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Loshon Hora Regarding Shidduchim: Responding to Questions

By BJLife/Rabbi Dovid Jaffee

Posted on 11/08/20

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
Dr. Shapsy Tajerstein, DPM - Podiatry Care.
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This article is adapted from my sefer, “What Can I Say… Today?”. All halachos mentioned herein are complex and part of a larger framework. The purpose of the article is to raise awareness of these essential halachos. Hence, one should not draw any practical conclusions without first consulting a rav.


Introduction


In most cases of relating Loshon Hora for a constructive purpose, it is not relevant if the speaker has been solicited for the information or not. When there is a sufficiently constructive purpose, the information may be related whether asked for it or not; when a constructive purpose does not exist, the prohibition remains in all circumstances.


Nevertheless, when it comes to shidduchim, many rabbonim draw a distinction, as we will explain. There can be factors which would render a shidduch untenable even from an objective standpoint. However, most factors which make up a successful shidduch are subjective, depending on the feelings and personalities of the individuals involved. When it comes to such a subjective deficiency, an individual may not decide to reveal it to another party on his own. After all, everyone has deficiencies, and one cannot expect to marry someone who is perfect. Therefore, it is incumbent an individual embarking on the shidduch process to decide what qualities are the most crucial for their spouse. When making inquiries, they should ask about those qualities. It follows that one who is asked about a particular aspect can understand that it is important to the questioner, and it is permissible to respond.  [See further for specifics and qualifications.]


General Vs. Specific Questions


However, here there is a difference between general questions and specific ones. When asked a generic question, one generally should not divulge any negative information. For instance, one will commonly ask if the subject has good middos (character traits). There may be times that the one who is being asked feels that the subject is lacking in certain middos. Nonetheless, he should not respond by saying that the individual has bad middos. This is because what constitutes good middos is subjective. For some people, anyone who does not have a severe anger management problem has good middos. For others, good middos indictate that the person never exhibits a trace of anger. For a third group of people, middos refer to how many acts of kindness the individual performs.


Thus, when asked a question about middos, one should generally respond that the individual has good middos. (However, see further for exceptions to this rule.) This is because everyone has some good middos, and those middos may be what the questioner is referring to.


[As an aside, one should also be careful to refrain from using terminology which has a different meaning for each party. For instance, if an American is speaking to one who is British, he should refrain from using the word “mad”. In the United States, this word refers to anger, whereas in England, it refers to insanity.]


When a Common Definition Exists


If the one being asked knows that he and the one asking the question have a mutual definition of the phrase, the halacha is different. In such a situation, the one who was asked may respond according to their mutual definition. However, one must exercise caution before doing so, and be absolutely certain that they both truly share a common definition.


Exceptionally Poor Middos


If the individual under discussion has exceptionally poor middos (objectively speaking), one may not respond that he has good middos. In such a case, if one is asked about the middos of the individual, he should respond that he cannot answer such a general question. If the questioner probes further and gets more specific, it is permitted to answer truthfully. However, one must be cautious even with more specific questions, as they can still be interpreted differently by different people. In general, one should answer in as vague a way as possible until asked a specific, pointed question.


Unnecessary Details


Even in a situation in which one may disclose certain negative information, he should try to conceal the details as much as possible. If he knows that the negative information will cause to questioner to stop pursuing the shidduch, he should simply respond, “This shidduch is not for you,” without adding any details. However, there are times that this is not possible. Still, he should try to be general as possible, while conveying the message that the questioner should look elsewhere at the same time.


More Examples of Ambiguous Questions


Another common example of a generic question is when one is asked about an individual’s skills in Torah learning or his Torah knowledge. This is a general question, and it means something else to each person. One should follow the aforementioned guidelines until he is asked a specific question (such as, “How many mesechtos [tractates] has he learned?”), unless he has a personal understanding of the questioner’s intentions and knows exactly what he is referring to.


Similarly, a woman who is asked whether or not a girl is attractive, may not respond according to her own personal taste, as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Since it is difficult to avoid answering this question without giving the impression that the girl is unattractive, she should respond in the affirmative, even if she does not think that the girl is attractive.  She should only respond objectively to an objective question, such as one about the individual’s height or weight.


It is common to be asked if an individual is talkative. The one asking this question is not searching for anything negative. Rather, he is simply trying to get a feel for the individual’s personality. Nevertheless, one may not answer unless he will be giving an accurate response. The word “talkative” means different things to different people. If one cannot determine the definition that the one asking the question is working with, he should say that the question is too vague for him to answer.


When to Avoid Answering


The above are general guidelines, but not ironclad rules. There are times when a question will be posed, but the one who is answering knows that the information is not important. For instance, suppose one is asked if the subject has seen a psychologist, or if he takes psychiatric medication. There are many individuals who are normal, functioning people, even though they have minor psychological issues. Indeed, their functionality is not hampered all that much even when not on the medication. However, many would turn down a shidduch with such a person due to the stigma of psychological issues in the Orthodox community. In truth, were they to first become acquainted with the individual and see that he is perfectly normal, they would be able to accept the minor psychological issue. In such a situation, one should try to avoid answering the question as much as possible. A rav must be consulted for guidance.


When Unsure


When one is asked a question about an individual, and he is not sure how he is supposed to respond (that is, he does not know if and how he should discuss a certain deficiency), he should avoid answering the question at that time. This can be done by changing the topic or by saying that he is unable to keep talking now and he will continue the conversation later. However, one must exercise caution not to give the other party the impression that he is trying to avoid the question. If one is not capable of avoiding a question properly, he may lie and pretend that he is not aware of the deficiency (or that he is not aware of the details of the deficiency).  If he is able to respond, “I do not know,” without arousing suspicion, this is preferable.  At that point, he should speak to a halachic authority to determine if he should call the other party again and disclose the information.


In general, some poskim advise that when one is asked about an individual, he should respond that now is not a good time and that he will be available later. This way he will be able to prepare himself in advance and discuss whether or not he should reveal certain deficiencies with a halachic authority. In this way, he will be prepared to respond when asked questions that may pertain to the individual’s negative qualities.