Breaking Bad News

The gemara (Pesachim 3b) relates that when the Amora Rav Kahana was ill, his colleagues sent Rav Yehoshua the son of Rav Idi to check up on him. When Rav Yehoshua arrived, he found that Rav Kahana had already passed away. First he tore his garment and wept, as a person should mourn a great Torah scholar almost like a family member. Then he turned the tear to a covered part of the garment and returned to the Beit Midrash. Yet he did not inform his dispatchers that Rav Kahana had died, and even when he was asked outright, he replied: I am not saying, for “Whoever spreads slander is a fool” (Mishlei 10:18).

We can learn from this story that it is better not to state bad news outright; rather, the news is broken more gently when the listener comes by himself to the realization of what happened. (See Rashi.) A number of Rishonim go further and infer that it is acceptable even to keep bad news from others altogether, and this is the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh: “Someone whose relative has died and doesn’t know, there is no obligation to inform him, even if it his father or mother [who died]. And of this it is said, Whoever spreads slander is a fool” (SA YD 402:12). The Rema adds that if the mourner is a son who would say Kaddish, we should inform him.

This halakha seems alien to the modern sensibility, which has been convinced that informing people of bad news is the greatest of mitzvot. Often it seems that whoever is first with the most shocking and horrible news is the most honored and revered. But we can acknowledge that this ruling seems extreme.

Particularly puzzling is the use of the word “slander” (dibah) in connection with unpleasant news. How is this connected in any way to slander?

In order to understand this, we should take another step back and ask, what is the problem with slander itself? Let us recall that in halakha, malicious speech is forbidden even if it is completely true. What is wrong with retelling truthful but negative information about others?

We have explained before that one of the foundations of the laws of lashon hara is the belief that human beings are fundamentally good. Therefore, in the first place we should judge them favorably, and not be hasty to accept that they did in fact do something wrong. In the second place, we should assume that any missteps that did occur were out of character, and will not be repeated.

Thus, it would be unfair and even misleading to spread the news.

A similar insight applies here. It is a basic belief of Judaism that the world is fundamentally a good place. We believe not only in G-d’s sovereignty, we also believe in His benevolence. Furthermore, we believe that in most cases this benevolence is expressed in ways that are meaningful to human beings.

The blessings mentioned in the Torah are primarily blessings of this world.

Therefore, we are reluctant to mention bad news. First of all, we should be cautious in giving credence to bad news which we cannot verify. Beyond this, excessive absorption in the negative may influence a person to have a jaundiced view of human existence; this would be like “slandering” the provience of the Creator. Of course we do transmit bad news whenever the knowledge is necessary for us to carry out G-d’s will, for example to fulfill the mitzva of reciting Kaddish. But in general we are not hasty to draw attention to the less pleasant aspects of our existence.

I usually refrain from giving commentary on the halakhot themselves, in order to avoid giving the impression that I am giving practical rulings. But in this case I want to point out that in today’s world of instant information, the application of this halakhah is far more limited than in the past. In the time of the Shulchan Arukh, if the death of the relative was known to a single person in a town and he refrained from passing on the news, chances are the mourner would not find out from anyone else for a period of weeks, until some other acquaintance brought the tidings. But nowadays the relative is as likely as not to find out the news within hours or even minutes via the Internet or news media. In this case delaying the news is not practical, and the more thoughtful way of transmitting it is for the relative who knows of the misfortune to transmit it in a sensitive but direct fashion.