Understanding proper speech, according to Jewish tradition, is critical to one’s personal development. Proper speech does not refer to manners or etiquette, but rather to avoiding a broad category of speech known as lashon harah. While lashon harah is literally translated as evil speech, it is most often known as gossip and malicious speech.

Since the root of lashon harah is speech, it might be surprising to learn that the act of listening to lashon harah is considered more problematic than actually speaking evil, because active, positive listening supports and encourages the speaker. By listening to lashon harah, one risks transgressing the additional Torah prohibition against accepting a false report.

Almost everyone has, at one time or another, found themselves in a situation where they are in a group or with a friend, and the conversation turns “toxic.” Sometimes it is malicious, sometimes it’s innocent, and sometimes it just seems fun. How should one respond? If possible, change the subject or step away from the conversation. If, however, one cannot withdraw from the situation, then it is very important not to accept what is being said as fact.

There is, however, yet another twist to the laws of listening to lashon harah. There are some situations in which one is actually permitted to listen to a person’s negative speech – but always to be taken with a “grain of salt.” For instance, one may listen, if one believes that they can help a bad situation and bring peace between the two sides or, perhaps, right a wrong. If one believes that allowing the speaker to vent will sooth the situation, then one can even listen, but not accept what is being said as true.

The laws of lashon harah are often intuitive and yet complicated at the same time, and many books have been written on the topic. At the core of these laws, however, is Judaism’s constant goal of pursuing interpersonal peace.

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