May I Dangle the Receiver?

Regarding Parshas Balak and the attempts to discredit the Jewish people, we present:

May I Dangle the Receiver?

Or

Hearing is Not Believing, and other Loshon Hora Questions.

Question #1: “Two of my neighbors are in a tiff, and I have a good relationship with both of them. Should I get involved to try to make peace, knowing that both sides will tell me their version of the story?”

Question #2: “Someone told me that one who believes loshon hora (disparaging things about people) does more harm to himself than does the one who spoke the loshon hora! How can this be?”

Question #3: Leora* asked me the following question:

(*All names in this article have been changed.)

“Some of my contacts are not so careful about saying loshon hora. Is it sufficient that I hold the receiver at a distance when they begin to tell me things that I do not want to hear?”

I asked Leora if she could think of other options, and she explained, “It is uncomfortable to tell people that they are violating halacha or to ask them not to gossip. I can create an excuse to end the conversation, such as, ‘the baby is crying’ or some similar emergency. But I would rather not do this, unless I must.”

Leora’s method of being careful to avoid hearing loshon hora, as a halachically observant person must be, is indeed accomplishing its purpose. The question is whether she must do more than this, since the speaker thinks that Leora is still listening. Later, I will explain why this may be problematic, and whether it is sufficient for Leora to simply “dangle the receiver.”

INTRODUCTION

We all know that telling or receiving disparaging information about members of Klal Yisrael is a Torah violation. “We are commanded not to accept loshon hora as true and not to look negatively upon the person about whom the story was told” (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:213). We should bear in mind that loshon hora is prohibited, even if it is absolutely true.

Exactly what is the prohibition of believing or accepting loshon hora? Before we answer this question, we need to define loshon hora. Two types of derogatory information are included in loshon hora:

I. Loshon hora is information that reflects poorly on someone, creating an unjustified bad impression of him or her. For example, relating that someone once violated certain commandments of committed sins disparages his reputation and constitutes loshon hora (Chofeitz Chayim 4:1).

II. Another category of loshon hora is relating information that might harm someone, even though it is not at all derogatory (Rambam, Hilchos Dei’os 7:5). For example, although it is not offensive to say that someone is in debt, there are many situations where this information could cause harm. Similarly, informing a person that someone has a wayward aunt is loshon hora, if this might result in disqualifying the person for a shidduch as a consequence (see Taz, Even Ha’ezer, 50:8).

DEFINING KABBALAS  LOSHON HORA

What should you do if you hear a story that reflects badly on someone?

Before I explain what to do in this situation, we should explain the two types of ill-doing involved when receiving derogatory information.

I. Believing (kabbalas) loshon hora.

II. Hearing loshon hora.

I. BELIEVING LOSHON HORA

The first prohibition against accepting loshon hora is that it results in one’s now having a less favorable impression of a fellow Jew. The fact that the information may be true and he may have transgressed does not allow me to think less of him, and therefore, I may not accept the report of his having sinned as fact (Zera Chayim pg 361, in explanation of opinion of Yad Ha’ketanah). For this reason, if I deny that the story is true, I have not accepted loshon hora, and I did not violate kabbalas loshon hora.

HEARING JUICY GOSSIP

What do I do if I hear some juicy chitchat?

If you hear some gossip, just completely disavow your accepting that the story is true. Remember that most stories that one hears are distorted, so it should take no great effort to simply deny the story’s accuracy.

If you find it difficult to doubt the story completely, re-interpret it in a way that it casts the person in a favorable light. For example, perhaps he/she thought that the act committed was halachically acceptable, or perhaps the reported event was misunderstood or only partially observed (see Be’er Mayim Chayim 6:1). For example, if you heard that someone grabbed a child, perhaps he was pulling the child away from danger. If you heard that someone argued with his father, perhaps he was trying to convince him to take needed medication.

REINTERPRETING THE STORY

Here is an example of how to reinterpret a story: Sharon tells you that Michal treated her rudely. You know that Michal is a quiet person; on top of that, perhaps Michal was distracted or under stress and was therefore even less exuberant than usual. Sharon, whom you know is sensitive, may have misinterpreted Michal’s lack of cheerfulness as rudeness. This interpretation of events will add no negative understanding to what you already know firsthand about both of them. The result is that the reinterpreted story does not place either person in a bad light and is therefore not loshon hora.

In this example, convincing Sharon that Michal was not being rude would be a big mitzvah.

By the way, one may listen to each side of a dispute relate his/her negative impressions of the disputant in order to calm down the quarrel (Chofeitz Chayim, 6:4). Here, too, one may not accept either story as accurate, but one should, in one’s own mind, reinterpret the events, so that they do not reflect badly on the parties involved.

For example, you are aware of a situation in which siblings are in a dispute concerning how to allocate resources to care for their elderly mother. While resolving this conflict, your goal is to appreciate the merit of each side’s approach and convince the other side that, although they might disagree, no one bears any ill will. Even if you cannot convince them of this, you should certainly not accept that either side means any wrong, unless you have solid evidence to the contrary (Shabbos 56a; Hagahos Maimoniyos, Dei’os 7:4).

CALMING A FIGHT

Two of your neighbors are in a big tiff. According to Reuven and Rochel, the upstairs kids are totally undisciplined and boisterous, making a racket that ruins Rochel’s life. Levi and Leah upstairs, however, have a different story. Their kids are extremely well disciplined and obedient, but Rochel is excessively sensitive to noise and cannot tolerate even the normal sliding of a chair under the dinner table. Since you have a good relationship with both parties and may be able to resolve the squabble, you may listen to each side’s complaints about the other, being careful not to believe them. It may, indeed, be true that Rochel is highly sensitive, and it may also be true that Levi and Leah do not control their kids as much as they should. Your job is to make shalom between them, not to accept whichever interpretation of events is true.

One violates the prohibition against accepting loshon hora when one’s impression of any party is disparaged without adequate evidence. In all the above instances, if one’s positive impression of the people involved remains intact, despite all that one heard, one has successfully avoided accepting loshon hora. (There are exceptions when one may accept what one heard as true, but these are beyond the scope of this article.)

With this background, we can now answer Question #1 above:

“Two of my neighbors are in a tiff, and I have a good relationship with both of them. Should I get involved to try to make peace, knowing that both sides will tell me their version of the story?” The answer is that you should get involved, but be careful not to accept anyone’s account as an accurate portrayal of the misdeeds of his/her neighbor.

LOSHON HORA ABOUT A CHILD

There is an interesting halachic difference between these two categories of loshon hora. The first category, relating that someone did something improper, does not apply to the transgressions or faults of a child. Since a minor’s immaturity exempts him from responsibility, it is usually not loshon hora to discuss his misdeeds or capers. Therefore, it is permitted to mention that a child did something mischievous, since this action does not reflect negatively on him (see Chofeitz Chayim 8:3 and Be’er Mayim Chayim ad loc.). [Some poskim contend that, if the child would be embarrassed by someone reporting what he did, or his activity was not considered age-appropriate, then repeating this information is prohibited as loshon hora (Shevilei Chayim 8:4; Shu’t Lechafeitz Bachayim #29). On the other hand, I once read a psak of Rav Chayim Kanievsky shlit’a contending that, as long as the story is not harmful to the child’s interests, there is no loshon hora about his antics since he is not yet required to observe mitzvos.]

However, when the information could ultimately prove harmful to the child, one may not share it (Chofeitz Chayim 8:3). For example, if a school might refuse to accept a child based on his family background, it is loshon hora to provide the school with this information. Similarly, people smile when told that a young man drew on the wall when he was three years old, but they might assume that he is psychologically unhealthy if they hear that he had violent fits of rage at age 12½.

II. HEARING LOSHON HORA

Until now, we discussed some basic halachos of accepting loshon hora. In addition to the prohibition of believing loshon hora, it is also prohibited to hear negative things about someone when there is no need. It is insufficient to simply not believe what one heard; one must avoid hearing it.

WHAT DO I DO IF SOMEONE BEGINS TO GOSSIP?

How far must one go to avoid hearing loshon hora?

The Gemara (Kesubos 5b) homiletically interprets a verse as saying, “there should be pegs [i.e., your fingers, which are shaped like pegs] inside your ears,” meaning, if you sense that someone is about to tell you something inappropriate, you should place your fingers on your ears to avoid hearing it. In other words, one must not only be careful to avoid loshon hora but must even do something unusual if that is the only way to avoid hearing it. Thus if you are among a group of people and one of them begins to say loshon hora, you should leave immediately. If you are on the phone, and the other party begins saying loshon hora, you should quickly say, “An emergency just came up; I’ll have to call you back later,” and abruptly hang up the receiver. Of course, in this last case, you told the whole truth: an emergency did indeed come up, since the other party began saying loshon hora!

What if one is unable to leave and avoid hearing gossip? The Gemara states that one must even place one’s hands over one’s ears to shun loshon hora! Nevertheless, the Chofeitz Chayim (6:5) notes that, although this is the proper thing to do, many people may find it too embarrassing to sit this way and have people mock them. Under these circumstances, the Chofeitz Chayim rules that one should be careful not to believe the stories being told, and be careful not to want to hear them. It is preferable that one demonstrate his disapproval, at least with his facial expression (Chofeitz Chayim, 6:5).

Rabbeinu Yonah implies that one should demonstrate to the speaker that he does not want to hear the loshon hora. Showing a total lack of interest in the conversation discourages the speaker from saying loshon hora.

We now understand Leora’s original question. She does not want to listen to the gossip she is being told. The question is: to what extent must she demonstrate that she does not want to hear loshon hora? Although dangling the receiver prevents Leora from hearing the gossip, it does not demonstrate disapproval to the speaker. Whereas listeners who are visible to the speaker can actually show disinterest, the speaker here may think that she has an avid listener; thus, perhaps Leora should put an active end to the conversation. Even though the speaker is not saying loshon hora to anyone, as there is no listener, the speaker nevertheless thinks that he or she is sinning. Someone who thought he was doing something forbidden but ended up doing something permitted needs forgiveness and atonement (Kiddushin 81b; Nazir 23a). The Gemara’s example of this is someone who wanted to eat something non-kosher, but inadvertently ate kosher. The unsuccessful intent to violate the halacha is itself a Torah prohibition.

As a result, although by dangling the receiver Leora is not hearing loshon hora, she has not prevented the person from thinking that loshon hora has been spoken, either, a sin for which she will require atonement. Therefore I told Leora that it would be better to terminate the conversation by saying, for example, “something just came up, I’ll call you back later!” This prevents the talker from violating any prohibition.

WHO IS WORSE?

After all we have discussed here, I can now explain the Rambam’s statement (Hilchos Dei’os 7:3) that one who believes loshon hora inflicts more self-harm than the speaker! Why should this be?

The reason is that the basic purpose of forbidding loshon hora is to avoid harming a Jew’s reputation. Who is the greater maligner, one who spreads information that he knows to be true, or one who believes an unsubstantiated story? Certainly, the one who accepts an unsubstantiated report that degrades someone denigrates kedushas Yisrael to a greater degree (see Nesiv Chayim 6:3).

Rav Chayim Pinchas Scheinberg zt”l noted that when people repeat the pasuk, mi ha’ish he’chafeitz chayim oheiv yamim lir’os tov, “Who is the man who wants life, loves his days to see only good,” they often pay little attention to the concluding words, liros tov, “to see good,” even though these words are the key to success in this mitzvah. If you view everyone with a good eye, you will be unable to believe derogatory information about them. As Rav Pam once said, “My mother was incapable of saying or accepting loshon hora; not simply because of her yiras shamayim, but because of her appreciation of what Jews are!” May we all reach the level of seeing the good and really appreciating our fellow Jews!

May I Keep My Skeletons in the Closet?

This week’s parsha closes by mentioning that the daughters of Tzelafchad succeeded in
finding husbands. I am certain that they had no secrets to disturb their shidduchin from
happening, but what would happen if they did? Would they have been required to “spill
the beans,” or could they have kept these dark secrets to themselves? In this article we
will discuss the ramifications of this question, specifically:
1. What one must tell and what one is not required to tell.

2. When (at what stage in the developing relationship) is one required to inform about the
issue?

3. Whom one must tell.

I was asked this question recently:

Mrs. Weiss (not her real name) called me to discuss the following sensitive matter:
“I was once treated successfully for a serious disease. My grandmother had the same
illness, yet lived in good health to a ripe old age. The doctors feel that my daughter
should be checked regularly from a fairly young age for this same disease. She is now
entering the shidduchim parsha. Must I reveal this family information to shadchanim
(matchmakers) and/or to the families of potential chassanim, and, if so, at what
point must I disclose this information? I am truly concerned that this could seriously
complicate her shidduch possibilities.”

Although this situation may be atypical, we all have medical, personal, and/or
genealogical issues that we wish to keep private. What information must we reveal while
arranging shidduchim for our children (or for ourselves)? And at what point must we
disclose it?

The prohibitions of Geneivas daas, misleading someone, and Onaah, fraud, apply equally
to shidduchin. However, there are many complicating factors involved in shidduchin, and
therefore we need to explain:

ONAAH — FRAUD

Misrepresenting a product or service in order to make a sale is a form of cheating, such
as painting an item to hide a defect. A modern instance of onaah is insider trading,
which means that someone purchases or sells a stock or commodity because he/she has
information, either positive or negative, about the stock, that is unavailable to the public.
This is dishonest because the other transacting party is unaware of this information which
affects the value of the item they are buying or selling.

In shidduchim the same rule is true: Subject to some exceptions, which I will explain
shortly, one must notify the other party of information that might concern them. Hoping

that no one takes this personally, I will refer to this type of negative information as
an “imperfection.” For example, Mrs. Weiss is inquiring whether the family medical
history is an imperfection that must be revealed.

MEKACH TA’US – INVALIDATING THE MARRIAGE

The most serious ramification of withholding required information about shidduchim,
or worse, of being deceptive, is that this can even result (in certain extreme cases) in a
halachically invalid marriage. (This indeed applies to any contracted arrangement – an
unrevealed serious imperfection brings about a mekach ta’us, because the two parties
never agreed to the arrangement as it indeed exists.)

Here are a few interesting examples:

If someone specifies that his new wife should have no vows (nedarim) and finds that she
is bound by neder to abstain from meat, wine or nice clothes, the kiddushin is annulled
(Kesubos 72b)! A husband wants that he and his wife enjoy life together, and refraining
from these activities may disturb the happiness of their marriage.

OTHER SERIOUS IMPERFECTIONS

To quote the words of the Sefer Chassidim (#507), “When arranging matches for your
children or other family members, do not hide medical issues from the other party to
which they would object enough to decline the shidduch, lest they afterward choose to
annul the marriage. You should also tell them about deficiencies in halachic observances
that are significant enough that the other party would have rejected the marriage.”

CAN’T SMELL

Another example of unrevealed information that invalidates a marriage is a woman’s
failure to notify her future husband that she has no sense of smell, since this flaw
hampers her ability to prepare tasty meals. Similarly, a profession that causes a man’s
body to have a foul odor is sufficient reason to invalidate the marriage (Kesubos 76a).

Withholding information concerning an inability to have children is certainly a mekach
ta’us. In this last situation, a physician who is aware that his patient cannot have children
is required to reveal this information to the other side, even though this violates patient
confidentiality (Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer 16:4). In the situation above, the physician was aware
that the young woman had no uterus, and therefore it was physically impossible for her
to conceive a child. He was also aware that they were hiding this information from the
prospective groom. The same would be true should the male be unable to have children,
since the assumption is that people of childbearing age marry intending to bear offspring
from the marriage.

WHAT MAY ONE HIDE?

What type of information may one withhold?
There are two categories of negative information, imperfections, that one does not need
to reveal. They are information that the other party could find out on one’s own, and
information that is not significant.

KNOWN INFORMATION

A seller is not required to disclose an imperfection in his product that the buyer could
discover on his own. Furthermore, as long as the buyer could have noticed something that
may arouse attention, there is no geneivas daas and no onaah in making the sale (Shu”t
Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:31).

For example, if someone is selling a house with a drop ceiling, he is not required to notify
the buyer that there was damage above the ceiling, since a drop ceiling in a residence
should arouse attention. Similarly, if the entire neighborhood is susceptible to flooding
basements, the seller does not need to mention that his basement has a severe water
problem. If the buyer asks directly, the seller must answer honestly.

Again, in regard to stock trading: The seller is not required to mention that in the last
recorded quarter the company reported a sharp decline in profits since this information is
readily available to the buyer.

A similar concept is true concerning shidduchim. For example, if the scandalous activities
of a family member are well known in one’s hometown, one need not tell the other party
since this information could be discovered by asking around (Shu”t Panim Meiros 1:35).
Halachically, when the other party asks neighbors for information about this potential
shidduch, the neighbors should share the requested details. This is a topic I intend to
discuss more fully in a future article.

INSIGNIFICANT INFORMATION

A second category of information that need not be revealed includes factors that are
insignificant to the buyer. One is not required to provide an in-depth list of every
shortcoming the merchandise has. Similarly, shidduchim do not require revealing
every possible medical or yichus issue. The Chofetz Chaim (Be’er Mayim Chaim #8 at
end of Hilchos Rechilus) distinguishes between a medical issue one must reveal and
a “weakness,” which one does not. Thus, someone need not reveal minor ailments that
would not disturb the average person.

Of course, it is sometimes difficult to define what constitutes a “minor ailment” and what
constitutes a serious one, and specific rabbinic guidance is usually warranted when one is
in doubt. However, I will present one or two examples of each.

Although I know rabbonim who disagree with this position, I feel that juvenile diabetes
is a malady that must be mentioned, whereas non-life threatening hay fever and similar
allergies may be ignored. On the other hand, an allergy that is so serious that it affects

one’s lifestyle and activities in a major way must be mentioned. My usual litmus test is: If
the issue is significant enough that one might want to hide it, it is usually something that
one should tell.

WHEN TO TELL?

At what point must one reveal a significant “imperfection”?

In most instances, there is no requirement to notify the other party or a shadchan of any
of these imperfections at the time a shidduch is suggested. The Sefer Chassidim, quoted
above, does not mention at what point one must notify the other party of the shortcoming.
Contemporary poskim usually contend that one should reveal this information after the
couple has met a few times; about the time the relationship is beginning to get serious,
but after the two parties have become acquainted and see their overall qualities as an
individual. This is the approach I personally advise in all such situations. There is no
requirement for the parties to tell a shadchan, and in some situations it is prohibited to do
so.

My daughter has a close friend who unfortunately has celiac. She had been told by her
rav that she should reveal this information on the third date. (Let me note that this exact
detail will vary tremendously on the dating approach used in the couple’s circles.) She
was so nervous and concerned how the guy would react, that she was unable to bring
herself to mention it then. Finally, on the fourth date, she was able to get the words out,
to which he reacted nonchalantly, “Oh, so does my brother.” This story has a very happy
ending, since her mother-in-law anyway prepares food that is appropriate.

REJECTION
However, if one knows that the other party will reject the shidduch because of this
imperfection, I would recommend forgoing this shidduch from the outset. For example,
if one knows that a particular family prides itself on a pure pedigree, don’t pursue a
shidduch with them if you know they will ultimately reject it when they discover that
your great-uncle was not observant.

At this point, we can discuss Mrs. Weiss’ shaylah asked above:

“I was once treated successfully for a serious disease. My grandmother had the same
illness, yet lived in good health to a ripe old age. The doctors feel that my daughter
should be checked regularly from a fairly young age for this same disease. She is now
entering the shidduchim parsha. Must I reveal this family information to shadchanim
and/or to the families of potential chassanim, and, if so, at what point must I disclose
this information? I am truly concerned that this could seriously complicate her shidduch
possibilities.”

Most poskim with whom I discussed this shaylah contended that one should reveal
this information to the other side after the couple has gotten to know one another
and is interested in pursuing the relationship. One rov disagreed, contending that

since the problem can be caught early and treated successfully, one need not divulge
this information at all. All opinions agree that one has absolutely no obligation to
mention this information to a shadchan or to anyone who has no personal need for this
information.

Obviously, I cannot possibly discuss the various permutations of these shaylos in an
article, but simply can present the issues. Wishing all much happiness in their marriages
and their children’s marriages!

A Critical Review – The Halachos of Book, Wine, and Restaurant Reviews

Recently, someone sent me the following series of shaylos:

“Dear Rabbi Kaganoff,

“1. Is a person allowed to write balanced reviews of books? This question concerns hashkafah-type works, halachic works, self-help books, as well as novels.

“Obviously, there are many halachic ramifications, including loshon hora, etc. I would specifically like to know if one is allowed to “pan” (to review unfavorably) a work that the reviewer finds seriously lacking.

“2. May one write reviews of other products, such as wine or restaurants? I am concerned primarily when the owner is Jewish.

“3. 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 person choosing another product?

“With much thanks in advance,

“Aaron Bernstein”

Before I answer Aaron’s question, I must first present the halachos of loshon hora that apply here.

Saying something true that may damage someone’s professional or business reputation, or causes him financial harm, constitutes loshon hora, even when nothing negative is intended (Rambam, Hilchos De’os 7:5). Thus, random schmoozing about the quality of different workmen’s skills, the halachic prowess of different talmidei chachomim, or the quality of education provided by a certain school constitutes loshon hora.

However when I need certain information, I may ask people who might know. For example, if I need to do home repairs, I may “ask around” what experience other people have had with various professionals. I should tell them why I need to know, and they should tell me only what is relevant to my needs.

Examples:

1. Gilah hired a home improvements 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 to be done, Gilah should tell her that the contractor’s work was excellent and efficient, but that he seemed somewhat inexperienced in plumbing. Perhaps by now he has the experience, or Ahuva should mention to him that she would prefer if he subcontracts out the plumbing.

 2. 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 make recommendations based on Yaakov’s answer.

WHAT IF I KNOW THE MECHANIC IS DISHONEST?

Yitzchok and Esther just moved to the neighborhood and mention to me that they are planning to bring their car, which is making unusual noise, to Gonif’s Service Station. My personal dealings with Gonif’s have been highly negative; I have found the proprietor very dishonest. May I say something to Yitzchok and Esther?

The halacha is that not only may I say something to them, but I am obligated to do so (Chofetz Chayim, Hil. Issurei Rechilus 9:1). This is because I am responsible to make sure that Yitzchok and Esther are not hurt financially by the crooked repair shop. This is included in the mitzvah of lo saamod al dam rei’echa, do not stand by idly while your friend becomes injured (see Be’er Mayim Chayim ad loc.).

However, exactly how I impart this information to Yitzchok and Esther depends on the circumstances.

Why is this?

In any situation where I 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 I may say:

1. IS IT BAD?

Be certain that what may transpire (if I do not intercede) is indeed bad. Often, one thinks that something is bad, when it is not really that bad. Later in this article I will describe a case that appears bad, while halachically it is not considered bad. In the case at hand, I am responsible to see that Yitzchok and Esther are not deceived by the repair shop. Therefore, I have fulfilled the first rule.

2. NO EXAGGERATING

Do not exaggerate the situation as worse than it is. In this case, even if I need to describe Gonif’s dishonesty (which I can probably avoid, as we will explain later), I should describe only what I personally know, and I must be careful not to embellish or include hearsay.

3. GOOD MOTIVATION

One’s motivation must be to protect the innocent person from harm, not to bring retribution on the person doing the harming. In our case, this means that my 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 saying loshon hora if one has evil intent even in a case when one may say the loshon hora (see Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hil. Issurei Rechilus 9:3).

4. NO OTHER CHOICE

Can I accomplish what I need to without saying loshon hora? The answer to this question depends on the situation. What do I need to accomplish? In the case of the crooked repair shop, my goal is that Yitzchok and Esther should not be victi miz ed by the shop. I can accomplish this in several different ways, some of which do not require tarnishing the repair shop’s reputation. For example, if Yitzchok and Esther will heed my advice to take their car to “Careful and Honest Repairs” instead, then I have no need to tell them that Gonif’s is a dishonest shop. In this instance, I have accomplished my purpose without mentioning the dishonest acts I witnessed.

 5. TOO DAMAGING

Will the result of my sharing the negative information be more harmful to the perpetrator than he should suffer according to halacha? For example, I know that Reuven’s professional work is sometimes substandard, and I discover that Shimon, who is known to back out on deals he has committed to, contracted Reuven to do work. Although under other circumstances I would not only be permitted, but even required to notify someone of Reuven’s lack of professional skill, in this situation I may not notify Shimon because he may back out on Reuven in a way that contravenes halacha.

WHEN IS SOMETHING NOT REALLY BAD?

In condition #1 above, I mentioned that there are situations that someone considers bad, but which are not considered bad according to halacha. The background behind this shaylah will impact directly on our original shaylah about reviewing books, wines, and restaurants.

What is an example of this situation?

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 Chofetz Chayim rules that one may not reveal this information (Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus, 9:27).

Why is it not permitted to save Miriam from overpaying?

The Chofetz Chayim rules that overpaying slightly for an item is not considered a “bad thing,” provided the storekeeper is within the halachic range of what he may charge. (A full explanation of how much the storekeeper may charge is beyond the focus of this article.)

WHY IS BEING OVERCHARGED NOT CONSIDERED BEING HARMED?

Since the storekeeper who charges higher prices is not doing anything halachically wrong, one may not hurt his livelihood by encouraging someone to purchase elsewhere. And if one does, this is loshon hora, which includes hurting 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 happens if someone new moves to town and asks me where he can find kosher groceries?

You should tell him which local groceries sell kosher products that have the hechsherim he wants. You do not need to supply a complete list of the stores in the neighborhood, but it is permissible to mention only the stores that are less expensive. However, you may not tell him which stores are more expensive.

If someone knows that a third party plans to purchase an item from a store that tends to be expensive, do not say anything. Even though the purchaser could save money by buying elsewhere, the storekeeper is losing from your actions. One should not get involved in saving one person’s money at someone else’s expense (see Be’er Mayim Chayim, Rechilus 9:27 and commentaries). However, if the proprietor of the store is not an observant Jew, you may warn the purchaser about his overcharging.

On the other hand, if the storekeeper is doing something that is halachically prohibited, such as selling defective or misrepresented products, one may and should warn someone about it.

BOOK REVIEWS

With this background, we can now discuss Aaron Bernstein’s first shaylah: “Is a person allowed to write balanced reviews of books?”

What does the review accomplish?

This depends on the type of book being reviewed. Let us begin with one category: Jewish novels.

Why do secular sources review books?

So that people can decide whether they will enjoy the book and whether they should spend the money to purchase it.

May I do this? What “harm” am I protecting someone from by telling him or her to avoid purchasing this book? On the other hand by warning people away from the book, I am hurting the livelihood of those who have invested time and money feeling that this book will provide them parnasah.

Is it not parallel to the case where one Jewish storeowner, in his desire to make a living, charges a bit more than his competitors? The halacha there is that I may not tell someone to avoid his store, since I am harming the storekeeper. Similarly, I may not tell 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 halacha work is flawed, one should write a review to clarify that the work contains errors.

EXAMPLE:

Many years ago, I was asked by a well-known Jewish publication to review a particular halacha work. When I read the work I felt it sorely lacking in certain areas- particularly hashkafah, and that it could easily be used as a resource for someone who would then 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 halacha different from one’s own, then it depends – if the halacha quoted is reliable, one may identify that it reflects a different halacha approach.

Of course, this means that the most standard book reviews and other reviews common in secular contravene halacha guidelines. One may include a book review column only if it merely informs people of new publications but does not provide critical negative review.

Now we can look at the second question:

“2. May one write reviews of other products, such as wine or restaurants?”

Already, we 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 contains the positive aspects of the product.

WHAT IF SOMEONE ASKS ME MY OPINION OF A CERTAIN WINE OR RESTAURANT?

If you have a poor opinion of the wine, restaurant or book, you should inquire, “What are you looking for?” Then based on what the person describes what they want, direct them to the product that most satisfies their needs and interests. If the wine or restaurant in question may not be what they want, then explain to them what aspects would meet their needs, and what might not. This is permitted because they have come to you to ask for information about the item. However, one may not simply put this information in the media for everyone, including readers who have no need or interest in the information.

For example, you do not have a positive opinion of a restaurant. Why? You think the service is poor. Would that be a factor to this person? If you are not certain, but you think there are other redeeming reasons why this person may want to eat in this restaurant anyway, say it in a way that does not reflect too negatively, 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 their opinion wrote 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 person won’t suffer by trying and he will decide if he is happy with it.”

According to halacha, may one publish a magazine like Consumer Reports?

Although the editors of this magazine have not sought my opinion, I think that they may publish the results of their research if they are read only by people interested in purchasing these items, and not by a general audience.

COULD THERE THEREFORE BE A FRUM KOSHER WINE REVIEW?

Possibly, but only if its readership was limited to people who are shopping for wines and looking for advice.

In conclusion, we see that halacha approaches this entire issue very differently than contemporary society. We must remember that we examine our behavior through the prism of halacha and not through the eye scope of modern society.