Q. What does Jewish law say about a person who libels another?
A. From the moment that man was created with the capacity for speech there was the danger that words would be used to harm other people. King Solomon said, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).
The Torah deals with this possibility in a marriage, when it severely penalises a husband who slanderously accuses his newly wedded wife of unchastity (Deut. 22:13-21). It also records that Aaron and Miriam had to be punished for making slanderous comments about their brother Moses’ wife (Num. 12:1-13).
The Talmud states that someone who accuses another of being a slave is to be placed under a ban; if he calls someone a mamzer he is to receive lashes; and if he even merely calls another person a rasha (a wicked person) he is to suffer social sanctions (Kidd. 28a).
Damages for slander were already being imposed in Talmudic times (Sanh. 46a), and the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, early 14th cent.) says it is customary in courts everywhere to fine “those who put others to shame with their words” (Responsum 101). This applies to both written and oral statements (Chafetz Chayyim 1:4).
Jews were often in particular danger from informers who went to the gentile authorities and told on their fellow Jews, and where possible the Jewish courts treated harshly those responsible.
This led to the acknowledgement by the Chafetz Chayyim (1838-1833) that Jewish law had a notion of group libel. Arguing that it was as wrong to slander the Jewish people as a whole as to libel an individual, he quoted Isaiah 6:5 (“Woe is me, for I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips”), adding the rabbinic comment that God says, “You may speak evil of yourself, but not of My children”.