Talmud Tips

For the week ending 4 March 2017 / 6 Adar II 5777

Bava Batra 39 - 45

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

Rabbah bar Rav Huna said, “When any statement is made in the presence of three other people there is no prohibition of ‘lashon hara’ (negative speech).”

This teaching appears in our gemara in relation to the proper way a land owner should make a “protest” that someone who does not own his house is living there. With this protest the original known owner who hears about someone else using his land or real estate is protecting himself from the current tenant's winning a false claim of purchase. Without this protest the new holder of the property is able to establish proof of purchase by staying there for three years, claiming that he had purchased it, and has lost his document of purchase after three years, which is excusable since he is only human. However, if the original owner makes a protest within three years that the property is still his, then the new claimant must be able to produce his purchase document — or lose the case.

Our sugya raises the question about the number of witnesses who must hear the protest of the original owner, and attempts to line up the various views with the above halacha taught by Rabbah bar Rav Huna regarding the speaking of lashon hara.

Rabbah bar Rav Huna’s statement, however, raises a basic question: Does he really mean to teach that it is permitted to speak lashon hara in the presence of three people?

The classical commentaries explain this statement in a variety of distinct ways. Here is a sampling of explanations from a sampling of the many Rishonim who weigh in on this issue.

  • A statement made in front of three people is assumed to become public knowledge, as the gemara says in Erachin 16a, “Your friend has a friend and your friend’s friend has a friend…” We assume that the three original hearers will tell others, who will tell others, and so on. Therefore, the ones who hear a negative statement in this public way — that will become even more public — are permitted to tell others, including the one being spoken about. (Rashbam)
  • Our gemara is teaching only about a statement made in front of three people that is ambiguous in nature. It is not speaking about outright lashon hara. Rather, it could be interpreted as being meant as a compliment about the one spoken about, or it could be interpreted as being meant as a negative statement. Since the person made the statement in front of three people, he assumes it will get back to the one he spoke about, and we can therefore assume he intended it in a positive way and not as lashon hara. (Tosefot)
  • A quite novel approach is suggested by Rabbeinu Gershom Ma’or HaGolah and Rashi. Rabbah bar Rav Huna is not speaking about lashon hara per se. Rather, normally if a person tells another person something private about himself, such as a business trip he plans, or about tragedies or misfortunes that befell him, the assumption is that the person he told it to has no permission to tell it others, since this might result in financial damage or embarrassment to the original teller. However, if the original teller made his statement in the presence of three people it can be assumed that he doesn’t care if everybody knows about it, and therefore the ones who hear it may repeat it. (Rabbeinu Yona and Rashi)

(For a clear and detailed discussion to better understand this extremely practical halacha, see the writings of the Chafetz Chaim in his sefer “Chafetz Chaim” klal beit, in “Mekor Hachaim” with his extensive notes in “Be’er Mayim Chaim”).

  • Bava Batra 39a

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