Recently during a discussion with someone, an argument came up that the idea of lashon hara (the evil tongue, loosely defined as gossip) was a rabbinic tradition that was not found anywhere in the Bible. Consequently, the idea put forth by some Rabbis that the sin of lashon hara is the most severe sin there is was seen as repugnant. But on the contrary: of all the rabbinic traditions, this is one that has a very clear and easily discerned foundation in the Bible.
Psalm 34 says (ESV)
What man is there who desires life
and loves many days, that he may see good?
Keep your tongue (lashon) from evil (ra)
and your lips from speaking deceit.
What is the greatest punishment that could come from sin? Death. How do you gain the opposite, life? It’s explicitly stated: keep yourself from lashon hara.
A further point of note: the early Aramaic version of the New Testament regularly uses the word “live” for the word that’s generally translated into English (from Greek) as “be saved.” In other words, people didn’t ask Yeshua “What must I do to be saved?” They asked, “What must I do to live?” In light of that, the verse above could easily be translated “What man is there who desires to be saved…Keep yourself from lashon hara.” The teaching that lashon hara is the greatest sin, far from being a rabbinic tradition with no support in the Bible, is explicitly taught by the Bible!
Of course, this verse doesn’t explain exactly what lashon hara is. This is very typical of the teachings of the Torah, and is one of the foremost points that demonstrates the need of an Oral Torah. Much is derived through careful exegesis of the verse in Leviticus 19 that says (ESV) “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD.” The word “slanderer” in that verse comes from a root that indicates the idea of traveling around: thus, a “slanderer” is someone who travels around, spreading stories about other people. From that foundation are derived the many details of lashon hara.
The apostle James knew this exegesis well and endorsed it. In his letter, he exhorts his readers (ESV)
For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
James re-emphasizes the idea that everything depends on how you use your tongue: if anyone doesn’t stumble with regard to his speech, he is a perfect man. That’s the inverse of the rabbinic teaching, that lashon hara is the greatest sin. If you refrain from it, you have no sin at all. That’s how great of a sin it is. The tongue is a world of unrighteousness–that’s how great the sin is, equivalent to the sin of an entire world.
Once again, now that we know how much depends on our speech, what are the details? Surely something so important can’t be so ambiguous. James alludes to it (ESV): “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” The sin has to do with speaking badly about other people. That’s a starting point, but in the thick of the daily struggle with the myriad of forces that influence us, what are the exact details of this terrible sin?
The author of the book Chafetz Chaim, with divine grace and inspiration, took the time to carefully study, think through, structure, and explain the particulars of lashon hara in his book. It is correct that the exact details that he lays forth are frequently not found explicitly in the Bible. However, with meditation and study, one comes to see that psychological principles, experience with people, and logic confirm what he says, even if you don’t accept the sanctity of the Oral Torah.
Hashem has not left us to chance. He taught us that this is a terrible sin, and He gave some the capacity to elucidate it, and the means to disseminate their understanding to those who would otherwise remain in darkness. Baruch Hu uVaruch Shmo.