Some reading about Loshen Hora from
The Chafetz Chaim lists 31 mitzvot which may be violated when a person speaks or listens to Lashon Hara. This is a staggering number. Even though one does not generally violate them all in one shot, it is important to remember how carelessness can lead one into deeper trouble.
The central prohibition against unethical speech is Leviticus 19:16 - "Lo telech rachil b'ameicha" -- do not go about as a talebearer among your people. [FYI: Rashi's commentary on this verse is a "classic." He discusses the origins of the word rachil (a roving merchant), and a few divergent ideas about the Hebrew language.]
This verse in Leviticus applies equally to Rechilut and Lashon Hara (abbr.: L"H). The Chafetz Chaim gives their exact definitions later on, but for clarity we should mention them here:
Lashon Hara - any derogatory or damaging (physically, financially, socially, or stress-inducing) communication.
Rechilut - any communication that generates animosity between people.
Rechilut is often the repeating of Lashon Hara. For example, Reuven tells Shimon that Levi is ugly (Reuven spoke L"H), and then Shimon tells Levi what Reuven said about him. Shimon probably made Levi angry with Reuven, which is Rechilut.
Although Rechilut seems more obviously derived from the verse, both as a cognate (rachil/rechilut) and a concept (talebearer), the Torah is prohibiting any type of harmful or negative speech in this commandment.
There are several other commandments that directly address "gossip":
Deut. 24:8 - "Take heed concerning the plague of leprosy" because it is a punishment of Lashon Hara.
Deut. 24:9 - "Remember what the L-rd your G-d did unto Miriam by the way as you came forth out of Egypt." Specifically, she spoke against her brother Moses.
Lev. 25:17 - "You shall not wrong one another" which the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) explains that this means saying anything that will insult or anger someone.
Deut. 19:15 - "One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity or for any sin" because, unlike in a court for monetary matters, the testimony of a solitary witness is not binding, so that his testimony damages the defendant's reputation without any beneficial result.
Several other commandments are more general, yet in certain circumstances apply when Lashon Hara or Rechilut is spoken:
Ex. 23:1 - "You shall not utter a false report." Acceptance of a false report also follows from this.
Lev. 19:14 - "Before the blind do not place a stumbling block." This applies to both the speaker and the listener since they are helping each other violate the commandments.
Lev. 19:12 - "You shall not hate your brother in your heart," referring to contradictory behavior such as acting friendly but then speaking negatively about him behind his back.
Lev. 19:18 - "You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the children of your people," such as speaking against someone in anger and for something that was done against the speaker.
Lev. 19:17 - "You shall rebuke your neighbor and you shall not bear sin because of him." This verse contains two mitzvot: (1) stop someone from speaking Lashon Hara (among other interpretations), and (2) don't embarrass him in the process. (Note: rebuke is not a simple topic, especially because the one being scolded may not always listen. This is covered in some detail in the second section of the book, Hilchot Rechilut.)
Lev. 19:18 - "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Num. 17:5 - "You shall not act similar to Korach and his company" who sustained a dispute.
Deut. 10:20 - "To Him [and (by implication) his wise ones] shall you cleave."
Ex. 23:2 - "You shall not follow a multitude to do evil." The above two commandments refer to keeping good company, which includes those who will refrain from improper subjects in their discussions.
If you've been counting, you'll realize that there are still a good number of commandments that we haven't mentioned yet. To see the complete list, please see the Sefer Chafetz Chaim or its English adaptation, Guard Your Tongue, by Rabbi Z. Pliskin.
It is certainly good to be aware of the various mitzvot. However, the halachot discussed in the Chafetz Chaim are more specific, basically revolving around "Lo telech rachil b'ameicha," "B'tzedek tishpot et amiteicha," and "hocheiach tochiach et amiteicha." The Chafetz Chaim delineates different situations and conditions, and identifies when the speech is forbidden, permissible, and even desirable.
<"I'm not speaking Lashon Hara--its true!!"
Actually, only one type of Lashon Hara (lit. "evil speech") reflects lies. Speaking lies (slander) is called "motzi shem ra" - literally spreading a bad name. It's pretty easy to imagine how lies, and even exaggeration, can unfairly damage someone's reputation. There are two commandments that explicitly prohibit lying:
Lo tisa shema shav - you shall not utter a false report. Ex. 23:1)
Midavar sheker tirchak - from a false matter you shall distance yourself. (Ex. 23:7)
Note the wording of the mitzvot--neither of them tell us to say the truth, but rather to refrain from telling lies. However, two cases in the Talmud actually advocate lying under certain circumstances.
1. Some of you are probably familiar with the dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel: "keitzad merakdim lifnei hakallah - how does one dance before the bride?" They address the issue of how to describe the (ugly) kallah to her groom: Beis Hillel advises one to say "she's beautiful" and Beis Shammai says "be honest".
The Talmudic commentaries deal with the conflict between the position of Beis Hillel and the commandments that we mentioned above. The proposed resolutions are:
The section in Exodus refers to perjury (court situations) so that there is no actual commandment prohibiting lying in general;
The beauty is the bride's insides, her good deeds;
shalom (peace) is an overriding factor.
(Note: (a) does not mean that we can lie indiscriminately. There are plenty of sources on a more Rabbinic level that extoll the virtues of truth as a Jewish value.)
2. The other case discussed in the Talmud involves someone who has purchased an item at a "no exchanges, no returns" market. The Talmud instructs us to say that it's a nice buy, regardless of what it is in reality. In fact, unlike the "keitzad merakdim" case, ALL authorities agree that the friend should compliment the purchase. (The Tosafos suggest that in case (1) perhaps Beis Shammai did not want to make a public ruling advocating a lie, though perhaps the rationale of either (a) or (c) is applicable.) Both of these cases show that truth is not always the deciding factor in ethical Jewish speech. In fact, the definition of Lashon Hara does not reflect truth or falsehood at all, but the damage that it can inflict.
But sometimes we speak Lashon Hara because we forget that in many cases, truth can be subjective (like "beauty is in the eye of the beholder") or elusive, in that we don't always know the whole picture.
One of the most fundamental commandments related to the subject of Lashon Hara is Leviticus 19:15 - "B'tzedek tishpot amitecha," in righteousness shall you judge your kinsman. This verse commands us to give the benefit of the doubt.