The Halachos of Book, Wine, and Restaurant Reviews
The entire story of Yosef being sold to Egypt was a result of a “critical review…”
Someone once sent me the following email with 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 lashon hora, etc. I would specifically like to know if one is allowed to review unfavorably a work that the reviewer finds seriously lacking.
2. May one write reviews of other products, such as wine or restaurants?
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 lashon hora that apply here.
Saying something true that may damage someone’s professional or business reputation, or causes him financial harm, constitutes lashon hora, even when nothing negative is intended. 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 lashon hora.
However, when I need certain information, I may ask people who might know. For example, if I need to have some home repairs performed, 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.
1. 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 to be done, Gilah should tell her that the contractor’s work was excellent and efficient, but that he seemed somewhat inexperienced in plumbing. Gilah should suggest that, perhaps, by now he has the experience, and Ahuva also has the option to ask him to subcontract 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 that the mechanic is dishonest?
Yitzchok and Esther just moved to my neighborhood and mention to me that they are planning to bring their car, which is making an unusual noise, to Gonif’s Service Station. I have found the proprietor of Gonif’s to be 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. 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.
However, exactly how I impart this information to Yitzchok and Esther depends on the circumstances.
Why is this so?
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 assumes that something is worse than it really is. Later in this article, I will describe a case that appears bad, while halachically it is not considered so. In the case at hand, I am responsible to see that Yitzchok and Esther are not deceived by the repair shop. By warning them, I have fulfilled the first rule.
2. No exaggerating
Do not exaggerate, describing 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. Appropriate motivation
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 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 lashon hora if one has evil intent, even in a case when one may otherwise transmit the information.
4. No other choice
Can I accomplish what I need to without saying lashon 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 not be victimized 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, 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 have witnessed.
5. Too damaging
Will the result of my sharing the negative information be more harmful to the perpetrator than what 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 groceries in this store might cost more than at the competition? The Chafetz Chayim rules that one may not reveal this information.
Why is it not permitted to save Miriam from overpaying?
The Chafetz 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 lashon hora, which includes hurting someone’s livelihood.
Thus, there is a major difference between a dishonest repair shop 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, when the store is halachically permitted to do so.
What happens if someone 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. However, if the proprietor of the store is not an observant Jew or not Jewish, you may tell the purchaser that there is a less expensive place to make his purchase.
On the other hand, if the storekeeper is doing something that is halachically prohibited, such as selling defective or misrepresented products, you should warn a person intending to make a purchase there.
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 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, intending that this book will provide them parnasah.
This is 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.
Of course, this means that the most standard book reviews 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 negative critical review.
However, if a work contains flaws in hashkafah, 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.
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 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 draw the reader’s attention to the fact that it reflects a different halachic approach.
Now we can look at the second question:
“2. 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 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, when the questioner clarifies what he wants, direct him to the product that most satisfies his needs and interests. If the wine or restaurant in question may not be what he wants, explain to him what aspects would meet his 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 of, 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 there anyway, say it 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 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.”
Could there 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.
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 it is read only by people interested in purchasing these items and not by a general audience.
In conclusion, we see that the halachic approach to this entire issue is very different from that of contemporary society. We must remember that we examine our behavior through the prism of halacha and not from that of society.
 Rambam, Hilchos Dei’os 7:5
 Chofetz Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:1
 See Be’er Mayim Chayim ad loc.
 See Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:3
 Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus, 9:27
 See Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:27 and commentaries