The Industry of Evil Speech

Image: Assorted tabloid headlines

Jennifer Aniston is fed up. She is not pregnant, and she’s tired of telling people that she isn’t pregnant. This week the Huffington Post published her article, For the Record, in which she writes about what it is like to be fodder for the tabloids.

Gossip is a huge industry. It masquerades as “news” and in the U.S. the people who profit from it talk righteously about the First Amendment and the public’s “right to know.” It is enormously profitable: in 2011, industry revenues topped three billion dollars.

In Hebrew, the word for gossip is rechilut (reh-khee-LOOT) and it is one of the kinds of speech that are strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shalt you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Holy One. – Leviticus 19:16.

We often cite the second half of that verse but it bears noticing that the two concepts (talebearing and blood) are mentioned together. Gossip has consequences, even when the reports are true, as Ms. Aniston illustrates in her article. Paparazzi make people’s lives miserable; they engage in unsafe practices like car chases and ambushes. They harass not only the celebrity but children and employees and bystanders. They do this because tabloids and magazines like People pay a huge premium for “gotcha” pictures which appear to tell a salacious story or which paint the celebrity in an unfavorable light.

Rechilut, gossip, is a serious matter for Jews. Maimonides explains that it is even worse to spread reports about someone if those reports may damage their reputation. This is what is known as the sin of lashon harah, “evil speech.”

Who is a gossiper? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: “This is what so-and-so said;” “This is what I heard about so-and-so.” Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.

There is a much more serious sin than [gossip], which is also included in this prohibition: lashon harah, that is, relating deprecating facts about a colleague, even if they are true. – Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot

And this is in fact what the gossip mongers sell under the guise of “entertainment news.” The headlines are always the same: speculation about marital infidelity, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy (and who’s the father?) and so on.

Some may argue that when someone goes into public life, they sign up for this treatment. But the fact is that other human beings do not exist for our entertainment. They do not owe us anything except the time and expertise for which we pay them. It is fine to watch Jennifer Aniston’s work as an actress on TV, but it is not acceptable to read gossipy speculation about her in People or the National Enquirer.

Because you see, we are the other half of the equation: this evil industry would not exist if we did not provide a market for it. When we click on a gossipy item, we provide a market. When we buy the Inquirer or People or Us, we provide a market. When we watch TMZ or similar shows, we provide a market.

When I see a tempting item on the screen or the cover of a magazine, I remind myself, “Is it really my business?” The answer is usually “no.”

Let’s step off the lashon harah assembly line. Life is too precious to waste it on trash.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

15 thoughts on “The Industry of Evil Speech”

  1. Apologies if I spoke about this before; around ten years back, I was coming home from the high stret( five minutes. Small fishing town on the outskirts of Edinburgh)

    Almost home, one of the neighbours( older man, nice enough but not someone I know well) stopped me and said “I hear congratulations are in order”.

    I stood there with a look of utter bewilderment on my face, trying to figure out what for…..nope, couldn’t: so, asked him. Apparently he had been told I was pregnant.

    Wow. News to me…..

    I told him I wasn’t. He didn’t apologise, or say anything else. I think I Started doing my usual “I have to explain/answer/apologise for anything that is wrong, even when it’s not my fault ” thing and he looked embarrassed and just walked on, no apology or anything remotely resembling it)

    ( I hate being like thst but it ki pks in automatically.its nit quite so bad as I once was, but it’s still there. Bit more de programming needed, methinks……)

    I carried on, with this thought going round in my head….at first, I found it not funny, but not particularly bothered. Ten seconds later, it hit me and tears and upset all cane flowing out, for all maNner of reasons.

    How rude! How dare he…..inappropriate, to, from a man, I thought…..and then I wondered what had made him think that.

    ( I should add here that I have gained a lot of weight, even more since then, for mainly health and med side effect reasons )

    By the time .i got upstairs and inside, I was a puddle of tears and snot and told Alastair (this was a bit before his health got really bad)

    And he – Alastair – told me that a couple of weeks previously, a (different) neighbour had approached him and done the same thing. She was a real gossip…was well known for it, and had obviously been spreading this. The reason he didn’t mention it to me at the time was because he didn’t want to upset me.

    (Now, that means that she had a fortnight to tell the people shed gossiped to that she had been wrong; obviously, she hadn’t..)

    It upset me a lot….I surprised myself how much, because not having children was a decision we had made when we got married. That, however, is nobody else’s business; and for all she knew, .i could have had miscarriages, or lost a child, or any one of a number if reasons.

    All because I am fat(my lovely new doctor is fine with how I am – that actually helps a lot)

    This was before I started my Jewish apprenticeship(am deeply in search for an alternative word for ‘journey’, which just makes my brains itch: I don’t like it. All suggestions very welcome)

    And now, have learned a wee bit, and knowing certain things, to me thst is a prime example oif exactly how bad lashon hara is. As I say, it really upset me: but I can only imagine how it would have felt to a woman who was u able to have children and desperately wanted them, or other similar things.

    Sorry this is so long, Rabbi Ruth. It still bothers me. And it hurts in an added way, albeit just a little, since Alastair beamed up.


    1. Alex, you touched me deeply with this response. I hope healing from this event comes from knowing how much your outpouring effects others. Shalom dearhreart.

      1. Sheila,
        Thank you so much…..what a kind and helpful reply. I know Imrambled on a hit but I’m not good with brevity 🙂
        Really appreciated what you said, and how you said it.

  2. spot on, Rabbi Adar! it’s good to remind us to mind our own business, there’s plenty there to take care of 😉

    1. Distraction is one of the things that attracts us to celebrity gossip. When there is something in our immediate environment we want to avoid, it’s an escape hatch.

  3. AMEN! Thank you so much for this. It works well with my recent efforts to get people to stop asking intrusive questions because they are “just curious.” What an amazing world if we were all granted privacy (tzniut) in our daily lives. I am going to share this with some friends who very much need the support of what you have written.

  4. I was away from my community for about three years. When I returned I heard words used to describe me that made me shutter. We learned as children gossip is opening a feather pillow to blow in the wind. It’s a very painful feeling.

  5. Rabbi Adar,

    Hope you’re doing well. There’s an issue that has been bothering me for so long. Perhaps it is lashon hara which is what has caused this.

    My issue is this: I’m more “conservadox.” I’ve come to accept it, but I have a hard time accepting that my Judaism is as authentic as the Yiddishkeit of frum people. I’m a young gay man, so it doesn’t help when I know what fundamentalist groups believe. I accept myself finally and I believe that I’m made btzelem Elokim. No one can take that away from me. Any love I can produce is just as pure, I believe.

    My question essentially is:
    1.) Are our more reformed modes of Judaism as authentic as those of our predecessors/the Orthodox?

    2.) Why do I feel like this, Rabbi Adar?

    I’m sure that your answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ What I want to know is, what makes you say that it is as authentic? How do you reach that conclusion?

    Lots of love towards you and your loved ones,

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