Small Talk, Large Consequences
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender (email@example.com)
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, popularly known by the name of his opus, the Chofetz Chaim, was accompanying a rabbinical colleague on an inter-city journey for Torah purposes. The two decided to stop at an inn en-route to eat lunch. As they walked in, the inn-keeper immediately recognized the identities of her two distinguished guests and escorted them to her finest table to be waited on with the honor they deserved. When the rabbis finished their meal, the inn-keeper approached to ask them how they had found her food.
“Very good,” answered the Chofetz Chaim.
“And what was your opinion?,” the innkeeper inquired of her second honored guest.
“The food was quite good,” said the second rabbi, “Maybe a little bit too salty.”
As she heard the second rabbis words, the innkeeper turned quickly towards the kitchen. The Chofetz Chaim turned pale. “I can not believe this,” he said. “All my life I have avoided speaking or hearing lashon hara (destructive speech). Why have I heard lashon hara now? If I had known that this would take place I would not have set out on this journey.”
The second rabbi, surprised by the Chofetz Chaim’s heated reaction, shot back in question, “What did I say already? What was so terrible about my words? I told her that the food was quite good! All I added was that it could be improved if they added a little bit less salt!”
“Oh, you have not yet learned to appreciate the power of your words,” mourned the Chofetz Chaim in distress. “What if the cook was a poor widow in need of work? Because of your words, the innkeeper will accuse her of making the food too salty. In order to defend herself, the widow might deny the accusations by claiming that she puts no salt in at all, or even that she personally tastes all the dishes herself before serving them.”
“That could lead to the innkeeper accusing her of lying,” the Chofetz Chaim continued. “She might yell at the cook, ‘What do you think, that the rabbis are liars? You’re the one who lied!’ The two women could get into a fight and the innkeeper might get so upset that she fires the cook. The poor widow would be left without any source of income.”
“And look at how many aveiros (sins or mistakes) you would have brought about,” added the Chofetz Chaim, “You spoke lashon hara; you caused the innkeeper and I to hear lashon hara; you brought the innkeeper to repeat the lashon hara to the cook, which is already considered an entirely different sin called rechilus (gossip); you brought the cook to lie; you brought the innkeeper to distress a widow; and you caused people to fight with each other.”
The Chofetz Chaim concluded and found his coulleague staring at him thoughtfully. He answered in a quiet tone of voice, “There must be some sort of mistake here. How could the words I said have caused all of that?”
“Why don’t we go into the kitchen and see?,” asked the Chofetz Chaim.
As the two rabbis opened the door to the kitchen, the first thing to catch their eyes was the sight of a cook stooped over a counter crying. Regret gripped the second rabbi, who rushed over to the woman to apologize for the damage and pain he had caused her and beg for her forgiveness. The next person he turned to was the innkeeper, begging her to forgive the cook and allow her to retain her job.
“Anything to make sure that this woman does not lose her livelihood because of my foolish words,” the second rabbi pleaded. “I’ll pay you whatever I can to convince you not to fire her!”
The innkeeper was a kind and generous woman who responded genially, “Certainly, certainly, sir. I won’t be firing my cook today. She’s an excellent cook and knows her place. I just wanted her to know that she has to be careful.”