel as the Rosh says elsewhere. But the gemara in Sanhedrin 8a guarantees if there is a misjudgment the guilty party or loser will get the value of his loss somehow at some point.
4. If you see you can’t convince the guilty party to calm down at least you can’t believe what you hear and at the very least you should go over to the rabbis and question them what happened for either they will tell you their reasoning, share with you the sources from where they came up with their psak, or maybe they will realize they were wrong and they will change their psak, which in that case you fulfilled the mitzah of rebuking properly, as the Rambam (hilchos De’os 6:6) says that it’s better to fight out the issue in halacha then to bear ill will against them in your heart.
At the very least one has an obligation to look into the matter before deciding they are wrong and the more one judges others favorably Hashem judges them favorably