The Jewish Ethicist: No News is Good News
Should I inform a relative of a misfortune?
Q. A relative of mine has just gone to visit his son. I am very attached to the son and have just learned that he has been jailed. Should I inform the father or let him find out himself?
A. While modern sensibilities and Jewish tradition are closely aligned on many issues, they are very far apart on the issue of disclosure. If the previous generation was fixated on some abstract "right to know", our generation has gone a step farther to the "right to know right away". Not being up to date on the events of the last few minutes has come to be viewed as a kind of moral failing.
By contrast, Jewish tradition takes a very conservative view towards revealing any kind of negative information. We have discussed in innumerable columns the very cautious view Jewish law takes towards revealing derogatory information -- lashon hara. Revealing such information is permissible only when it is necessary to prevent a clear and present loss or danger, in an equitable way.
But Judaism takes an equally cautious view towards any kind of negative speech. The Talmud relates that when news reached the beit midrash (academy) that Rav Kahana was sick, a colleague was sent to find out how he was. When the messenger arrived, he found that Rav Kahana had passed away. He mourned the great sage a short time (any great Torah scholar is mourned almost like a family member) but then composed himself and returned. When asked about Rav Kahana's state, he declined to make a direct statement of the misfortune, citing the verse (Proverbs 10:18) "One who utters slander is a fool." Here the concept of slander is extended to any kind of misfortune. (1)
In another place, the Talmud tells us that the Roman emperor Antoninus sent Rav Chanina bar Chama with a message for one of his footmen. When Rav Chanina arrived, he discovered that the footman had been killed. Rav Chanina was reluctant to bring this news to the emperor, citing the adage, "Don't bear a reply of misfortune." (Of course he was also reluctant to show disrespect to the emperor. His solution was simple: he miraculously restored the footman to life and duly transmitted the message.) (2)
Based on these sources, the Shulchan Arukh rules that it is permissible, and often proper, to delay informing a person about a death in the family. (3)
The basis for this approach is not a mentality of denial and "splendid isolation". In the same place the Shulchan Arukh states that when knowledge of the death is necessary for a mitzvah (such as reciting Kaddish) we should inform the relative. The reluctance to mention the bad in the world is based on the fundamental belief that the world too is basically good, and there is no need to publicize the negative where the knowledge doesn't make a concrete contribution to serving God. (This is parallel to our explanation that the reluctance to derogate others is based on the belief that people are basically good.) There is also a message of hope that perhaps the wrong has been righted and all is well. Today we can understand this tendency merely as a healthy counterweight to contemporary fixation on gloom and criticism.
So there is no real benefit to rushing to inform the father of the misfortune; perhaps the son will find a rapid way out if his legal woes, and if not the poor father will find out soon enough.
In your case, there is another important reason not to inform the father. A parent naturally feels a sense of primary responsibility towards his or her children. If the father learns that someone else has as it were been paying more attention to the son's welfare than he has, it may undermine his sense of achievement in his role as parent. He may even view your involvement as a kind of subtle criticism of the way he is raising his son.
So if there is no specific concrete benefit to be gained from informing the father early, the best thing is to hope and pray that things work out quickly for the best, and be ready to offer your practical and emotional support after the immediate family finds out in their own way. You may even want to hide the fact that you had prior knowledge of the unfortunate, and hopefully temporary, setback of your beloved relative.
(1) Pesachim 3b (2) Avoda Zara 10b. (3) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 402:12.
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.