A Burning Question?
‘It’s Not Evil Speech…’
According to Rabba, making derogatory remarks about someone in his presence is not lashon hara and is permitted. According to Abaya, it is certainly lashon hara and constitutes chutzpah, too.
The Rambam (Hilchos De’os 7:5) rules like Abaya. The Kesef Mishnah asks why, though.
For A Constructive Purpose
Rabbenu Yonah (to Bava Basra 39a) writes that Abaya actually misunderstood Rabba’s position. Rabba did not mean to permit relating lashon hara about an individual in his presence; insulting someone in his presence is certainly a grave sin. Rabba was actually addressing a very specific case: speaking badly about a rasha who refuses to abandon his sinful ways. Rabba maintains that one is permitted to report a rasha’s evil behavior to others provided one does so for a constructive purpose (e.g., to make others aware of the danger of associating with him or to embarrass the rasha into repenting).
Rabba permits speaking badly of such a rasha as long as one does so in his presence. If one feels comfortable speaking badly about a rasha in his presence, clearly his purpose and intent is constructive and therefore legitimate.
Tosafos (s.v. “kol milsa d’misamra b’apei t’lasa…”) also submits that Rabba is not addressing normal cases of lashon hara. Rather, he is addressing statements with derogatory connotations but which are not inherently derogatory. Such statements are called avak lashon hara. An example of avak lashon hara, says the Gemara, is saying that the ovens in so-and-so’s house are always burning. This statement can be construed as an insult for it could imply that Shimon is a glutton who is constantly indulging in feasts and merrymaking.
Pardon Me I Have Need Of…
The statement can also be innocuous, though. A person may need a burning coal, and if he does, telling him that stoves in so-and-so’s house are always burning is harmless. It’s actually helpful for the person in need.
According to Rabba, the criteria for establishing the intent of such a statement is in whose presence it was said. If it was said in the presence of the homeowner, clearly the intent was not cynical.
Thus, the Rambam does not really rule according to Abaya against Rava. Rather, his ruling concerns normal cases and thus reflects the ruling of both of them. Both agree that genuine lashon hara is prohibited regardless of whether or not the subject of the lashon hara is present.