Biblical leprosy was both a spiritual and physical ailment, a punishment doled out for the sin of evil speech, lashon hara.
In Parshat Metzora we learn of the punishment of tza’arat — biblical leprosy. Unlike the more modern variety, this was both a spiritual and physical ailment. According to our Sages, this was the punishment for the sin of lashon hara — evil speech. Someone who committed this sin could see their house infected with tza’arat.
If they failed to mend their ways, it would spread to their clothing, and then to the sinners themselves. The person diagnosed by the Kohen as having tza’arat would have to remove themselves from the community. Only once they repented, were healed and brought the required sacrifice could they return.
Though we no longer have biblical leprosy, we sadly still have the sin of lashon hara. It is a sin that destroys communities and relationships, and causes grave danger to the Jewish people and the world. It is no surprise that the punishment included removal from the community that was damaged by their actions.
The week of Parshat Metzora is a particularly good time to review some of the relevant laws about how we speak about others.
In general, one is forbidden to speak negatively about our fellow Jews. The prohibition extends to writing (including emailing or texting) or any way of hinting negative information about others. This is the case even if what is being said is true! If it is a lie, it is a different sin — motzi shem ra (spreading a bad name).
There are important exceptions to this rule. The most notable exception is if someone is in danger. For example, it is required to report child abusers (or other dangerous criminals) to the authorities or to tell a parent/teacher if a child is engaged in dangerous behaviors. One is also allowed to share relevant information on a “need to know” basis with potential business partners or employers.
For example, one principal should tell another principal about their perception of a teacher candidate’s weaknesses in the classroom. However, they can’t include irrelevant details or share this information with others.
There are certainly occasions where someone may share negative information with a spouse or a therapist but only to serve emotional needs, not in order to harm the reputation of others.
Finally, it is critical to remember that just as one is forbidden to speak lashon hara, one is forbidden to listen. If someone begins speaking in a negative way, kindly ask to change the subject or withdraw from the discussion entirely. The laws of forbidden and permitted speech are complex.
The great Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Kagan wrote two very important works, Chafetz Chaim and Shmirat HaLashon, about this important topic a century ago. (You can find these books in their original Hebrew or English translations.) Even then, people found these laws challenging to observe.
In our era of instant communication, the challenge is even greater. But so is the damage that can be caused, to individuals and the entire Jewish community, by violating these laws. Therefore, it is important for everyone to learn how Hashem expects us to speak, and when He expects us to be silent.
We are justly careful with what we put in our mouths. Parshat Metzora reminds us that we must be just as careful about what comes out of our mouths. We must guard our tongues.
Rabbi Shmuel Jablon is the menahel (principal) of Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, a past member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and the host of www.rabbijablon.com.