In an effort to combat the scourge of gossip, particularly on social media, a Jewish advocacy group has produced a video that drives home the speed and danger with which unfounded rumors spread, likening the phenomenon to a “weapon of mass destruction.”
The Jewish faith warns against what in Hebrew is known as lashon hara, that is, slander or gossip, literally translated as “the evil tongue” which has even been interpreted as the subtext behind the leprosy outbreak described in Leviticus 14. (More on that below.)
Lashon hara – the evil tongue – is also the name of the video which presents the fictitious story of Rabbi Shlomo R., a teacher, who was seen at the local butcher shop purchasing a “prime rack of lamb” costing $132.
A woman standing behind the rabbi in line immediately texts a friend, “Can’t believe my son’s Rebbe is buying a rack of lamb. No wonder tuition is out of control.”
“And so it begins,” warns the dramatic voiceover.
From there, the news spreads like wildfire on Twitter, Facebook and in phone calls, and like in the children’s game of “telephone,” the innuendo takes on twists and embellishments.
“Our kid’s rebbe is buying rack of lamb while we eat chicken. Something is very wrong with this picture,” writes a fictitious Facebook user highlighted in the video.
“He was in my bunk in camp, he was always a bit weird, off in his own world,” posted another.
Within minutes the issue escalates to such an extent, some parents suggest meeting with the “menahel,” that, is the school’s principal.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire. I think we should meet with the menahel [principal] and nip this in the bud.”
Only later do we see the rabbi had simply been doing a good deed, picking up the rack of lamb for a family celebrating a weeklong marriage ceremony known as the sheva brachos [seven blessings].
“By 2:53 [p.m.], over 400 people in the community now think they know that there are serious problems with Shlomo R., and the news is spreading to Monsey, Lakewood, Lawrence, Chicago, Miami and L.A.”
“At 2:29 this afternoon, Shlomo R. was a beloved rebbe and a respected member of the community. By 2:55, less than a half hour later, his reputation, and that of his wife and children was destroyed,” the video stated. “In the time it took for Shlomo to walk home, over 400 people became convinced that he was actually loaded with unexplained money and might be a poor role model for his talmidim [students] in his cheder [school]. Only none of it was true.”
“If lashon hara is like a gun that can destroy a person, then lashon hara on the Internet is like a weapon of mass destruction. How many people have been ruined like this?” the voiceover concluded. “Next time you’re about to send or forward an email, text or post about someone, think before you click.”
In Leviticus 14, God explained to Moses the elaborate cleansing process for individuals infected with skin diseases which included isolating them outside the camp and their tents.
The Jewish sages later interpreted the skin disease described in the biblical text to be intricately tied to the problem of gossip. Metzora – in Hebrew one who is afflicted with the disease – could also be viewed as an acronym for one who disseminates a bad name, that is “motzi shem ra.”
“[T]zaraat [leprosy] is seen as a form of punishment for those who engage in gossip - because like tzaraat [leprosy], gossip is highly contagious,” explained Adina Berkowitz in a Bible commentary on the website of Limmud, a UK-based Jewish educational organization.
“The rabbis bring various proof texts, including references to our great leaders Miriam and Moses, to show how even they were afflicted after they spoke ill of others,” Berkowitz wrote.
The “interpretation linking leprosy and gossip is an attempt to raise a red flag to the terrible damage that gossip can cause to individuals, families and institutions. A person's life can be destroyed in one moment because of a remark, a false report, because of lashon hara,” Berkowitz added.
In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses behind his back, after which Miriam’s skin became leprous, forcing her to stay outside the camp for seven days.
According to the Times of Israel, the video was produced by the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, a New York-based outreach organization promoting the use of biblical wisdom in human relations.
“It’s an importance message. It’s something we want to give over and to show that it is something people can really tackle,” Boruch Reiss, the foundation’s media director, told the Times of Israel. “We are trying to help people help themselves.”
Watch the video here: