Daily Life: Speech
The "Hafetz Hayyim"

Traditionalist Innovator in the Ethics of Speech
One of the most influential Jewish religious figures of the twentieth century established his reputation first and foremost as an opponent of leshon ha-ra, evil speech.
By Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Reprinted from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), talmudic and rabbinic scholar, ethical and religious teacher, [is] venerated by Jews all over the world, especially those in the Lithuanian tradition, for his saintliness and learning. Israel Meir (his original surname was Kagan but Poupko) is universally known by the title of his first book directed against the evils of slander and malicious gossip. He published this work anonymously, its title taken from the verses: “What is he that delighteth in life [he-hafetz hayyim], and loveth many days that he may see good? Keep they tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile” (Psalms 34:13-14). Although the Hafetz Hayyim occupied no official rabbinic position, his later reputation as an authority in practical Jewish law rested secure on his work on the subject. His life of extreme piety caused him also to be acknowledged among Lithuanian Jews as a charismatic personality akin to the tzaddik in Hasidism around which numerous legends accumulate. He has good right to be considered as the most influential figure in twentieth century Orthodox Judaism, appealing also in his homely approach to ordinary Jews with no pretensions to learning. With his gifted pen he produced both scholarly and popular works, all of which are still assiduously studied and some of which, a sure sign of popularity, have been translated into Yiddish.

The Hafetz Hayyim, though the supreme patron of the Lithuanian yeshivot, did not himself study in a yeshivah. Indeed, in his youth he was not an outstanding Talmudist and showed little promise of his future greatness in this field. A reliable report has it that the Maskilim, followers of the Haskalah movement of enlightenment, tried to win the young boy over to their camp but he resisted their blandishments, and remained indifferent to general studies and modern scholarship all his life. His approach to Judaism was other-worldly. When an American visitor to his home saw how bare was the sage’s room, he asked him, “Where is your furniture?” “Where is your furniture?” the Hafetz Hayyim asked the man. “I am only a visitor here,” was the reply. “I, too, am a visitor in this world,” was the typical reply. After his marriage, he and his wife owned a shop in the Lithuanian town of Radin, she serving the customers and he keeping the books. Numerous stories are told of his scrupulous honesty. He once discovered that a non-Jewish customer had paid for a herring but had not taken it with him. The Hafetz Hayyim had forgotten the man’s identity, so for a time he gave every non-Jewish customer a free herring. He remained in Radin for the rest of his life, students at first coming to his home to imbibe his wisdom. At a later date, a large yeshiva was established at Radin, which became a metropolis of Jewish learning in the old style. He was also a leader of the Orthodox movement, Agudat Yisrael, and became very active in the support of yeshivot everywhere. When his fame as an author spread, he earned his living by the sale of his books, seeing to it at all times, in order not to defraud the buyers, that the books were in the best condition and offered at a very fair price.

As noted, the Hafetz Hayyim’s first work on the laws of slander and malicious gossip has the title by which he became subsequently known. He was, it seems, led to compile the work because he had witnessed fierce quarrels in Lithuanian Jewry that caused communities to be torn apart. The novelty in the work consists in an attempt to provide detailed rules on when and where not to speak, a subject that had hitherto been confined to the moralistic literature. Critics of the work argued that it was a mistake to apply the rigidities of the halakhah [Jewish law] to a subject that should really be treated under the heading of aggadah [thinking and writing in a non-legal, even imaginative mode] with its more flexible approach. There is substance in the criticism yet the work proved to be a very useful guide in this sphere. A critic from the ranks of the Haskalah, on the other hand, protested that the work seemed to be saying that the only thing for a Jew to do was never to speak at all. Such a criticism in grossly unfair, though it must be admitted that the Hafetz Hayyim comes down strongly even against the pleasure of harmless gossip. All gossip is harmful, the sage maintains. For all that, the work demonstrates from the rabbinic sources that it is permitted to speak ill of persons when to remain silent will result in harm to others. For instance, if it is notices that a naïve person is about to enter into partnership with a man one knows to be a rogue, it is one’s duty to tell the truth to avoid advantage being taken of the innocent. Presumably, the Hafetz Hayyim would not have disapproved of investigative journalism of the right kind.

Louis Jacob, a distinguished English rabbi and theologian, is the author of many scholarly works, including Judaism and the Individual, and such popular books as The Book of Jewish Belief and The Book of Jewish Practice.

© Louis Jacobs, 1995. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be stored, transmitted, retransmitted, lent, or reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of Oxford University Press.