An ancient Jewish proverb declares: “Loose tongues are worse than wicked hands.”
Truth is, people do the most damage to each other with their mouths. Things done with our hands, such as injuries, thefts, etc, can be repaired. Words, however, are like feathers in the wind–they fly too fast to catch them and can never be taken back. Jewish law regards lashon harah, wicked speech such as gossip and slander, as the worst of the transgressions that one commits against fellow humans.
Here is the dilemma: During the months of Elul and Tishrei (before and during the High Holidays), repentance must be our top priority. Repentance for hurting another person requires that we personally ask that person’s forgiveness. What do I do if I spoke badly about someone, in a fit of anger? Now that we are friends once again, how do I ask properly for forgiveness?
The answer to this dilemma depends on the extent of the “damage.” If the gossip itself created negative consequences, then the person must be asked directly for forgiveness. If no harm was done, and it is known that the person will be understanding about the incident, then forgiveness should still be asked.
However, if informing a person that you spoke about them would result in embarrassment or hurt, it is acceptable to ask for general forgiveness, without going into detail. Indeed, causing additional embarrassment to the person would actually necessitate asking for mechila (forgiveness) once again.
This Treat was originally posted on October 2, 2008.
Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.