With Rabbi Jonny Roodyn.
What the Torah says about… Speaking ill of the dead?
THE RECENT murder of landlord Menachem Stark and the subsequent media coverage prompts the question: what does the Torah say about speaking ill of the dead?
Classical Jewish thought sees humans as being elevated above the animal kingdom because of our capacity for intelligent speech as an expression of a higher soul. This capacity has enabled mankind to develop in all spheres as we are able to communicate our findings to one another and build on them, rather than have to continuously “reinvent the wheel”. As with most things in life, this is a double edged sword, as the verse states: “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue”.
Our words have the ability to build a world of loving kindness, care and compassion, but they also have the ability to destroy relationships and lives. While many teach their children that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” this is often far from the truth. The Hebrew for a “word” is davar, which also means a “thing.” Words create realities.
If we keep our thoughts to ourselves they can do little harm, but once a word has been spoken it can never fully be retracted, and the effects can be huge. The post-Talmudic sages pronounced a cherem or ban on one who speaks ill of the dead.
Speaking negatively about peo- ple is lowly at the best of times, but the deceased are simply unable to defend themselves, so this is really deemed to be a “blow below the belt”.
However, as with the laws of lashon hara in general, if one would need to relay something negative to achieve a constructive purpose then, given certain conditions, it would be permissible to do so. However, this comes with a very serious health warning that it is genuinely necessary to relate the information, that is based on fact and not hearsay and that one is relaying the information with pure intent and not because they enjoy the gossip.
The Torah, echoed by the sages of the Talmud emphasises the necessity of shemirat halashon, guarding one’s tongue from speaking evil. The rules and regulations of the laws of lashon hara were codified by the Chafetz Chaim at the start of the last century, when he saw these important principles were being disregarded.
As far as the Torah is concerned, non-kosher speech, namely speaking in a manner that is derogatory or potentially harmful to another, is just as treif as non-kosher meat. To focus on another person’s shortcomings is in itself a lowly thing to do, and we would all benefit greatly if we were able to focus on and take pleasure in other people’s virtues instead. [divider]
• Rabbi Jonny Roodyn is an educator for Aish UK