Miryam’s Strange Legacy

Remember what Hashem, your L-rd, did to Miryam, on the way of your leaving Egypt. (Sefer Devarim 24:9)

I. Miryam’s sin

The above passage refers to an incident recorded in Sefer BeMidbar. Miryam, Moshe and Aharon’s sister, spoke with Aharon about Moshe’s marriage. The Torah does not provide the details of Miryam’s comments. Our Sages explain that Moshe no longer lived with his wife Tzipporah. This disturbed Miryam and she discussed her concerns with Aharon. 

Hashem punished Miryam. He struck her with leprosy. Moshe prayed for her and Hashem healed her.[1] 

In the above passage, we are told to remember the incident. What is the significance of the incident? What message are we to learn from it and recall? Ramban – Nachmanides – explains that this passage admonishes us to not engage in lashon ha’ra – disparaging speech. Before more closely examining his comments, some terms should be defined.

II. Prohibited speech

The Torah prohibits various forms of speech. Three of these are speech about others:[2]

·      Rechilut. This is speaking about others. Basically, this prohibition restricts any discussion of a person with a third party.

·      Lashon ha’ra. This is speaking critically of another.

·      Motzee shem ra. This is fabricating and sharing disparaging remarks about another.

According to Ramban, Miryam disparaged Moshe. With these remarks, she violated the prohibition against lashon ha’ra. Let us consider his comments more carefully. He writes:

In my opinion, this [passage that admonishes us to recall the incident involving Miryam] is, in actuality, a positive commandment. It is similar [to the admonitions] to “Recall the Sabbath to sanctify it”, “Remember this day that you went forth from Egypt”, “Remember that which Amalek did to you”. Each [of these] is a positive commandment. Also, this [admonition] is like them. It is an admonition against speaking lashon ha’ra. 

It commands us to recall the great punishment that Hashem did to the righteous prophetess who spoke only about her brother, the beneficiary of her kindness, whom she loved as herself. She did not speak [about him so that] he should be embarrassed and not before the masses. [She spoke] only with her sacred brother, and in private. And all her good acts did not help her [to save her from punishment]….

And how is it reasonable that lashon ha’ra which is comparable to murder should not [be prohibited] in the Torah by an absolute negative commandment or a prohibition included within a positive commandment! Rather, the passage is an important admonition to refrain from it in public and private, whether one intends to cause harm and to defame or does not intend to cause any harm…. (Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 24:9)

Ramban makes three points:

·      The above passage is not advising us to recall the incident of Miryam. It is stating an admonition against lashon ha’ra. This admonition is one of the six hundred and thirteen commandments.

·      This mitzvah is violated whether the speaker intents harm or not. Also, it does not matter whether the statement is made privately or publicly. 

·      The Torah compares speaking lashon ha’ra to committing murder. An activity that causes such severe damage must be explicitly prohibited by a commandment. 

Ramban continues and criticizes other authorities who do not include in their compilations of the Torah’s six hundred and thirteen mitzvot a specific commandment prohibiting lashon ha’ra.

III. Rambam’s treatment of lashon ha’ra

Let us focus on this issue. Rambam – Maimonides – is one of the authorities that Ramban is assailing. Rambam compiled a list of the Torah’s commandments. His list does not include a commandment that specifically prohibits lashon ha’ra. Ramban argues that this omission is inconsistent with the Torah’s attitude toward lashon ha’ra. The Torah compares a verbal assault – even if not maliciously intended – to be comparable to a physical attack. How can this activity not be specifically prohibited?

Ramban’s assertion that Rambam does not include within his enumeration of the commandments a mitzvah that specifically prohibits lashon ha’ra is correct. However, this does not mean that according to Rambam the behavior is permitted. Rambam agrees that lashon ha’ra is prohibited. However, his position is that its prohibition is included within a broader commandment. He writes:

One who bears tales about his friend violates a negative mitzvah, as it says [in the Torah] “Do not bear tales within your nation.” Even though one does not receive lashes for [violation of] this negative commandment, it is a great sin. It has caused many murders among Israel. For this reason [the admonition] is juxtaposed to “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor”…. Even if he speaks the truth, this person destroys the world. 

There is a sin that is much greater. It is included in this negative commandment. It is lashon ha’ra. This is one who speaks critically of his friend – even if he speaks truth…. (Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deyot 7:1-2)

Rambam makes two points. 

·      He agrees that lashon ha’ra is a serious sin.

·      Ramban argues that because of its severity lashon ha’ra must be prohibited by a specific mitzvah. Rambam rejects this position. He includes the prohibition against lashon ha’ra within the more general mitzvah prohibiting rechilut – tale-bearing. 

Ramban’s argument seems compelling. Rambam even acknowledges the severity of the sin of lashon ha’ra. Why does he include this more serious prohibition within the Torah’s commandment against tale-bearing? Why does he not afford to lashon ha’ra its own prohibition?

IV. Two aspects of lashon ha’ra

This dispute reflects two aspects of lashon ha’ra. Ramban emphasizes the harm that one causes to the person who is disparaged. Also, Rambam mentions this aspect of lashon ha’ra. When we engage in lashon ha’ra we cannot know or control the extent of the harm we cause to the person we deride. With whom will our comments be shared? How will those who hear our criticisms respond? Will they dismiss them, or will our comments change perceptions of the person we have disparaged? What will be the consequences? How will others treat the subject of our comments after hearing them? These are all questions we cannot answer and issues we do not control. 

Lashon ha’ra also expresses a character flaw. This is a complex issue. The desire or compulsion to engage in lashon ha’ra emanates from a variety of insecurities and aggressive elements of our personalities. When we engage in lashon ha’ra we avail ourselves of a palliative. Like an alcoholic or a drug abuser, we remediate a personality disorder with a measure that ultimately only deepens and intensifies our malady. 

Which of these two aspects of lashon ha’ra is more fundamental? Ramban’s position is that the Torah treats the first aspect as the more fundamental. In his comments, Ramban focuses on the damage that lashon ha’ra causes to others. He argues that this harm is so severe that lashon ha’ra must be prohibited by a unique, specific commandment. He does not mention the second aspect – the psychopathology of the behavior. 

Rambam notes the harm we cause when we engage in lashon ha’ra. But his treatment of the prohibition indicates that he regards the second aspect – the harm caused to the speaker as more fundamental. How does he indicate this?

Rambam places his discussion of lashon ha’ra in the Hilchot Deyot section of his code of law. This section presents a holistic model of individual wellbeing. It includes discussion of nutrition, health, and hygiene. A large portion discusses psychological wellbeing. He proposes a standard of psychological or behavioral wellbeing and exercises for its achievement. This section is the context in which Rambam discusses lashon ha’ra. This suggests that he regards lashon ha’ra as a character disorder. The fundamental aspect of the behavior is its impact on the speaker. 

Now, Rambam’s inclusion of lashon ha’ra within the prohibition against tale-bearing is understood. The Torah prohibits tale-bearing because it is a character flaw. Lashon ha’ra is a more extreme expression of the same flaw. Therefore, it is prohibited by the same negative commandment. 

It is important to understand that Rambam and Ramban recognize both aspects of lashon ha’ra. They agree that it causes unpredictable and potentially substantial harm to the disparaged person. Ramban does not mention the psychological aspect in his comments cited above. But presumably, he agrees that it is also harmful to the speaker. Their dispute is not over the nature of the harm caused. They disagree over the formulation of the Torah prohibition. Ramban proposes that it is prohibited as an act of verbal violence. Rambam suggests that it is prohibited in the context of psychological hygiene. It is a dangerous, unhealthy practice. 

[1] Sefer BeMidbar 12:1-16.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deyot 7:1-2.