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.

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