A Traveling Merchant’s Prescription for Life in the Age of Social Media

The Bible prohibits spreading gossip[i]. Does that mean that the use of social media should be enjoined, as well? After all isn’t it a haven for gossip and slander? Doesn’t it enable people to harm others with their words? It permits virtual mobs to be formed and their attacks can be brutal and debilitating. Is barring its use an appropriate remedy?

The Torah takes the matter of gossip very seriously. The negative effects are manifold, including disrupting relationships and causing quarrels and animosity. The gossiper may also suffer the spiritual malady of Tzara’at[ii], which presents with the physical symptoms of an eruption on the skin. The Bible[iii] describes how to treat this disease, which is associated with the noxious activity of slander[iv] or gossip[v].

The wrongdoer is called[vi] a Metzora, because he or she is Motzie Ra. The phrase may be loosely translated as one who speaks or reveals evil about another, whether it’s true or slanderous. The Talmud[vii] cleverly links the cure of the physical ailment to the source of the malady. Thus, the wrongdoer, who in the course of social intercourse, caused disharmony and separation between a husband and wife or friends, through gossip or slander, must temporarily dwell alone, outside the community. The sacrificial offering consists of two birds. Their chirping symbolizes the babbling that was the source of the problem.

The Talmud[viii] also rails against the commission of the sin of gossip. Among other things, it deems this sin to be the equivalent of murder. It notes that words can kill. It even goes so far as to equate gossip with all three cardinal sins of murder, illicit relations and idol worship, combined[ix]. An individual who gossips is viewed as having denied the existence of G-d and can’t co-exist with G-d in the same world.

The colloquial term commonly used, which embraces gossip and other wrongful expressions, is “lashon hara”. The term literally means an evil tongue. The Talmud[x] includes verbal abuse[xi] within this category of wrongdoing. As Maimonides notes[xii], the Bible instructs not to cause emotional distress with words. This includes statements that cause another person pain, anger or embarrassment. The Talmud cites the example of bringing up a past shameful incident about a person, which causes him or her distress. It also includes words of anger, arrogance, deceit and guileful flattery.

Maimonides[xiii] analyzes this matter and makes a number of cogent remarks about the nature of the problem. He notes that it does not matter whether the person is present or not to hear the offensive gossip. He also focuses on how a particular remark may not appear facially to be offensive and, yet, it might, nevertheless, inspire others to gossip. This is because of the way it was said or what was left unsaid. Examples given are “who will tell the person to be as he is now” or “be quiet about that person because I am disinclined to relate what happened or what was”.

Context also matters. Thus, Maimonides notes that singing a person’s praises in front of his or her enemies is problematic. In essence, what appears to be an act of kindness, in this setting, can cause harm to the person. This is because of the propensity of the person’s enemies then to engage in negative discussions or worse, in response. Maimonides also disparages those who speak harmful words even in jest. There is no way to know how far and wide gossip can travel and the resulting harm that might ensue to the person or his or her property. This includes the mental anguish or fear the person may suffer as a result of the disclosure.

Maimonides cautions[xiv] that excessive and frivolous talk about meaningless things leads to speaking disparagingly about other people. Maimonides also advises against living in a neighborhood where gossip is a prevalent condition, let alone sitting and listening to gossip. I can’t help but wonder how Maimonides might have reacted to being a part of a Facebook group or other social media vehicle, designed to elevate gossip to an integral part of life.

The problem of lashon hora was a serious one in ancient times and it is an even more critical concern, today. It is exacerbated by the prevalence of social media. The instant availability of this medium is an invitation to chatter. It enables communication of all manner of messages, even haphazard, casual or fitful thoughts, without the filter of deliberate and thoughtful consideration. It allows good, bad, true and false messages to be spread far and wide. It also appears to enable harmful remarks to be made without apparent consequences. The normal buffers of interpersonal communications have been removed. There are no eyes to stare into when speaking directly to a person, reactions to gauge or feelings of shame engendered by seeing the hurt that might ensue from harmful remarks. Sometimes the postings are cloaked with the cover of anonymity, which allows for even more brazen and often ugly communications.

What is the remedy for this condition? Is there a vaccine, which can be administered to prevent the onset of the malady of gossip, as a prophylactic measure? What about those who have already been infected, can they be cured? The Talmud and Midrash each separately address the problem of gossip.

The Talmud[xv] suggests that there is no ready cure to the problem after the fact, because once the damage is done, it cannot be undone. Instead, the Talmud[xvi] focuses on avoiding the problem in the first place[xvii]. It reports how Rabbi Alexandri would publicly announce who wants life. Everyone who heard the announcement would gather around him and say give us life. He responded by citing the verses from Psalms[xviii], which state whoever desires life and loves days in order to see good, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile, turn away from evil and do good. It is not enough to avoid evil; a person is required proactively to do good. The Talmud equates good with being involved in Torah (and, by extension, observing it), which is synonymous with good[xix].

The Midrash[xx] deals with how those who have already been infected with the sinful condition can cure it. It does this by referencing the story of an itinerant merchant, who was selling his wares in the towns outside the city of Tzipori. The product he was offering was an elixir of life. He announced, who wants to buy the potion of life. All who heard the offering would surround and cling to him. Rabbi Yanai was sitting indoors and interpreting the Torah, when he heard the announcement. He called out to the merchant peddling the life potion and said to come in and sell it to him. The merchant responded that Rabbi Yanai didn’t need it. He nevertheless came in and revealed the nature of the potion to Rabbi Yanai. The merchant took out the Book of Psalms and pointed to the same set of verses as Rabbi Alexandri had presented, as described above. Remarkably, the remedy for violating the proscription against gossip and slander was the very same as the vaccine for preventing it. The fact that the harm done by the gossip and slander could not be readily corrected or the past undone was not an impediment. Consider there is no effective rectification for spoiling someone’s reputation. It’s like a newspaper issuing a correction after the fact. The harm has already been done. Hardly anyone is interested in reading the correction and it doesn’t have the same effect as the original salacious story. Yet, as King David writes, it is still possible to obtain life and days to see good, if the cure regimen set forth in this set of verses in his Psalms is followed.

We can well appreciate the depth of King David’s experiences and his nuanced understanding of human nature. He is a champion of the ability of people to repent. It’s not a purely rational exercise. After all, wrongs done in the past can’t actually be fixed. Yet, G-d allows for the sin, in effect, to be removed provided the individual genuinely repents. This generally requires regretting the wrongdoing and faithfully resolving not to do the wrong again. It is deemed as if the wrongful action never occurred. What was it then about the traveling merchant’s reference to Psalms, which triggered Rabbi Yanai’s sudden appreciation that there was something more to understanding the matter than he had previously apprehended? What new insight did he suddenly have?

The Midrash reports that Rabbi Yanai probed the traveling merchant further and noted that King Solomon had stated something similar[xxi]. He said guarding the mouth and the tongue guards the soul from trouble. However, Psalms says so much more. As the Kli Yakar[xxii] notes, the prescription provided by Psalms is not just a preventative measure it’s a cure. This is why the story in the Midrash refers to selling a medicine, the potion of life. It also uses the term “rochel” to describe the merchant peddling the cure. This is similar to the Hebrew word “rechilut”, which means peddling gossip[xxiii] or tale bearing. The reference to the locale as towns in the vicinity of Tzipori is also descriptive. As noted above, slander and gossip are symbolized by the chirping of birds, or Tziporim in Hebrew. Thus, the Kli Yakar concludes that the Midrash was discussing a case of how to cure those already infected with the noxious habit of gossip and slander.

The Kli Yakar goes on to describe how deleterious this kind of misbehavior could be. It was endemic to the original Diaspora in ancient Egypt[xxiv]. Correction of this malady was an essential element in the process, which enabled the miraculous redemption celebrated on Passover[xxv]. The Mishna[xxvi] reports that the sealing of the decree requiring the Jewish people to wander in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Land of Israel, resulted from the tale bearing of the spies[xxvii]. Gossip and slander were also the underlying cause of quarrels and the gratuitous hatred[xxviii], which was primary reason for the destruction of the Second Temple.

The cure requires refraining from further gossip and slander by restraining the tongue and mouth. In this regard, it is important to note, as discussed above, that even relating overly good tidings about a person can result is unintended negative consequences[xxix]. Some might use the information to disadvantage the person or might be jealous and not wish the person well. Other times, an individual may begin with an overly[xxx] positive assessment of a person. However, no person is perfect and inevitably exaggerated praise is then qualified. Others listening may also not be so kind and use this as an opportunity to counter the excessive praise of a person’s good qualities with negative remarks about his or her weaknesses. Thus, notwithstanding the initial intent to say some thing exceedingly good about a person, it often results in something negative being said, as well.

Abaye points out, as recorded in the Talmud[xxxi], the way a seemingly kind remark is phrased or uttered can result in it being interpreted in a disparaging manner. There is a difference between answering someone’s question about where they might find lodging and making a gratuitous remark, in the public square, about how luxurious a particular person’s home is and the great food that is always available there[xxxii]. Talking about a person’s wealth, the luxurious abode he or she lives in and lifestyle enjoyed there serves no useful purpose. It’s just an invitation for others to take advantage of the person[xxxiii].

The wisdom of the Talmud’s approach can be applied to modern social media. Consider the journey that a post of an image, video or statement on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or other social media can take. It might originate as a scurrilous report, exaggerated praise or seemingly innocent disclosure of some facts about a person. There are few limits on the ultimate reach of information posted on social media. It can be readily shared or copied and posted by others. It can be reduced to a screen shot and then belated efforts to delete it can prove ineffectual. Comments can ensue that are negative and even ugly. The language employed can be unbecoming. Is it any wonder that the Talmud urged not making any causal exaggerated public statements about a person or seemingly good ones in a disparaging tone or negative context? These are just modern applications of the underlying concerns the Talmud recorded more than 1,500 years ago.

The cure also requires turning away from evil and doing good, including heartfelt remorse, assuming a genuinely humble attitude and involvement in Torah. The remedy though is not to withdraw from society and thus avoid human interaction entirely. Indeed the opposite is required. However, the interaction must serve a positive purpose; not a negative one. This can include discussion of Torah and Mitzvot, as well as, business, personal health and needs. It is not that human interaction and all talk is to be avoided. Rather, it is idle conversation, suggestive language, slander, gossip and the like, which are proscribed.

This concept is expressed in the last part of this sequence of verses in Psalms. It provides for a correlative corrective action to the condition. This goes beyond the precautionary statement in Proverbs, noted by Rabbi Yanai above. It instructs that proactive action must be taken to seek peace and pursue it. Thus, instead of circulating among people for the purpose of causing mischief, the remedy is to be among people and cause good.

The Talmud[xxxiv] expresses this requirement in an interesting context. An individual should not just return a customary greeting of another person , but try to greet the person first. In any event, the individual should always return the greeting of another. This is a matter of respect and human dignity. Failing to return a greeting is deemed to be the equivalent of robbing a person of his or her dignity. Quarreling should be avoided and if this occurs, then everyone should endeavor to achieve peace between those fighting with each other[xxxv].

These critical lessons might be applied to social media too. It is not the medium that is the problem; it is how it is used or abused. It can serve useful purposes such as in business. It can also be used to raise awareness about issues that affect us and help direct attention and financial or other resources to solve the problems. It can even help disseminate Torah and wisdom and promote study and observance.

However, social media should not be the exclusive way we communicate. As noted above, personal engagement in seeking peace and pursuing it is a part of Psalms’ formula for the potion of life. Say a heartfelt hello to someone you know, in person. Greet people with a smile and express good wishes. Don’t be taciturn or laconic about it. It can really make someone’s day a better experience. If appropriate, then say something nice, like thank you or an encouraging remark. Be careful though; there is a difference between a genuine compliment, which reinforces a person’s positive behavior and meaningless flattery.

Be especially wary of the concerns raised by Rashi and Maimonides, when using social media. Therefore, don’t just tweet, post, text or whatsapp them. This is not about public pronouncements that are broadcast to others. It’s about two parties communicating up close and personal. There is just no substitute for the intimacy of greeting someone personally. It’s why it’s so important to visit people when they are sick or to invite them when they are in need of company.

The traveling merchant’s prescription for life can be summarized as follows: watch your mouth, do good and no harm and say a heartfelt hello to a friend or other person because you care. Don’t wait; why not start today.

[i] Leviticus 19:16.

[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 16a and Rashi commentary thereon.

[iii] Leviticus 14:1 et seq.

[iv] See Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 16:2 and the Yalkut Shimoni, Metzora, Remez 556:4. See also Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:47.

[v] The Hebrew term for gossip is “Lashon Hara”. See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 16a and Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 16:5, which list this category of wrongful conduct as a source for Tzara’at, among others. See also Midrash Tehillim 52:2. Tractate Arakhin (page 16a) also lists other causes for Tzara’at, including, for example, arrogance, sexual impropriety, taking a vain oath and envy, among others.

[vi] Midrash Tanchuma, Metzora, Siman 5.

[vii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 16b.

[viii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at pages 15a-16b.

[ix] See also Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Peah 1:1.

[x] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 58b.

[xi] The term used in the Talmudic text is “onoat devarim”.

[xii] Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot, Negative Mitzva Number 251, which cites Leviticus 25:17.

[xiii] Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot 7:1-6.

[xiv] Maimonides Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 16:10.

[xv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 15b.

[xvi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zara, at page 19b.

[xvii] This analysis of the Talmudic text, as referring to preventing the illness and the Midrash, as referring to a cure for those already infected, is based on the Kli Yakar commentary on Leviticus 14:4.

[xviii] Psalms 34:13-15.

[xix] Citing Psalms 4:2, which states: “For I have given you a good portion; my Torah, do not abandon it”.

[xx] Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 16:2, Yalkut Shimoni, Metzora, Remez 556:4 and Midrash Tanchuma, Metzora, Siman 5.

[xxi] Proverbs 21:23.

[xxii] In the commentary on Leviticus 14:4.

[xxiii] See also Rashi commentary on Leviticus 19:16, as to the meaning of the phrase “lo telech rochel” as used in the Biblical verse, which he defines as peddling gossip.

[xxiv] See Midrash Tanchuma, Exodus Siman 10. See also Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 84:7-8.

[xxv] See Yalkut Shimoni, Emor, Remez 657.

[xxvi] Mishna Arakhin 3:5 (See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 15a).

[xxvii] Numbers 13:31-33 and 14:1-39.

[xxviii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 9b.

[xxix] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 16a and Rashi commentary thereon. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 164b.

[xxx] Ibid, Rashi commentary.

[xxxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 16a.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 6b.

[xxxv] Malbim Commentary on Psalms 34:15.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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