Hebrew teachings are tough on gossip. The Torah – or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, beginning with Genesis - calls it “lashon hara,” or evil speech. The rabbinical teachings in the Talmud equate the sin of gossip with that of murder.
And in a recent speech in New York, Rabbi Aryeh Mezei told hundreds of female high school students that gossip has its own “butterfly effect,” borrowing the term from Chaos theory. “Just like a butterfly’s wings can cause a tornado, so do your words reverberate in heaven,” he told them.
Rabbi Mezei’s speech was part of a campaign in New York’s Jewish high schools to curtail gossip, which can be so incredibly damaging to reputations and self-esteem at any age. The schools call the campaign “shmirat halashon” – or “guarding speech” – and it involves repeated reminders of the dangers of gossiping. Posters stating, “Do the words you say reach their mark or pierce the heart” hang on classroom and corridor walls. And at least one high school at 11:15 each morning has a student make a public-address announcement, asking fellow students to refrain from gossiping for the next 60 minutes.
One student at the all-girl Stella K. Abraham High School told the New York Times: “The first time, it was really hard not to gossip with my friends. I just sat listening to my iPod for all of recess. I couldn’t talk to anyone.”
Rachel Simmons is author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and she says, “Gossip confers power, coheres friendships and damages reputations. The most painful aspect of gossip is not just what is said about you, but about how people treat you. Whispers and stares can destroy a reputation and self-esteem.”
While she apparently values the campaign in the schools, Simmons admits: “Getting buy-in with these kinds of initiatives from teenagers is the hardest part.”