Flouting the Law

In a previous segment (Day 115) we listed five conditions which must be fulfilled before we can relate rechilus for a constructive purpose.

The fifth condition was that the recipient of the information will use it for a defensive purpose and not to punish the subject of the gossip with unwarranted harm. Examining this requirement further, the Chofetz Chaim says that the allowance for telling someone constructive gossip depends heavily on how the recipient of the information is likely to handle it.

The halachah requires us to take stock of this person’s mind and character. We must ask ourselves: Is this a thoughtful person who does his best to act within the guidelines of Jewish law? Or is this a hotheaded individual who will act before he thinks? If we know that this person will thoughtfully consult a rav (rabbi) or beis din (rabbinical court) on how to conduct himself in light of the new information he has received, then we can tell him the information. If, on the other hand, we suspect that he may react first and ask questions later, we are not allowed to reveal the information.

The reason why Halachah does not allow the subject of constructive rechilus to sustain undue damage relates to the laws of witnesses and testimony. When someone repeats information for a constructive purpose, he is actually acting as a single witness. But a beis din will disregard the testimony of a single witness — the Torah requires a minimum of two witnesses for testimony in court to be accepted. Therefore, a beis din would not impose damages on a defendant against whom there is only one witness. If a beis din cannot impose damages against this person, then certainly the recipient of constructive rechilus cannot do so! The consequences of someone speaking constructive rechilus cannot exceed that which would have been extracted by a beis din. The information of a single witness can, however, be used for protective purposes.

What if two people want to inform the potential victim of someone’s plans against him? After analyzing the issue, the Chofetz Chaim rules that here, too, they should not relate the information to someone who is likely to take matters into his own hands and inflict damage upon the victim. This applies even when it appears to the two witnesses that would the victim go to beis din, he would receive authorization for his actions. As the Chofetz Chaim explains, the witnesses cannot assess what beis din would have done because in all probability they are not knowledgeable enough in the relevant laws to know how beis din would have judged.

Furthermore, even if the witnesses were certain that damage was called for, the potential victim would not be permitted to take action without the witnesses testifying in beis din. By relating the information outside of beis din, the witnesses are actually aiding a sinner whom, they know, will take the law into his own hands. The question remains as to what can be done for the person who cannot be trusted to handle constructive gossip? How do we protect him from damage if the Torah prohibits us from giving him the information? The answer is that by remaining silent we are helping him, for he stands to incur greater harm if he uses the information incorrectly. To those who observe this halachah and remain silent in such a situation, the Chofetz Chaim applies the verse, “One who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles” (Mishlei 21:23).

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© 2020 Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation

© 2020 Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation