בגלל שיוסף הוציא דיבה על אחיו נגזר עליו להיות בבית האסורים עשר שנים (שמות רבה). מכל זה אנו רואין חמר האיסור של חטא הלשון (שמירת הלשון, ח"ב, פרק ז)
The students sat silently in their seats, their eyes riveted on their teacher, Rabbi David. They were eager to hear the resolution to the question which had developed, during the course of the lesson. Rabbi David’s voice rose in excitement, as the tapestry he wove before the class began to take shape.
Suddenly, something came whizzing past him. Before Rabbi David could grasp what had happened, a large, juicy tomato splattered against the wall. He hurried to the window, in order to ascertain the source of the projectile. It was too late. Whoever had thrown the tomato was nowhere to be seen.
Rabbi David returned to the front of the class, and was perturbed to see that the once silent room had descended into chaos. Students were laughing and whispering to each other. A few exchanged knowing looks. It was obvious to Rabbi David that the students knew exactly who the culprit was.
“Quiet!” commanded Rabbi David. “I see that some of you know, very well, who it was who threw that tomato. I insist that you come up to me after class, and tell me who did it. No student should be allowed to disrupt an entire class. In addition, it is his responsibility to clean up this mess!”
Is Rabbi David correct, in insisting that his students divulge the identity of the offending student?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, answers:
The book of Joshua recounts a story, in which a man named Achan took from the spoils of Jericho, after Joshua had warned the people that it was forbidden to take from the spoils. As a result of Achan’s sin, the Jewish people lost a battle against the city of Ai. Joshua knew that ban had been violated, but did not know the identity of the culprit. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 43) relates that Joshua asked G-d who had taken from the spoils. G-d responded “am I an informer? Cast lots, and, thereby, you will know who took from the spoils.”
So too, in our case, the teacher should not ask the students to tattle on the offender. This will cause them to belittle the laws of lashon hara (gossip). (It is true that the story in the book of Joshua does not provide irrefutable proof of the impropriety of asking students to tattle on one another. This is because, in the case of Joshua, G-d knew that Joshua had another means of discovering who had committed the crime (i.e. the lottery). In our case, the teacher has no other way to find the wrongdoer, and punishing him appropriately. Nonetheless, the story of Joshua indicates that it is not ideal to ask others to identify a culprit.)
The Gemara does relate a story (Arachin 16) in which students approached their teacher, and told him of indecent actions which another student had committed, with the intention that the teacher would reproach the sinner. This would seem to contradict the above idea. However, in the case mentioned in this Gemara, the students approached the teacher on their own, and related negative information l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven). In contrast, in our case, it is the teacher who is initiating, and requesting negative information. If the students are compelled by the teacher to inform on their fellow student, they will not necessarily speak l’shem shamayim. If they will speak merely because they were ordered to do so by the teacher, and not with the proper intent, their speech will be considered lashon hara.
What the teacher may do is speak to the students regarding the severity of the offense, without attempting to find and punish the offender. Even if the offender will not learn his lesson, unless he is punished directly, this does not warrant compelling the other students to speak lashon hara.
(from Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, section 2, siman 103, as well as a letter written by Rabbi Feinstein, which is published in the book Bakesh Shalom, page 93)
The author of Shevet HaLevi (section 9, siman 34) disagrees with Rabbi Feinstein’s conclusion. The Shevet HaLevi argues that, for the benefit of the education of the offender, it is necessary to investigate and discover the identity of the perpetrator. This is not lashon hara. The teacher must request to be told the information in private, so as not to embarrass the offender. Additionally, the teacher must warn the speaker that he must be careful to only share information about which he is confident of its accuracy. This way, the teacher will avoid causing the student to speak lashon hara.
In summary: According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, a teacher must not ask students to divulge negative information about other students. According to the Shevet Halevi, if this information is necessary for educational purposes, it is proper to request such information from students, to be related in private.
(Note: The question addressed in Igrot Moshe and Shevet Halevi does not mention the nature of the student’s infraction. The question simply states that the student did “a shameful act).
Translated by Avigail Kirsch