Why isn’t lashon ha’ra considered treif?
Rav Yisrael Salanter zt”l noted a symbolic meaning in the placement of this week’s parshah. Tazria, which deals with the laws of a person who speaks lashon ha’ra and his resulting tzaraas, immediately follows Sh’mini, which ends with the laws of kashrus. Rav Salanter explained the juxtaposition as follows: We are all quite careful about what we put into our mouths; the Torah then proceeds to remind us to be just as careful about what comes out of them.
Unfortunately, this comparison is much easier stated than internalized. Keeping kosher is viewed as a definitional standard of being a religious Jew, while speaking lashon ha’ra has not achieved this importance. But we shouldn’t feel personally responsible for this problem; the discrepancy has existed for quite some time.
Chazal have a cryptic expression: “There is none poorer than the dog, and none richer than the pig” (Shabbos 155b). The Vilna Gaon explained that the terms “pig” and “dog” in this phrase do not refer to animals, but to the two prohibitions we have been discussing. “Pig” is the quintessential treif food, and it epitomizes the prohibition of eating non-kosher cuisine. “Dog” is the imagery Chazal use elsewhere to describe the barking of slander and gossip (P’sachim 118a), and it represents the sin of lashon ha’ra. When our Sages describe the “dog” as poor and the “pig” as rich, they are not referring to material wealth, but to the value that society ascribes to these prohibitions. There is no transgression poorer – given less attention and importance – than lashon ha’ra (“dog”). By contrast, there is no sin richer – highly regarded by all – than non-kosher food (“pig”). Even 2,000 years ago, our Rabbis noted the phenomenon of religious people who are exceptionally scrupulous about what they put into their mouths, but do not attribute the same significance to what they allow to come out of them.
The challenge with sh’miras ha’lashon is very real and has been so for a long time. It can be argued that, with the contemporary proliferation of books, videos, and organizations dedicated to this mitzvah, we have more awareness and initiatives than in any generation before. We have come a long way, and the weeks of Tazria and M’tzora are a great opportunity to continue this progress – and keep working until the “dog” is as rich as the “pig.”