A Time to Keep Silent, A Time to Speak: Shidduchim and Loshon Hora

When Adam met Chava, he didn't inquire about her family background, her education or even her age. They didn't have friends to call to check each other out. Without references, without resumes, they trusted their Shadchan and happily became each other's family and friend.

Ever since the first shidduch, G-d transferred the technical part of the job to human hands. Nowadays, everyone involved with shidduchim would heartily agree with an old Yiddish expression's astute warning that "even a cat can ruin a shidduch."

When one "speaks" a shidduch, one opens up two lives for careful inspection. After all, how can a Jew approach life's most pivotal decision with blinders on? Questions need to be and should be asked. But how many of us realize the responsibility and power that lie in the answers we provide or withhold? Words spoken or silenced may not only make or break a shidduch, but individual lives as well.

A man receives a phone call from a woman investigating a shidduch for her daughter. He knows the potential chasan, who is his cousin, quite well. In fact, he and this cousin are on very close, friendly terms. He's happy to detail all the cousin's many wonderful traits, and one of them is his intelligent wit.

"I would say he's irreverent," the man says, trying to convey the cousin's offbeat sense of humor. The woman doesn't respond.

Later on in the conversation he inquires, "So, how does it sound?"

"If there is one thing I hate in a person," says the woman, "it's irreverence. Someone who's never serious and full of chutzpah."

The impression the word made was light-years away from what was intended.

"No, no, no, you misunderstood me," he says. " I meant he's a very respectful person at the same time."

Had the woman not disclosed her feelings, had the word "irreverent" not been clarified, the damage would have been done. The shidduch would have been shattered for absolutely no reason.

In most other situations, derogatory remarks spoken about a third person constitute loshon hora. Those same words spoken for the purpose of supplying information for a shidduch may well be permitted. Or, depending on circumstances, they may still be loshon hora. So, any Jew trying to fulfill his obligation to help find a spouse for an unmarried man or woman is forced, simply out of the desire to do an important mitzvah, to tread perilously close to the profoundly destructive element of loshon hora.

It's as if the people associated with a shidduch worked at a nuclear power plant. They stand in the midst of highy toxic materials. Were they to learn on the wrong button, they would release a force whose harm may never be contained. They have to be where they are, but they have to know exactly what they're doing.

In that environment, certainly nobody would risk a breach in their protective gear. For those involved in a shidduch, the halachos of loshon hora are the protective gear that keep the toxins of loshon hora from leaking into a shidduch situation. Obviously, it is imperative to know what can and can't be said.

The line between information that is valid and contructive, and that which is simply Joshon hora, is so thin as to be nearly invisible. Often, the line isn't even thought to exist, since many people take it for granted that a question about a shidduch can and should be answered.

Nor is it even a straight line. There is a crucial difference between what's allowable when a shidduch is under consideration, and what can be disclosed once a couple is engaged. Discerning this line requires a comprehensive understanding of the relevent halachos.

A Dossier of Misinformation

All too often, the well-meaning hunt for information only results in the amassing of a dossier that is packed with off-the-cuff impressions, mistaken assumptions and secondhand information. And from this, the future is decided.

Since most of us view our opinions as fact, we feel justified and qualified to give our impression of people. Unfortunately, secular society's "fast food" mentality has infected our judgement, and we often glean an individual's essence from nothing more than a brief conversation or fleeting glance.

Everyone is aware of just how fallible first impressions are. Most people have had the experience of discovering whole new facets of a person's nature as they become better acquainted. The person who never smiles turns out to have a dry sense of humor. The one who seems to have nothing to say turns out to be highly intelligent and contemplative. Without the feeling that one really knows another person, one can almost be sure that the assessment he'll be providing will be inaccurate.

Yet, this likelihood doesn't stand in the way of offering one's judgement as fact. The drive to judge and compare people is a strong one. When one is asked information for a shidduch, the brakes are released and this drive goes forward, full-force. Unfortunately, human nature is such that, if the information being relayed is negative, it has even more credibility than the positive. Hearing the negative, most people assume, "There must be at least a germ of truth."

Once a judgement is put into words, it takes on a life of its own. Fleeting perceptions become fact. To measure the power of negative assessments, one need only consider his own set of assumptions. How likely is someone to patronize a restaurant that a friend described as a "greasy joint"? To shop at a store someone has labeled "a rip-off"? To hire a secretary others have called "a scatterbrain"?

All these evaluations create a now reality for the people who hear them. The listener believes and adopts as his own the perceptions shared with him. As a result, someone who may have received fair, open-minded consideration now appears with a cloud over his head. And the cause of it all might well be a total misapprehension on the part of the speaker.

A young man's family considers a girl. They know someone who taught English in the school she attended. The girl was a mathematical genius, but could barely spell "cat." The verdict? She was a poor student.

The girl's family knows someone who lives on the boy's block. Some unpleasantries has passed between the two families when the boy's father slipped on ice that had been left un- shoveled in front of this particular neighbor's house. The verdict? A meddlesome, vindictive family. Horrible in-law material.

In either of these cases, the information is based on a partial, fleeting and ultimately misleading view of the subjects in question. And yet, the possibility of this shidduch going much further would seem irrevocably dimmed.

Fragmented Visions

With the exception of close friends and family members, people with whom contact has been consistent and meaningful, most impressions of others are based on similarly unrepresentative fragments. Yet, most people are willing to offer up their fragments, with no hesitation at all, in the belief that they're being helpful.

This belief, however, leads many unwittingly into loshon hora. Even with the lives of a couple at stake, there are people who are willing to put their mouths to work before training their minds for the job. Investigating the situation and finding out how the halachah applies are essential first steps to avoiding potential disaster. "W

hen dealing with something as subjective as an opinion, a person is better off simply stating, "I don't know," say Rabbi Yitzebak Berkowitz, head of the Aish HaTorah Semicha Program in Jerusalem.

In making the statement, "I don't know," every effort must be made to convey that this is not being said to avoid giving negative information. He must state what "I don't know" means- precisely and only that he doesn't know the person well enough to answer a particular question.

Even when comments are based on a fuller view of a person, there is often another problem that distorts the information being conveyed. Perceptions are filtered through the subjective biases of the speaker. Everyone has their own world view, and everyone judges others in light of it. As one woman jokingly put it, "If you're more religious than I am, you're a fanatic, if you're less religious you're an apikores." And while most Jews have a wider range of vision than that, the fact is that one can only judge a situation from his own vantage point.

When Silence Is Destructive

Given the potential for speaking improperly and the potential for that information to do genuine, long-term damage to other people's lives, there is a strong temptation to "take the Fifth" and refuse to offer any information. That, however, can be an equally wrong strategy.

Clearly, there are situations in which damaging information must be shared. The Torah expressly states the prohibition, "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your fellow man." A Jew is not permitted to knowingly allow another to come to harm. There are serious, even dangerous flaws in mental health, character, religious commitment or other areas that, if left unspoken, could subject one or both partners to a life of misery, and failing to reveal these facts constitutes a violation of the Torah precept.

Even if one is the lone witness to some negative fact, and would therefore be disallowed from testifying against the person in Bais Din, he may still be obligated to reveal it. In these types of situations, asking the advice of a rav is always the best course of action.

"It wasn't until after months of dating someone that I learned how unstable he was," says one woman. "He hadn't held the same job for more than a half a year, and he continually rejected girls after a few months of dating them. I wondered whether I should warn my friends."

Caught between the desire to protect others from becoming involved in a fruitless relationship, and the imperative of refraining form loshon hora, she brought the dilemma to a rav, who agreed to investigate the situation further.

Beware of Hurt Feelings

Men and women who have already dated an individual are often the source of information for friends who have been suggested for the same person.

However, this is one wellspring of information that is quite possibly poisoned by bad feelings. One important criterion for accepting an ex-date's assessment is, how long did the couple date? One date tells a person only one thing- how this person behaves in a high-pressure, ego-on-the-line situation. Secondly, it's important to know before accepting information from such a source which party cut off the relationship. If someone was hurt, there's little likelihood of their providing objective information.

And there's a further hazard. Talking to the party who did the "dumping" can serve to devalue a perfectly suitable potential match. People are not generally enthusiastic about accepting someone else's "reject" even if the reason for rejection was a matter that has no bearing at all on the second shidduch.

Perhaps a man is rejected because a woman feels he's too serious. Yet, her friend who is inquiring about this man might be looking for someone who is serious. If she receives the information that he's "really dull, no personality," she's not likely to pursue the shidduch.

There are strict parameters as to what type of information one can supply about someone he has already dated. For example, a person is not permitted to say he got "vibes" on a date that the girl was not a giving person. A problem can only be reported about an issue which the next candidate wouldn't be able to discern on his own. And even then, there are limits.

The Shadchan's Role

The Torah equates the act of setting up a shidduch with the mitzvah to tzedakah, according to Rabbi Berkowitz. "You have to understand each individual's needs. Just because two people are more or less the same height or age doesn't mean they're for each other," he says. "Loshon hora is less of a problem when the shadchan puts careful thought into the match."

Integral to the shidduch situation is the interaction with the shadchan, a process that in itself poses difficult Shmiras Ilalshon questions. When a match doesn't click, the shadchan wants to know why, in order to get a better feel for what each party is looking for, and also to get a better idea of the impression each party makes. But the need to communicate with the shadchan also has to be measured against the standards of Shmiras Haloshon, making sure that only useful, well-grounded information is related.

One woman reports that, when she decides against dating someone further, she must sometimes struggle to keep her reasons to herself. "Some shadehanim back me into a corner by insisting that I tell them why the shidduch wasn't for me. They usually say, "Just tell me so I'll know better what you're looking for." I wind up relaying something negative about the boy and then she'll say she thought all along that was his problem. Those have been my most painful experiences, when I've ended up saying things I didn't want to say about people.

Finally, there are the pitfalls facing the shadehan himself. He is dealing with men and woman who in some cases, may already have a long, unhappy dating history. Their self-esteem may be fragile; their hopes may be teetering on a precarious edge. The potential for one's as devorim, causing pain with words, is enormous.

From the moment a shidduch is underway, every word carries crucial weight - not only the words, but the way in which they're said. Lea Hellman, a shadchan from Far Rockaway, has seen the wounds caused by insensitivity. "I remember one single young lady who introduces herself by saying, "I hope you're not going to be one of those shadehanim who tell me I'm too old and too tall." "My heart broke," Mrs. Hellman said.

"We are in the business to be mechazik people and that means treating them with respect and always thinking before we speak. We're dealing with people's lives. It's a tremendous responsibility."

Every party involved in a shidduch beats the weight of this responsibility-the shadehan, those from whom information is being requested and those who are seeking a shidduch. But at times- especially when a man or woman has been dating unsuccessfully for a long time- the weight can seem too much to bear. The level of frustration is high, and talking is often the only way to vent it.

Here more than anywhere, Shmiras Haloshon has to be the guide. Out of frustration, former dates may be ridiculed or berated their reputations damaged, when their only sin was in not being right for theother person. Yet, Torah recognizes the need to relieve emotional stress, and there are times, places and ways to get needed psychological comfort, all outlined with Halachan.

Steering Clear

Obviously, knowing exactly what the Torah deems proper is the only way to keep any discussion of other people from turning into loshon hora. Yet, a large amount of the harm that is done occurs simply because of the tendency to offer opinion, even superficial opinion, as fact

These instances of misguided discussion, which result in so much heartbreak, could be reduced drastically through two simple steps. Everyone who asks for information should preface his request with the question, "How well do you know this person?" And everyone who provides an answer should first consider. "On what am I basing my opinion?" Those two brief, preliminary questions would go far in stanching the vast majority of unintentional loshon hora and misinformation fed into the shidduch process.

Clearly, every word spoken regarding a shidduch can carry whole worlds on its wings- the foundations of new bayis ne'ernan, the life of a new family, of generations to come, can all be altered by our words. It pays to weigh them carefully.

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