"The tradition's term for gossip and slander is lashon ha-ra, literally, 'an evil tongue.' The rabbis prohibited gossip based on their interpretation of Lev. 19:16, 'You shall not be a tale-bearer among your people.' Their prohibition against lashon ha-ra included not only slanderous falsehoods but also gossip even when it is true. They understood the deleterious effect that gossip can have on a community.

"R. Samuel bar Nahman said: Why is the evil tongue called a thrice-slaying tongue? Because it slays three persons: the person speaking, the person spoken to, and the person spoken of. [Talmud, Arakhin 15b]

"In this triangle all the parts are connected in a destructive way. Of course, the gossiper is guilty, but also the one who listens to gossip is a willing and a necessary accomplice. The victim may never become aware of the gossip. Yet his or her place in the community can be affected. Profound changes may take place, but gossip is a secret crime and it is very hard to repair its damaging effects. The victim is often unable to defend him- or herself. Gossip spreads, so even confronting the originator of the gossip may not undo the damage. Once pronounced, gossip has a momentum that is difficult to stop. . . .

"Reflect for a moment how often you speak badly of other people. Lashon ha-ra is so much a part of our daily conversation that it seems harmless. Sometimes we speak ill of whole groups of people — a race, a social class, or a profession. Other times it is more personal — we may speak ill of people in our workplace or among our circle of acquaintances. It sometimes seems that society itself revels in gossip. Certainly magazines and talk shows specialize in it. I was struck by the negative effect of talk shows a number of years ago when I was on an all-night radio call-in program. The host spent the night confirming, feeding, and expanding upon his callers' worst opinions by telling them that not only was their specific story 'true,' but their experience reflected a larger 'truth.' Thus, all politicians were corrupt; all lawyers were only after our money, etc.. . . .

"Gossip is also a way of creating and defining social groups. This is often done out of a sense of insecurity. Afraid of being an outsider, we gather others around us by portraying someone else as an outsider. By gossiping or criticizing others, we enter into a secret alliance with those who will listen. . . .

"Gossip is prevalent and destructive, yet it seems only realistic to accept it as common practice, like taking sweeteners from restaurants, overeating, or driving just above the speed limit. But imagine for a moment how different the world would be if gossip were to disappear! A gossip-free workplace, for instance, would be spiritually healthy just as a smoke-free workplace is physically healthy. As human beings, created in the image of the Divine, we are ultimately more alike than unalike. Gossip only serves to sidetrack us from confronting both our own goodness and our own flaws.

"The challenge is great, but it is easy to get started. Just ask yourself the question, 'Is this information I am about to pass on really necessary?' This will usually remove you from the role of gossiper. As for being an accomplice, if people begin to get a sense that you don't enjoy hearing gossip, they will share it with you less frequently. If you seem uninterested in gossip, people soon take the point."