Sharona Margolin Halickman

When are we obligated to speak negatively about somebody?

In Parshat Kedoshim there are many important commandments about how one must treat their fellow person. One mitzvah that especially stands out is not being a talebearer (gossip).

Are there times when the rules about not speaking badly about others are suspended?

Is it ever obligatory to speak negatively about somebody?

According to the Chafetz Chayim, if a man sees that his fellow is guilty of misconduct, given to pride or anger or is neglectful of Torah study, he should apprise his son or disciples and warn them not to associate with him, so as not to be influenced by his ways. For the real concern of the Torah is forbidding evil talk, even when true, was the evil intent involved in wishing to disgrace our fellow and enjoy his discomfort. But where the intention is to save our fellow beings from bad influences, it is plain that it is permissible and even obligatory. But in these circumstances, it would seem that it is necessary for the speaker to explain the reasons for speaking ill of his fellow, so that the listener should not be misled into going too far or into being astonished at his apparently inconsistent behavior, sometimes asserting that it is even forbidden to tell the truth about someone else’s conduct… whereas now he himself is guilty of talking about someone else…

A few examples of where the Chafetz Chayim specifies that one must say negative things about another person: If he wishes to hire an employee or take a partner in his business, or propose a match or take a teacher for his son. In all of these cases one is obligated to tell the whole truth about the person investigated so long as the interrogator reveals the purpose of his inquiries and that he is not just interested in gossip for its own sake, but wishes to take care and save himself from trouble, and some positive purpose is involved.

The Chafetz Chayim writes: How misled are people who, though accustomed to talking about other people’s faults and keen on hearing some gossip or slander, immediately shut their mouths like a vice and pretend ignorance the moment some purposeful information is required in connection with a match (shidduch), Torah study or business partnership. Why this sudden reticence? Only because of the responsibility involved… But when their information serves no beneficial end they are free with their talk.

We can learn from here that if we are asked to give a work recommendation, we must be honest about the capabilities of the potential employee so that the person hiring can make an educated decision as to whether they are the right candidate for the job. When it comes to hiring a teacher it is important that issues are not swept under the rug especially those related to abuse. As far as a shidduch, it is best to have all of the facts on the table before the marriage to minimize issues that could have potentially been avoided before the wedding.

The general rule is that one should not look to gossip but if important information needs to be shared then we are obligated to truthfully answer questions when asked.

About the Author
Sharona holds a BA in Judaic Studies from Stern College and an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University. Sharona was the first Congregational Intern and Madricha Ruchanit at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY. After making aliya in 2004, Sharona founded Torat Reva Yerushalayim, a non profit organization based in Jerusalem which provides Torah study groups for students of all ages and backgrounds.
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