This week's Torah portion ends with the account of how Miriam spoke lashon hara about Moshe and was severely punished with Tzaraat, an ancient disease: Moshe had totally separated from his wife, because he had to be in a constant state of purity for when God would speak to him. Miriam thought that he was wrong to separate from his spouse, as Miriam and Aaron did not have to do that, and she shared this concern with Aaron, apparently with the hope of telling Moshe to change his ways. She erred in that Moshe was on a totally higher level of Prophecy than herself and Aaron, and God could speak to him at any moment, which was not the case with other Prophets. Therefore, he had to be in a permanent state of purity and had to completely separate from his wife.

On the surface, this episode seems quite straightforward – Miriam spoke badly about her brother, and was punished. However, a more in-depth analysis of the nature of her lashon hara (negative speech), in the context of the general definition of lashon hara, reveals that the exact nature of what Miriam did wrong is not abundantly clear.

It is instructive to note the language of the Rambam in describing this episode when discussing the punishment of Tzaraat:

“And in this matter, the Torah warns us and says: ‘be careful of the blemish of Tzaraat. Remember what Hashem did to Miriam on the journey’. Behold, It [the Torah] is saying, ‘Contemplate what happened to Miriam the Prophetess, who spoke about her brother whom she was older than, and whom she brought up on her knees, and endangered herself to save him from the sea, and she did not speak disparagingly about him. Rather, she made a mistake in that she equated him to other Prophets, and he was not upset about everything she said…and despite all this, she was immediately punished with Tzoraat. All the more so, to wicked and stupid people who say a lot of grand things…and they come to speak disparagingly about tzaddikim…1

The Rambam points out a number of mitigating factors about Miriam’s speech. One of them is that she did not intend to speak derogatorily about Moshe at all. Rather, she had a positive intent in discussing this with Aaron. Yet, she still transgressed the Torah prohibition of Lashon hara and was immediately punished with Tzaraat. This should serve as a stark lesson to us that if Miriam was treated so harshly despite her pure intentions and other factors, all the more so, we must be very careful to avoid lashon hara.

This Rambam seems to contradict a different Rambam. In his discussion of the laws of lashon hara, the Rambam makes clear that the form of lashon hara that is forbidden on a Torah level is when the person intends to speak in a derogatory manner.2 He adds that if a person does not deliberately intend to degrade his fellow, yet his speech can result in lashon hara, he does not transgress the Torah prohibition of lashon hara, rather the Rabbinic prohibition known as avak lashon hara – the dust of lashon hara. This refers to speech that is somewhat negative in a certain sense or can lead to other speaking lashon hara, but is not spoken with deliberate intent to degrade someone. For example, it is avak lashon hara to praise a person in front of his enemy because that will likely lead to the enemy speaking derogatorily about the person. Likewise, it is avak lashon hara to speak negatively about a person in a joking fashion, but it is not forbidden by the Torah because the speaker’s intent is not to denigrate his fellow.3 Thus, it is apparent from the Rambam that words spoken without intent to degrade, are not forbidden by the Torah.

Based on this, my teacher, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, asks how can it be that Miriam’s speech was evidently forbidden by the Torah, to the extent that she was punished with Tzaraat – the Rambam explicitly writes that she did not have derogatory intent, rather she wanted to rectify what she thought was a mistake in Moshe’s behavior?

He answers that we learn from this Rambam that there must be another type of lashon hara that is forbidden on a Torah level even if there is no derogatory intent. When a person intends to speak lashon hara for constructive reasons based on a mistaken premise, that is also forbidden by the Torah.4 This is a very novel idea as it emerges that the Torah views a person who speaks negatively about someone with pure intentions but is mistaken in his assessment, in a more serious light than someone who jokingly disparages his fellow.

It is hard to understand why this is, but it seems that a considerable amount of lashon hara spoken by Torah observant people is when it they justify it as being for a constructive purpose. One aspect of that is that they believe they are correct in their assessment of the person they are criticizing and that justifies speaking negatively about them. Perhaps the fact that this is so common could be contributing reason as to why the Torah views this so harshly.

Why is it that lashon hara that is spoken under the guise of being constructive perhaps even more common than standard lashon hara in circles of people who try to observe the Torah? It seems that the answer is based on the idea of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi: If one would offer a person a certain amount of money to speak lashon hara, he would refuse, knowing it is forbidden by the Torah. Even if one upped the offer several times to a huge amount of money, a person with a sound Torah outlook will refuse to relent and speak lashon hara. Yet a short tie later, the very same person could quite conceivably speak lashon hara without receiving any money. How can that be? The answer is that the negative inclination can’t convince us to do something we know is forbidden. Rather, it persuades us that this is actually permitted, and perhaps even a Mitzva. Accordingly, a religious person is less likely to blatantly degrade his fellow with no attempt at justifying it. Yet, he could easily criticize another person or group under the pretext of it being constructive, when in truth it is very difficult to fulfill all the conditions necessary to be allowed to speak constructive lashon hara.

The obvious lesson that emerges is that it is essential to learn thoroughly the laws of lashon hara and when it is permitted to speak constructive lashon hara, in addition to learning the philosophical aspects of the Prohibition in order to seek out the underlying reasons for speaking lashon hara.

The great Miriam, stumbled on her level in the sin of lashon hara, thinking she was justified in her speech. A regular person should think that is she could sin in this area, then he could easily do so as well. Therefore, one must be highly vigilant that we don’t fall into the same trap.

  1. Rambam, Hilchos Tumas Tzoraas, Chapter 16, Halacha 10.
  2. Rambam, Hilchos Deos, Chapter 7, Halacha 2.
  3. Ibid, Halacha 4. See there for other examples of Avak lashon hara.
  4. This assumes that the mistake could have been avoided.