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The Jewish Ethicist: Forwarding Email

The Jewish Ethicist: Forwarding Email

The ethics of forwarding email.


Q. Do I need permission to forward an email?

A. Forwarding an email without the permission of the sender can involve a number of ethical problems related to revealing information transmitted in confidence.

One specific Jewish stricture "forwards" run afoul of is the famous "ban" of Rabbenu Gershom. Rabbenu Gershom, was a leading Rabbinic leader in 10th century Germany. Among the many decrees he instituted is one on reading the private letters of other people. (1) To this day many people passing notes or letters remind others of their desire for privacy by writing the Hebrew acronym "CDRG": Cherem deRabbeinu Gershom (Rabbi Gershom's ban).

Another source is the following passage from the Talmud:

Rabba stated: From where do we learn that if someone says something to his fellow, it is forbidden to reveal it until he tells him "say"? As it is written (Leviticus 1:1): "And the Lord spoke to him in the Tent of Meeting, to say." (2)

While grammarians generally interpret the Hebrew expression "to say" as the equivalent of quotation marks, introducing an exact citation, the rabbinical tradition is that this expression means that the speaker (usually God) is telling the listener (usually Moses) to say something: either to pass along His words or to bring Him the reply of the listeners. We can infer that without explicit authorization, one should generally refrain from passing on private communications.

As some commentators point out, this explanation is a bit cryptic in reference to this particular verse, for the very next verse states explicitly: "Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them . . ." So even without the addition "to say" Moses would certainly know that he has to repeat God's command!

I would like to suggest the following resolution to this paradox. There are two different levels of transmission. One is to summarize and reword the message the listener received. This is a less intrusive kind of revelation, for two reasons: one reason is that less information is revealed, and the other is that the exact words aren't mentioned so that the original speaker is not so pinned down; he maintains a degree of "plausible deniability." For example, he can claim that he was misunderstood, taken out of context and so on.

When God tells Moses to speak to the children of Israel and transmit the commandments relating to the sacrifices, Moses can fulfill this by summarizing or paraphrasing the original prophecy. (Our tradition states that the prophecy of Moses, unlike that of the other prophets, took the form of exact words, not merely of visions then expressed in the particular speaking style of the prophet.) (3) The additional words "to say" create a mandate to transmit God's exact words. (This explanation harmonizes the traditional understanding of the expression "to say" and the grammatical one.)

From this we can learn that even if someone might not mind having his message transmitted to someone else "in the loop," he or she might still object to having the exact words of the original email sent ahead.

The moral of the story is that we should be very careful not to forward emails unless we are sure the sender approves. Even when it is clearly appropriate to transmit the message to others, consider if it may not be sufficient to provide a brief summary of the sender's words, rather than just forwarding the exact words. Likewise, even when forwarding someone's exact words, don't forward the whole letter if the really relevant section is brief.

SOURCES: (1) See for example Beer HaGolah commentary on the end of Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 334. (2) Babylonian Talmud Yoma 4b. (3) Midrash Pesikta Zutreta on Exodus verse 9:14

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at

August 19, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) daniela, August 20, 2006 12:00 AM

Yes but be careful always

Don't forget that in USA and in many western countries an email is property of the recipient as far as copyright is concerned, and the recipient can do whatever he pleases with our email - after giving, of course, intellectual property attribution if our emails are original enough (are they ever? :-) ) Our correspondant may not abide by Rabbi Meir ruling, or simply not know it. So save yourself a headache, reread your email, and if you really don't want it circulated, expressly say so.

(2) anonymous, August 20, 2006 12:00 AM

thank you

i always wondered about that. I actually do it alot in work, but you're right. better to just sum it up. What about 'bcc' where someone doesn't see that you're sending your own letter to someone else?

(1) Anonymous, August 20, 2006 12:00 AM

emails are public documents..

Rabbi Meir's position is very interesting as he seems to take the view that the issues surrounding the forwarding an email turns on a question of privacy.. but emails are fundamentally public documents. There is no more assurance of privacy with regard to an email I send than to a postcard. When one sends an email to anyone about anything the sender needs to be aware that what is sent is not private and is open and readable by countless people.. Are emails more private than the sender broadcasting a speech via a PA system but intending the message for only one person

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