Rabbi Yossi is quoted as effectively saying that he wouldn’t say anything about someone that he wouldn’t say directly to that person himself.
The fact is that he never actually said it this way. What he actually said, as quoted in the Gemara, was that Never once in my life did I have to retract anything that I said to anyone, but nevertheless, by wrenching his words totally out of their context a popular misconception has arisen that assumes that it’s permissible to speak loshon hora if one is speaking directly to the victim of said loshon hora.
In the commentary of the Be’er Mayim Chaim to the first Halacha in Klal Gimmel, the Chofetz Chaim devotes close to a dozen pages to vaporize this misconception.
For those lacking the staying power to attend to the Chofetz Chaim’s detailed and cogent analysis, the dozen pages of the Be’er Mayim Chayim can be summed up in one word:
Like most things in life, there’s also a flip side to Rabbi Yossi’s words, be they actually said, be they supposedly said or otherwise, that the Chofetz Chaim didn’t deal with, and if made into a rule of thumb it would spike the vast majority of one’s loshon hora from the get go.
Success in holding the line on loshon hora is a matter of attitude and focus, and if the attitude is that the laws of loshon hora are an obstacle to one’s desired discourse then the focus will be on trying to dance around them. Those who cite, or rather miss cite, Rabbi Yossi do so because they are seeking wiggle room to say what needn’t be said and more often than not shouldn’t be said altogether. Those, however, who hearken to the converse of what Rabbi Yossi was purported to have said focus on Hashem’s desires, as opposed to their own, so as to not say anything other than what should be said.
So how can we slice and dice Rabbi Yossi’s words so as to morph them into verbal body armor?
It’s a simple fact of life that most of the baali loshon hora amongst us are not so brazen as to exercise their tongues in the presence of those who they are attempting to run down with their speech, and all the more so for the casual speakers of loshon hora. If one thinks his next door neighbor is a jerk it’s not likely that he will so express himself when the neighbor is in hearing range. It’s basic human nature.
Therefore, if you wouldn’t say it in front of yenem don’t say it behind his back.
And if you would?
For everyone but the fewest of the arrogant few, who in any case are reading neither this, nor Sefer Chofetz Chaim, there is no such thing as and if you would because you wouldn’t.
The difference between this statement and that of Rabbi Yossi is small and somewhat subtle, but bottom line it’s all the difference in the world.
If one internalizes these fifteen words, then ninety per cent of the loshon hora scenarios that one would normally encounter in his war with the Yetzer Hora will be removed from the battlefield.
It’s simplicity itself.
There are no conditions and rules to remember and no inferences to be drawn. At the end of the day there’s nothing but these fifteen words standing between you and ninety percent of all of the loshon hora that you would otherwise speak over the course of the rest of your life.
It’s as simple and as difficult as that.