Evil-speaking; a sin regarded with intense aversion both in the Bible and in rabbinical literature. The technical term for it in the latter is (leshon hara', "the evil tongue"). In the Bible the equivalent words are: , meaning "talk" in a sinister sense; , the "merchandise" of gossip with which the talebearer goes about; and , a verb, denoting the "peddling" of slander. As these words indicate, that which is condemned as "leshon hara'" denotes all the deliberate, malicious, untruthful accusations which have the purpose of injuring one's neighbor, that is, calumnyproper, and also the idle but mischievous chatter which is equally forbidden, though it is not slander.

Biblical Prohibition.

In the Pentateuch evil-speaking of both kinds is expressly forbidden (Lev. xix. 16): "Thou shalt not go about as a talebearer among thy people," and (Ex. xxiii. 1), "Thou shalt not raise a false report; put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness." Upon this the Rabbis comment (Mek. Ex. 20), "It is a warning not to receive or listen to evil reports." Of course, the most comprehensive commandment in connection with this is the ninth of the Decalogue: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." In descriptions of corrupt society, calumny is always emphasized as a prominent feature. Jer. ix. 2, 3 speaks of those "that bend their tongues like bows for lies, every neighbor walketh with slanders"; and Ezek. xxii. 9, "In thee are men that carry tales to shed blood." The Psalms and books of the Wisdom literature abound in descriptions of the terrible workings of this sin. Ps. l. 20: "Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother, thou slanderest thine own mother's son." Prov. x. 18: "He that hideth hatred with lying lips, and he that uttereth a slander, is a fool"; and Ps. ci. 5: "Him that slandereth his neighbor in secret I will cut off." Prov. xxx. 10: "Calumniate not a servant unto his master lest he curse thee and thou be found guilty." Eccl. x. 11: "Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment, and the man of the [evil] tongue is no better." And Ecclus. xxviii. 12-26 contains an eloquent denunciation of the evil tongue, the gist of which (v. 18) is: "Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not so many as have fallen by the tongue." Specially characteristic is the repeated complaint of the pious because of slanderous persecutors. Ps. xxxi. 13: "For I have heard the slander of many, fear was on every side; while they took counsel together against me, they devised to take away my life" (compare Ps. xxxv. 11; Jer. xx. 10).

The Opposite Virtue.

The man that abstains from evil speech is given the highest praise. Among the qualities which befit a man who dwells in Jehovah's tent is "that he uttereth no calumny with his tongue" (Ps. xv. 3). It is recommended as an indispensable condition for life rich in years and happiness. Keep thy tongue from evil and thy lips from speaking guile" (Ps. xxxiv. 12, 13).

The Talmud and Midrash teem with references to the evils of calumny. In Gen. R. xxvi. 2 slander is compared to the venom of the serpent. "As this affects every part of the body, so does the slanderer wound the soul of mankind. As the serpent's venom injures from a distance, so calumny may be hissed forth by one living in Rome to slay one living in Syria. The slanderous tongue is called 'telitai' [threefold], as being a threefold murderer. It ruins the slanderer, the listener, and the maligned."


Its disastrous effects on a whole generation are suggested in the following (Gen. R. xxvi. 2): "The contemporaries of David despite their virtues go to battle and are defeated, because among them are Doeg and Ahitophel, 'who were eager for calumnies.' The men of Ahab's time, though idolatrous, go to battle and are victorious because there is no slanderer among them." And again (Shab. 56b), "If David had not listened to the evil tongue (in reference to Mephibosheth, II Sam. xvi. 3, 4), the kingdom would not have been divided; Israel would not have served idols, and we should not have been driven from our land." The decree of condemnation of the generations of the desert that had tried God ten times (Num. xiv. 22) was finally sealed, and they were not to enter the Promised Land because the spies had brought slanderous reports (Num. xiv. 37) concerning the country ('Ar. 15a).

The heinousness of this sin is strikingly taught in sententious sayings. Midr. Yalḳ., Ps. ci. 5: "Of the slanderer, the Holy One says, he and I can not dwell together in the world." 'Ar. 15 b: "The slanderer denies God." Soṭah 42a: "Four classes will be excluded from the Divine Presence: scoffers, liars, hypocrites, and slanderers." And strongest of all ('Ar. 15b and Gen. R. lxx. 4), slander is equal in a moral sense to idolatry, adultery, and murder; and rather than commit any of them, an Israelite in time of persecution must forfeit his life.

The "Fine Dust of Calumny."

So sensitive were the Rabbis to the possibilities of this sin in all men that they spoke of the "abaḳ leshon hara'" (the fine dust of calumny); that is, of words which, while innocent, may lead to calumny, and against which one must be on his guard (B. B. 165a; 'Ar. 16a). They therefore warned against extravagant praise of our fellow-man lest "by too much praise you provoke abuse." As a safeguard against the gossip habit they said ('Ar. 15b): "If a scholar, let him occupy himself with the study of the Torah; if a man of the people, let him cultivate self-depreciation."


Calumny appeared to the Rabbis to deserve special and severe punishment. They saw in leprosy its merited retribution ('Ar. 15b, and Ab. R. N. ix. 2). This conception was based on the account of the punishment of Miriam for speaking evil of Moses (Num. xii. 1, 19). Ingenious is their comment ('Ar. 16b) that, as the slanderer does the work of moral leprosy, separating husbands from wives, he is naturally punished by a disease that casts him out from society. They also (Shab. 36a and 36b) attribute quinsy to the sin of evil speech. According to one rabbi (Yalḳ., Ps. ci. 5), the slanderer deserves stoning; another (Pes. 118a) vents his anger thus: "He who speaks evil of his neighbor, and he who listens, and he who bears false witness against his neighbor, deserve to be cast to the dogs."

It is characteristic of Judaism that it knows of no hero without a blemish; and as sins of speech are all-prevalent, because of human fallibility (B. B. 165a), there is a tendency in the Midrash to discover the best man's failure in the form of a sin of the tongue. So Joseph is punished for slandering his brethren (Gen. xxxvii. 2; Gen. R. lxxxiv. 7, and Yer. Peah, i. 1). In Yalḳ. on Isa. vi. 5 we are told that those who are leaders of the people are in danger of sinning through too severe censure. Thus Moses for saying "Hear ye, rebels" (Num. xx. 10-13);Elijah for asserting (I Kings xix. 10), "The children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant"; and Isaiah for exclaiming, "And in the midst of a people of unclean lips I dwell," were all in some manner punished by God.

Legal Remedies.

The frequent and passionate reiteration of the ethical and religious sanctions in Bible and Talmud against calumny are explained because its work in robbing men of their reputation is usually too subtle to be reached by the arm of the law. There are, however, two cases which could be reached by the civil authorities: The man who, because of some dislike," brings up an evil name" (Deut. xxii. 13-19) upon the woman whom he has married. If his accusation is found untrue, he must pay a fine of one "hundred (shekels) of silver," and "he may not put her away all his days." Comparing this fine with the amount that he who forces an unbetrothed virgin into sexual sin had to pay (Deut. xxii. 28), the sages in 'Ar. iii. 5 say, "From this we gather that sometimes evil speech is more severely punished than evil deed."

People whose malice leads them to plot the injury or death of another by deliberately bearing false witness against him (Deut. xix. 16-21), when their testimony was proved to be false by the process according to the traditional interpretation of showing that they were not present at the time and in the place with respect to which they bear witness, were condemned to receive the punishment which their testimony, if acted upon by the court, would have brought upon the falsely accused (see Alibi).

The religious horror, the moral indignation, and penal severity with which "leshon hara'" (the calumniating tongue) was attacked during every stage in the development of Jewish thought, may be said to be the expression of the ethical principle (Ab. ii. 10), "Let the honor of thy fellow-man be as dear to thee as thine own."

  • Hastings, Dict. Bible, s.v. Slander or Evil-Speaking;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T., s.v. Verleumdung;
  • Kahan Israel Moses, Shemirat ha-Lashon, Wilna, 1876 (several times reprinted).
K. S. Sc.
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