This segment opens with a situation where a friend confronts us: “Someone used my calculator and left it on — tell me who it was!” Revealing the culprit’s identity would be rechilus. One is permitted to say, “It wasn’t me.”
However, this would not be the case where one is present at a private board meeting where the majority voted not to renew Mr. Stein’s contract as synagogue custodian. If Mr. Stein confronts one of the board members and demands to know, “Did you vote against me?” it would be forbidden to respond in any way other than to say, “The discussion at the meeting is a private matter and I am not at liberty to reveal its contents.” This applies even when one actually voted in favor of Mr. Stein and strongly disagrees with the majority decision.
The Chofetz Chaim offers us a real-life situation which often leads to rechilus.
Reuven, who sells Judaica, has received a few rare portraits by a renowned artist. Shimon passes by the store and, seeing the portraits in the window, enters Reuven’s store and negotiates a price for one of the paintings. He tells Reuven, “I left my checkbook at home. Please put this painting aside until I return this evening.” Reuven agrees.
When Shimon returns that evening, he is dismayed to learn that the painting has been sold to Levi! Reuven attempts to excuse himself. “What could I do? Levi desperately wanted that painting. I told him that I had already agreed to sell it to you, but he didn’t care. In fact, he didn’t even give me a choice in the matter. He just put the money on the table and took the painting! Perhaps, had I really tried, I could have grabbed the painting back. But I didn’t want to get into a fight with him — I’m sure you understand!”
If Reuven’s account of what transpired between Levi and himself is accurate, then he is guilty of speaking rechilus. There is nothing constructive to be gained from telling Shimon that Levi is to blame. The sale to Levi is valid; Reuven does not dispute that. Telling the details to Shimon will only serve to cause him to be angry with Levi.
The Chofetz Chaim notes that all too often in such situations, Reuven’s account is merely a cover-up for the real story: Levi has come and offered a better price, or he is a close friend of Reuven, and therefore Reuven is eager to benefit him. Reuven has not even informed Levi that he has already agreed to sell the painting. When Shimon comes along and demands an explanation, Reuven contrives a story so that Levi is blamed and Reuven appears innocent. If this is the situation, then Reuven is guilty of the more severe sin of hotza’as shem ra (slander).
The Chofetz Chaim offers one final word of caution: Sometimes, Reuven is honest and places the blame squarely on his own shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he says, “It was my fault. Someone came along with a better offer and I sold it to him without informing him that I had a verbal understanding with you.” Even then, Reuven should not reveal the identity of the purchaser, for it is possible that Shimon will harbor some ill will towards Levi, despite the fact that he was totally innocent of any wrongdoing.
This concludes the laws of rechilus. In the remaining segments, the Chofetz Chaim offers important illustrations relating to various concepts in shmiras haloshon (guarding one’s tongue).