Yuma 87a: Asking Mechilah for Lashon Hara

Yuma 87a: One who angers his friend, even with words, must apologize to him.

יומא פז ע”א: אמר רבי יצחק: כל המקניט את חבירו, אפילו בדברים ־ צריך לפייסו.

When R’ Yisroel Meir Hakohein published his sefer Chofetz Chaim, he brought it to various gedolim for haskamos. R’ Yisroel Salanter told him, “Leave your sefer with me, and I will read it and decide.” When he returned, R’ Yisroel said, “You write (4:12) that if one person spoke lashon hara against another, and that person ended up being harmed by it (i.e. the listeners believed the lashon hara and acted on it), he must come to him to ask forgiveness, and if the victim doesn’t know about it, he must tell him what he said about him and ask forgiveness. I don’t understand – just because he wants to do teshuva, does that give him the right to pain his friend even more by telling him what he said about him?” The Chofetz Chaim replied, “I took this halacha from Rabbeinu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuva 207.”

They discussed the Rabbeinu Yonah, but still could not agree.

The Chofetz Chaim then asked R’ Yisroel to write him a haskamah and specify that his approval is on everything except this halacha. R’ Yisroel replied, “I’m afraid not, because there are some people who don’t read the full haskamah, and would just see my approval, and I would be guilty of causing others to sin (lifnei iver).” So the Chofetz Chaim left without a haskamah.

Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita heard from Rav Dessler in the name of Reb Yisroel Salanter that in such a case, one should ask mechilah in general for anything he did, not telling the person exactly what it was.

Sources: Az Nidberu 7:66 and Moadim Uzmanim 1:54, Dirshu notes on Sefer Chofetz Chaim, quoting the sefer Meir Einei Yisroel v. 6 p. 353.

[We are left wondering: What did Reb Yisroel Salanter do with the proof from Rabbeinu Yonah? Let’s look at Rabbeinu Yonah inside:

אם ישוב בעל הלשון בתשובה צריך לבקש מחילה לאשר מוצק לו מזעם לשונו, והוא לא יזכור מספר כלם, כי רבים מכאובים הכאיב וכמה נפשות הדאיב, גם רבים מאשר זכר, כי אותם עכר, והם לא ידעו כי הדיח עליהם את הרעה, יתבייש להודיעם ולגלות אזנם על אשר גמלם רעה, כי הוא מכה ואין מכתו ידועה, כענין שנאמר (תהלים קכ): ״מה יתן לך ומה יוסיף לך לשון רמיה חצי גבור שנונים״, על כן נמשל לשון הרע לחץ, כי המושך בקשת פעמים רבות ישלח חציו באדם ולא נודע מי הכהו.

“If the speaker of lashon hara wishes to repent, he must ask forgiveness from whomever he has harmed with his angry tongue, and he will not remember all his victims, for he has caused many wounds and pained many souls. Also, in many cases, even where he does remember harming others, they may not know that he brought misfortune upon them, and he will be embarrassed to tell them that he did harm to them. For lashon hara is a wound that is not recognizable, as it states in Tehillim (120:3-4), ‘What further safeguard could one give or add to a cunning tongue? It is like the sharp arrows of a warrior.’ This is why lashon hara is compared to an arrow: for when one draws his bow, he will often shoot arrows at a person without the person knowing who shot him.”

It’s clear from the analogy to the arrow that Rabbeinu Yonah is talking about a case where the victim already knows that someone has spread lashon hara about him, only he doesn’t know who spread it.  In that case, Reb Yisroel would agree that the speaker stepping forward and confessing won’t cause the victim any additional pain.

However, what about a case where the victim suffered a loss (e.g. his shidduch was broken off, or he was denied a job) but never knew the real reason why? He might have assumed until now that it was because the girl simply didn’t like him, or the boss found a more capable candidate. But when the speaker confesses, he will find out that negative information was spread about him. That’s where Reb Yisroel held he shouldn’t tell him.

But the Chofetz Chaim says that even in this case one must tell him, as is clear from his words:

ואפילו אם חבירו אינו יודע עדיין כלל מזה צריך לגלות לו מה שעשה נגדו שלא כדין ולבקש ממנו מחילה על זה, כיון שהוא יודע שעל ידו נסבב לו דבר זה.

“And even if the other person does not yet know anything about this, he must reveal to him what he did against him in violation of halacha, and ask him forgiveness for it, since he knows that he was the cause of harm to the other person.”

So the Chofetz Chaim actually went a step beyond Rabbeinu Yonah, and it was in this step beyond that Reb Yisroel did not agree with him and therefore refused to grant him a haskamah.

So what does their disagreement hinge upon? Let’s remember: Reb Yisroel made two arguments: 1) Why should your doing teshuva give you the right to hurt him? Better suffer without a mechilah rather than hurt him. 2) It really is possible to get mechilah without hurting him, by asking in general without specifying the sin.

The Chofetz Chaim disagreed with both of those arguments. On 1), he held that although it would cause the victim pain, he would still rather know what was said about him. A person does not want to be ignorant, even when knowledge is painful. Not only that, but sometimes it could be useful to know; he might take steps to correct the fault that people found in him. Reb Yisroel, on the other hand, may have held that a person would rather remain ignorant of painful information. Alternatively, he held that even if the victim himself would rather know, from the speaker’s standpoint, it would be wrong to disturb his ignorance and cause him pain.  

On 2), the Chofetz Chaim held that mechilah without knowing the extent of the offense is like a mekach taus – a transaction on false pretenses. Let’s say A owes B a million dollars and B forgot about it, and A goes to B and says, “If I owe you some money, are you mochel?” and B says yes, that mechilah is invalid. Reb Yisroel, on the other hand, looked at mechilah as a tenai, a condition. The sinner doesn’t owe anything to his victim. It’s Hashem who punishes, not the victim. You have to do teshuva to Hashem. Except that Hashem makes a condition and says, “For sins against your fellow man, I will take off the punishment only if you obtain mechilah from the victim.” For this purpose, a mechilah without knowledge of the crime is also a mechilah.

Another approach to the second dispute is that the Chofetz Chaim held that the purpose of asking mechilah is to humble oneself and feel embarrassed for one’s sin. Asking mechilah without specifying the sin does not fulfill that purpose, because the small amount of embarrassment it takes to do that is not commensurate with the gravity of the sin. Reb Yisroel held that a little embarrassment is also enough; it need not be commensurate with the sin.

One cannot say that Reb Yisroel also agreed that a general mechilah does not work, and still he held that the speaker of the lashon hara must forego his mechilah in order not to cause the other person pain. For if then, what would be the purpose in asking for a general mechilah if it doesn’t accomplish anything?

However, we could learn that Reb Yisroel was uncertain of whether a general mechilah works, so he said one should ask for a general mechilah just in case it works. If it doesn’t work, then too bad – the sinner must forego his mechilah. Alternatively, he held there are two dinim – two reasons for asking forgiveness: the embarrassment, and the tenai, as outlined above. Both are true. In this case, where the sinner cannot achieve one, he might as well get the other.]

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