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I was thinking of writing a magazine article on a rabbi I knew well before his death some years back. I wrote to his son to see if he could help me with stories, history, photographs, etc. He declined, worried that he might speak loshon hara about the members of the community, and he wanted me to make sure that I was familiar with the "halachos" regarding writing a biography of a gadol. To be frank, I had no idea that there were specific halachos on this subject. Could someone explain to me what he is talking about? Is it something beyond shimiras haloshon?

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An article of interest. –  Fred Jun 6 '14 at 5:03
The halacha is called shmiras hanefesh. People don't want to hear that gedolim are or ever were people. And they will torture you if you imply such a thing. My Zeida would tell us funny stories about future roshei yeshiva while they were still young in Shanghai. These stories aren't going to make anyone more religious if they hear them, and the people who tell the stories will get ostracized so what's the point? –  user6591 May 4 at 1:36
@user6591 I agree. I also use to hear stuff about the freedige' yoren that were fun and amusing. But they don't help anyone grow. Just practically it's not useful. But unfortunately because we don't have true right mindset to properly place these stories in their proper context and take them too far, ala some known "Jewish historians" who are just glorified batlanim who ramble on for 2 hours. Instead for our own good they are censured. Stuff repeated in the yeshiva coffee room aren't ראוי to be printed. Wish the Kotzkers advice was followed more. –  Mefaresh Jun 3 at 6:28

1 Answer 1

There is no official set of laws called "hilchos biography", perhaps he was using the word "Hilchos" colloquially to say "do you know the way to go about writing a biography" ie. How to phrase certain things, what to leave out, what names to change etc.

However, there are Laws of Slander and Gossip, as well as embarrassment. And those halachos should guide the author in his attempt to draw a sketch of the person being written about.

In the desire to show the greatness of the personality being written about, too often the prohibition of Lashon Harah is glossed over.

Furthermore, a biographer must know the audience he is writing to, some things which in different cultural milieus would have been understood and taken for granted, might be grossly misunderstood in our day and age, and therefore embarrassing to the family of the deceased.

Thus, I would assume the son meant the concerns mentioned above when he said you must know the "halachos" of writing a biography.

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"What to leave out" like boring things? –  Double AA Jun 2 '14 at 20:14
I don't know, depends on the author and family of the one being written about –  Mefaresh Jun 2 '14 at 20:17
Congregations can be fickel, especially back in the 1950s and 1960s where many rabbis had congregations with few, if any members who were observant. Rabbis were treated as mere employees. It is hard to write about the bravery of those rabbis without denigrating the congregation to some extent. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, in his Tales Out of Shul, was quite blunt about his congregants when he first came to Atlanta. Could a biographer be so blunt? –  Bruce James Jun 2 '14 at 20:25
what makes you assume that there aren't Halachos of Lashon Hara, and possibly Chilul Hashem, that this person may have been referring to? There is a way we need to speak about our Gedolim. No, I'm not advocating writing Artscroll typ biographies, though surely not everything should be published. –  Zvi Jun 2 '14 at 22:50
@Nafkamina I will only say that he died a sudden and violent death and that he is buried in Bet Shemesh. Also, there is a very long eulogy written on his matzevah by his son, referring to the Rav as a martyr, among other things. –  Bruce James Feb 18 at 14:39

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