Guest Post by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff
Ever wonder whether publishing reviews is permissible according to halachah? A while back, I received the following interesting series of she’eilos:
Dear Rabbi Kaganoff,
- Is a person allowed to write balanced reviews of books? This question concerns hashkafic works, halachic works, self-help books, as well as novels.
Obviously, I realize that there are many halachic ramifications, including lashon hora, etc. I would specifically like to know if one is allowed to “pan” (unfavorably review) a work that the reviewer finds seriously lacking.
- May one write and publish reviews of other products, such as wine or restaurants? I am concerned primarily about cases where the owner is Jewish.
- If a person asks my opinion of a book, a wine, or a restaurant, may I answer truthfully, even if my personal negative opinion may result in the individual choosing another product?
With much thanks in advance,
Before answering Aaron’s questions, we must first examine the halachos of lashon hora that apply to this topic.
A true statement that may damage a person’s professional or business reputation, or cause him financial harm constitutes lashon hora – even in the absence of negative intentions.[i] Thus, random schmoozing about the quality of different workmen’s skills, the halachic prowess of various talmidei chachamim, or the quality of education provided by a particular school, all constitute lashon hora.
However, when one requires particular information, one is permitted to inquire of people who might know. For example, if one needs to do home repairs, one may “ask around” about other individual’s experiences with various professionals. One should tell them why one needs to know, and they should respond with only what is relevant to one’s needs.
- Gilah hired a home improvement contractor who was skilled and efficient, but inexperienced in certain plumbing work. Ahuva asks Gilah whether the contractor was good. Gilah should reply that he was skilled and efficient, but does Ahuva intend to include any plumbing? If the reply is negative, Gilah should say nothing, since Ahuva understands that if she changes her mind and decides to include plumbing, she should discuss it with Gilah first. If the reply is that there is plumbing work to be done, Gilah should tell her that the contractor’s work was excellent and efficient, but that he seemed to be somewhat inexperienced in plumbing. Gilah can suggest that perhaps by now he has gained experience, or maybe Ahuva should mention to him that she would prefer if he subcontracts the plumbing to someone more experienced.
- Yaakov moves to a new neighborhood and asks Michael who the local poskim are. Michael can mention one, some, or all of the local available poskim, but should not mention any disqualifying factors about them, such as, Rabbi X is curt, Rabbi Y is very machmir, or Rabbi Z’s shiurim are unclear. Michael may ask Yaakov what qualities he is looking for in a rav and then provide recommendations based on Yaakov’s answer.
The Dishonest Mechanic
Yitzchok and Esther just moved to the neighborhood and mention to Yosef that they are planning to bring their car, which is making unusual noises, to Gonif’s Service Station. Yosef’s personal dealings with Gonif’s have been highly negative; Yosef found the proprietor to be very dishonest. May Yosef warn Yitzchok and Esther?
The halachah is that not only may Yosef say something to them, but he is obligated to do so.[ii] This is because he is responsible for ensuring that Yitzchok and Esther are not hurt financially by the crooked repair shop. This halachah is included in the mitzvah of Lo saamod al dam rei’echa (Do not stand by idly while your friend is injured).[iii]
However, the exact manner in which Yosef imparts this information to Yitzchok and Esther depends on the circumstances.
The Five Rules
In any situation where one must protect someone from harm, whether it is a potentially harmful shidduch, damaging chinuch, or a bad business deal, there are five rules that govern what one may say.
Is It Bad?
Be certain that what may transpire (if one does not intercede) is indeed bad. Often, one assumes that an issue is worse than it really is. Later in this essay I will describe a case that appears to be bad, but is not considered so halachically. In the case at hand, Yosef is responsible to see that Yitzchok and Esther are not deceived by the repair shop. By warning them, Yosef has complied with the first rule.
One may not exaggerate, describing the situation as worse than it really is. In this case, even if Yosef needs to describe Gonif’s dishonesty (which he can probably avoid, as I will explain later), Yosef should describe only what he personally knows, and he must be careful not to embellish or include hearsay.
One’s motivation must be to protect the innocent person from harm, not to bring retribution on the person responsible for causing the harm. In our case, this means that Yosef’s goal is to protect Yitzchok and Esther from harm, not to “get back” at Gonif’s. The reason for this condition is that one violates the prohibition of speaking lashon hora if one has evil intent, even in a case when one may otherwise transmit the information.[iv]
No Other Choice
Can one accomplish what one needs to without speaking lashon hora? The answer to this question depends on the situation. What does one need to accomplish? In the case of the crooked repair shop, Yosef’s goal is that Yitzchok and Esther should not be victimized by the shop. Yosef can accomplish this goal using several different approaches, some of which do not require tarnishing the repair shop’s reputation. For example, if Yitzchok and Esther will heed Yosef’s advice to take their car to Careful and Honest Repairs instead, then he has no need to tell them that Gonif’s is a dishonest shop. In this instance, Yosef has accomplished his purpose without mentioning the dishonest acts that he witnessed.
Will sharing the negative information harm the perpetrator more than what he should suffer according to halachah? For example, Levi knows that Reuven’s professional work is sometimes of substandard quality, and he discovers that Shimon, who is known to back out on deals he has committed to, contracted Reuven to do work. Although under other circumstances, Levi would not only be permitted, but even required to notify others of Reuven’s lack of professional skill, in this situation, Levi may not notify Shimon because he (Shimon) may back out on Reuven in a manner that contravenes halachah.
When Bad Is Not Really Bad
In condition #1 above, I mentioned that there are situations that a person considers bad, but are not considered bad according to halachah. The background behind this she’eilah will impact directly on our original she’eilah about reviewing books, wines, and restaurants.
An example of this type of situation is a retailer that charges high prices.
Chani sees Miriam, who is new in the neighborhood, about to enter a grocery store that Chani knows is expensive. May Chani tell Miriam that this store overcharges slightly? The Chafetz Chayim rules that one may not reveal this information;[v] he maintains that slightly overpaying for an item is not considered a “bad thing,” provided that the storekeeper is within the halachic range of what he may charge.
Since the storekeeper who charges higher prices is not violating halachah, one may not hurt his livelihood by encouraging people to purchase elsewhere. Doing so would be considered lashon hora, which includes damaging someone’s livelihood.
Thus, there is a major difference between a dishonest store and one that is more expensive. It is a mitzvah to steer someone away from a dishonest store, but it is forbidden to steer him away from a Jewish store that charges more.
What if someone new moves to town and asks someone where he can purchase kosher groceries?
One should tell him which local groceries sell kosher products that have the hechsherim he wants. One does not need to supply him with a complete list of the stores in the neighborhood, and it is permissible to mention only the stores that are less expensive. However, one may not tell him which stores are more expensive.
If an individual knows that a third party plans to purchase an item from a store that tends to be expensive, he should keep quiet. Even though the buyer could save money by purchasing elsewhere, the storekeeper is losing from his actions. One should not get involved in saving one person’s money at someone else’s expense.[vi] However, if the proprietor of the store is not an observant Jew, one may warn the purchaser that his prices are high.
If the storekeeper is violating halachah in some way, such as selling defective or misrepresented products, one should warn a person intending to make a purchase.
Now that we’ve acquired some background information, we can discuss Aaron Bernstein’s first she’eilah: “Is a person allowed to write balanced reviews of books?”
The first question one must ask is – what does the review accomplish?
The answer depends on the type of book being reviewed. Let us begin by examining one particular category: Jewish novels.
Why do secular publications review novels?
They review so that people can decide whether they will enjoy the book, and whether they should spend the money to purchase it.
Is such a practice acceptable according to halachah? Is one protecting another from harm by telling him not to purchase a particular book? On the other hand, by warning people regarding the book, one is hurting the livelihood of those who have invested time and money into writing and publishing the book, expecting this book to provide them with parnassah.
Is this situation not parallel to the case where one Jewish storeowner, in his desire to make a living, charges a bit more than his competitors? The halachah in that case is that one may not advise others to avoid his store, since one is harming the storekeeper. Similarly, one may not advise people to save money by avoiding the purchase of a book. One may, however, publish a review that describes the positive aspects of a book.
However, if a work contains flaws in hashkafah, then one is required to refute the author’s mistakes. Similarly, if a halachah work is flawed, one should write a review to clarify that the work contains errors. This is similar to warning a buyer not to purchase from a particular store because they sell defective merchandise.
Many years ago, I was asked by a well-known Jewish publication to review a particular halachic work. When I read the work, I felt it to be sorely lacking in certain areas – particularly hashkafah. I was concerned that the book could easily be used as a resource for someone who would as a result behave in a questionable or non-halachic fashion. I pointed out these concerns of mine in the review, because in this situation it was very important to avoid serious halachic mishaps.
If the work reflects an approach to halachah that is different from one’s own, then it depends – if the halachah quoted is reliable, one may draw the reader’s attention to the fact that it reflects a different halachic approach.
Of course, this means that even the most standard book and other reviews common in secular circles contravene halachic guidelines. One may include a book review column only if it merely informs people of new publications, but does not provide a negative, critical review.
Now we can examine the second question: May one write reviews of other products, such as wine or restaurants?
We already know the answer to this question. If the purpose of the review is to discourage people from buying a product or eating in a restaurant, one may not write the review. But, one may publish a review that covers the positive aspects of the product.
What if someone asks one’s opinion of a particular wine or restaurant?
If one has a poor opinion of the wine, restaurant or book, one should inquire, “What are you looking for?” Based on the answer, one can direct them to the product that would most satisfy his needs and interests. If the wine or restaurant in question may not be what he wants, one should explain to him which aspects would meet his needs, and which might not. This is permitted, because they have come to ask for information about the item. However, one may not simply reveal this information in the media for everyone, including readers who have no need of or interest in the information.
For example, one does not have a positive opinion of a restaurant. Why? One feels that the service is poor. Would such information be a decisive factor for this person? If one is not certain, and believes that there are other redeeming factors that may induce this person to eat there anyway, one should convey the information in a way that does not reflect too negatively upon the restaurant, such as, “Once when I was there, the service was a bit slow. But I don’t dine there very often.”
One of the rabbonim to whom I sent this article for his opinion wrote to me the following: “I don’t agree with what you wrote about restaurants. If one has a criticism that doesn’t necessarily make it an undesirable place for the one asking, I think that it is better to just say that ‘I don’t go there too often.’ The individual won’t suffer by trying, and will decide on his own if he is happy with the place.”
According to halachah, may one publish a magazine such Consumer Reports, a publication that features reviews and comparisons of consumer products?
Although the editors of that magazine have not sought my opinion, I think that they may publish the results of their research, if it is read only by people interested in purchasing these items, and not by a general audience.
Is a kosher wine review feasible according to halachah?
Possibly, but only if its readership was limited to people who are shopping for and seeking advice about wines.
In conclusion, we see that the halachic approach to this entire issue is very different from that of contemporary society. By examining our behavior through the prism of halachah and not from the point of view of modern civilization, we create a unique society that exemplifies remarkable interpersonal and business conduct, as mandated by the Torah. I’ll toast to that!
[i] Rambam, Hilchos Dei’os 7:5.
[ii] Chafetz Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:1.
[iii] See Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:1.
[iv] See Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:3.
[v] Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus, 9:27.
[vi] See Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:27 and commentaries.
- This article was originally published in From Buffalo Burgers to Monetary Mysteries, by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff, and is being presented here by JewishSelfPublishing.