One would not expect to find the major Talmudic discussion on the laws and moral failings of speaking lashon hara in masechet Erachin. This masechet concerns itself with technical laws of gifts of valuations to the Temple, laws that are no longer applicable today. But as we have encountered many times, Talmudic discussions flow from one topic to another—always in a most precise and logical fashion[1].

As we discussed in our last couple of posts, the opening Mishna of the masechet, which teaches “that all are included in the laws of erachin: kohanim, levi’im and yisraelim” led to a long discussion of many other cases in which “all” are obligated, including kohanim, levi’im and yisraelim

The third chapter of masechet Erachin begins by telling us that, “There are, by erachin, leniencies and stringencies” (Erachin 13b). When taking a vow of erachin, the amount that one must donate to the Temple was a fixed amount, determined by age and gender alone. Whether one is the king of Israel or a child molester, one would donate the same amount; hence, the leniency and stringency, respectively. This, in contrast to one who is being held captive for ransom, where the amount the community may pay is limited to “their monetary value”, (Gittin 45a) a value determined by the contribution one makes to society. When it comes to our relationship to G-d and when dealing with the Temple, all are equal[2]. When society is allocating funds, hard decisions must be made regarding the relative value that each person offers. 

After listing this concept of leniencies and stringencies regarding erachin, the Mishna continues listing other areas where there are leniencies and stringencies, i.e., where the fixed value imposed by the Torah leaves no room for taking into account individual circumstances. The Mishna next teaches that when one redeems a consecrated ancestral property, one must pay 50 shekalim, regardless of whether the field is in a swamp or in the “orchards of Sebastia”. The Torah understood that when it comes to family property, it is not its objective value that matters. This in contrast to a s’de mikneh, a regular field, where the amount would be determined by its market value. 

Moving to an “unrelated” topic, the Mishna next teaches that, “regarding a wild ox that gores and kills a slave, there are leniencies and stringencies”. Regardless of how productive a slave may be, the owner of the ox must pay a fine of 30 selaim (60 shekalim) to the owner of the slave. A slave is a slave is a slave, and distinctions between slaves as individuals carry no legal weight. 

Next the Mishna discusses the cases of ones umefateh, seduction or rape. In Talmudic times, one who seduced or raped a woman had to pay a fixed fine of 50 selaim, regardless of whom it was that one raped. The idea of raping someone is so obscene that it matters little who was raped. Just as a court today (we hope) would not determine its jail sentence based on the identity of the perpetrator or victim, the Torah’s monetary punishment in a case of rape is equal for all. In addition to this “fine[3]”, a rapist had to pay for the pain, suffering and embarrassment caused to the victim. And these amounts varied by person: “All is based on the one who humiliates and the one who is humiliated” (Erachin 14b). 

The last of the laws that have both “a leniency and a stringency” is the case of motzi shem ra. Being accused by one’s husband of not being virgin was a most serious matter. Were it true, it would enable the husband to annul the marriage and it could theoretically lead to the death penalty for the woman. If the accusation was false—such being the classic Biblical case of motzi shem ra, speaking an untruth[4]—a terrible sin would have been done, one causing enormous pain even if disproven (not to mention that there are always some who believe even proven lies). One guilty of such a libel must pay a fine of 100 selaim, a fine that applies equally to all, regardless of the status of those involved. 

Commenting on the disparity in the payment for motzi shem ra and that of actual rape—the former being twice that of the latter—the Mishna states that, “We find that one who speaks with his mouth is more severe than one doing an action” (Erachin 15a). 

Hurt caused by words is often greater than physical pain, and can linger long after one is physically healed. Yet despite the fact that words generally hurt more than “sticks and stones”, it is somewhat surprising to say such in the case of rape, which one might think would be an exception to the rule. However, we must recall that the accusation of motzi shem ra is much more than just an accusation of absence of virginity. It is an accusation that the woman committed adultery, having been intimate with another man between the time of kiddushin, legal marriage (today an act performed by the giving of a ring) and that of nissuin, when the husband brings the wife into his home (today symbolized by the chupah and yichud). In Talmudic times, these two parts of a wedding took place up to a year apart[5]. The accusation of non-virginity was, in essence, an accusation of adultery, something which may be more painful than actually being raped. 

Yet perhaps sensitive to the fact that, nonetheless, for many, physical rape is worse than a false accusation of adultery, the Mishna brings a further proof that speech can have more far-reaching effects than action. “For we find that the fate of the generation of the desert was sealed only because of lashon hara, bad speech, as it says, ‘and they tested Me ten times’” (Bamidbar 14:22, Erachin 15a). While the Jewish people “tested” G-d times with their sins, it was only the sin of the meraglim, who spoke negatively[6] against the land, that was the cause of the death of the generation that left Egypt. 

When all is said and done, it matters little which causes greater harm. Speech is a precursor to action, and it is speech that incites action. One does not hate, harm or hurt another person in a vacuum; one first demonizes them, a phenomenon that caused the loss of one-third of our people and one that is sadly present in so many countries today.

Lashon hara is normally translated as evil or harmful speech, but perhaps is better translated as lashon, speech, that leads to ra, evil. No wonder the Gemara has such terrible things to say about those who engage in lashon hara, a topic we will Please G-d visit in our next post. 


[1] One of the most common fallacies of those with a passing familiarity with Gemara is the idea that the rabbis often go off on tangents. While discussions may suddenly change focus, there is always a compelling reason why this is so. The Babylonian Talmud was edited with great precision, and there is much to learn in analyzing the particular flow from topic to topic. Often, what appear to be disparate topics have deep connections to each other. In recent years, much work has been done in demonstrating the thematic connections between the legal and aggadic discussions that share the same page, with each amplifying the other. 


[2] Thus, Nine Moshe Rabbeinus, a minyan they would not make; yet ten Shabbat violators would make saying kedusha a piece of cake. 


[3] Jewish law allows one to kill a person in order to prevent a rape from being committed. But the Torah itself has no jail system and thus, many crimes for which we in the West have jail—i.e., theft—were punished through monetary fines. Nonetheless, rabbinic courts had great autonomy and authority in deciding on appropriate punishment, up to and including the death penalty, even in cases where the Torah itself does not provide for such. 


[4] This, in contradiction to Miriam who, in speaking against her brother Moshe, spoke the truth (Moshe did take a kushi wife). Miriam’s is the classic biblical case of lashon hara, evil speech that is unnecessary even as it is true. 


[5] While this dual marriage ceremony may have had merit in an age when people married much younger and social norms were much different, it makes little sense today and was already abolished by the time of the early Middle Ages. Whereas in Talmudic times, even those married lived apart (until nissuin), today many live together without marriage: a real example of nitkatnu hadorot


[6] Note the Mishna’s description of their speech as lashon hara and not motzi shem ra, which is the topic of the Mishna. The meraglim spoke the truth about the land—it would not be easy to conquer—but like all forms of lashon hara, it was a truth that, under the circumstances, should not have been spoken.