Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Restaurant Reviews in Halachah

A negative report on Jameel’s blog about his experience in a London restaurant led to an interesting debate in the comments about the halachic acceptability of restaurant reviews, and product reviews in general.

In brief: Are we permitted to damage someone’s livelihood by posting a negative review?

I thought about that this morning, as well, when someone attending a shiur of mine mentioned thathe does not attend a different shiur, because he doesn’t get as much out of it. Again: Is that a permitted comment, or is it lashon hara?

Daat has a brief article summing up some of the relevant arguments regarding public product critiques, and they cite the Chafetz Chaim (Perek 10). Since their article is in Hebrew, I am posting the Chafetz Chaim citation with a free translation:

רבי ישראל מאיר הכהן מראדין, חפץ חיים, י':
אם אחד ראה אדם שעשה עוול לחברו: כגון שגזלו, או עשקו, או הזיקו (בין אם הנגזל והניזק יודעים מזה או לא), או שביישו או שציערו והונה אותו בדברים. ונודע לו בבירור שלא השיב את הגזלה, ולא שילם לו את נזקו, ולא ביקש פניו למחול לו על עוונו, אפילו ראה דבר זה לבדו, יכול לספר הדברים לבני אדם כדי לעזור לאשר אשם לו, ולגנות המעשים הרעים בפני הבריות. אך ייזהר שלא יחסרו שבעה הפרטים הבאים:

א. שיראה הדבר בעצמו, ולא שידע על ידי שמיעה מאחרים. ואם שמע מאחרים - אם נתברר לו אח"כ שהדבר אמת.

ב. שייזהר מאוד שלא יחליט תיכף שהאיש גזל ועשק או הזיק, רק יתבונן היטב בעניין, אם על פי דין הוא בכלל גזל או היזק.

ג. שיוכיח את החוטא מתחילה בלשון רכה, אולי יכול להועיל לו וייטיב על ידי זה את דרכיו. אם לא ישמע לו, רק אז יודיע לרבים את אשמת האיש.

ד. שלא יגדיל העוולה יותר ממה שהיא.

ה. שיכוון לתועלת, ולא ליהנות חלילה מהפגם שהוא נותן בחברו. ולא יפרסם הדבר בגלל שנאה שיש לו עליו מכבר.

ו. אם יכול לסבב את התועלת הזאת בדרך אחרת, ולא יצטרך לספר את עניין הלשון הרע, אזי בכל מקרה אסור לספר.

ז. שלא יגרום על ידי הסיפור נזק גדול יותר מהדין שהיה יוצא, אילו הועמד האיש על דבר זה בבית דין

If one sees a person harm his fellow, such as by stealing, cheating or harming him (with or without the victim’s knowledge) or embarrassing him, or paining him or oppressing him verbally, and the observer knows, clearly, that the offender has not returned the theft, paid for the harm, and requested forgiveness, then even if he witnessed the event alone, he may tell other people in order to aid the victim and to denigrate these wicked deeds before the public.

However, one must be careful to satisfy all seven of the following items:

1. He must witness it himself, and not know about it by hearsay. One who heard from others, must have subsequently clarified that it was true;

2. One must be very careful not to decide immediately that the party stole, cheated or harmed. He should contemplate the matter well, as to whether this qualifies legally as theft or harm;

3. One must rebuke the sinner gently at first, to benefit him and cause him to improve his ways. If the person does not listen, then he should inform the public of his guilt;

4. He may not elevate the crime beyond its actual level;

5. He must intend to cause benefit, and not, Gd-forbid, to benefit himself from the flaw he spreads about his fellow. He may not publicize it due to pre-existing enmity;

6. If he can cause the benefit through some other means, without needing to speak harmfully, then all publicity is prohibited;

7. He may not cause more harm, via this telling, than would have been warranted by law for his crime had it been tried in court.

Interesting; definitely something to contemplate as you post feedback on Ebay and Amazon...


  1. You phrase the question as: "In brief: Are we permitted to damage someone’s livelihood by posting a negative review?" Shouldn't the first question be what does a business owner owe his customers/clientele? It is insufficient that the owner merely open a store or restaurant and stock it with merchandise. Among other things he owes his customers quality merchandise, quality customer service, honesty in his business dealings with them, and a clean environment. If the owner does not provide these things then it is he, himself, who is damaging his livelihood. If a customer complains or lets others know of problems in the business this is something the owner started and brought on himself.

    Most businesses are competitive in that there are other businesses just like them and they all are looking for the same customer base. If customers are not treated well, if they are cheated, they not only owe nothing to the business owner but they owe it to others to point out that "there is something rotten in Denmark."

    I don't believe that the Chofetz Chaim would require me to lie if I am asked how the service was in a restaurant. And if I say nothing or something neutral? I am "damning with faint praise" and others will know I don't approve of the place.

    Many years ago there was a restaurant that opened up in Brooklyn. People began complaining publicly that something was off with the food. The owner's rav gave mussar that people were forbidden to ruin this man's parnoseh. Eventually someone called the board of health to come investigate and it was discovered that the place was using products well past their use by date. Are we saying that people had no right to make public complaints about the place?

    And if a store owned by Jews is selling skirts at X dollars when those skirts can be gotten elsewhere for less than 1/2 of X are you saying I can't say the store is overpriced, just because there is a frum owner?

    Seems to me that there is more to this issue then has been covered.

  2. Would it be ethical then for someone Jewish to be a professional restaurant (or other type) critic for a publication?

  3. I once took a taxi ride with an Italian driver, the man serving me was rough around the edges, his clothes were dirty, he was not courteous and he was irritated. Even if the pay was low, he took no pride in what he did and it appeared like he probably drifted from job to job. Customer satisfaction was not on the forefront of his mind. He took the long way to where I was going and that bothered me because he was clearly stealing time and money from me of which I had very little on me. He was on the radio lining up three other pick ups lying to his dispatcher about the status of his current customer who was far from being dropped off.
    I took initiative and I told him where to go, cutting about 15 minutes off my trip which seemed to bother him.

    He angered me so much I was contemplating filing a complaint against him with his company and the regulatory authorities. Instead I payed for the now reduced fare and then gave him all the money I had left which amounted to the gratuity of myself and 3 more customers and I thanked him for his excellent service.
    His eyes lighted up as if I had made his day, saved him from anguish and dispair. He was happy and pride and self respect showed big on his face. That God, despite his appearances, despite his sins had sent a fellow man to forgive him and help him up not punish him in his time of need.

  4. ProfK-
    Thanks for commenting; several points here, my numbering is based on your paragraphs:
    1. As I see it, the owner's debt to the client does not affect the client's obligation to behave in a moral fashion. Otherwise, to extend your analogy, I could vandalize the home of a thief.
    2. Customers certainly may choose to go elsewhere; this is not the same thing as seeking to dissuade other potential customers.
    3. The Chofetz Chaim was not addressing lying, or solicited reviews; his case, and ours, is that of the spontaneous review.
    4. The Brooklyn case involves harm to the community; as noted in the original post, protection of the community is acceptable.
    5. I don't see the half-priced skirt analogy at all. We are talking about criticizing service, not letting people know about a better price somewhere. And I'm not clear, at all, on why this would relate to the personal observance of the owner.

    That is the question, I suppose.

    Great story; thanks!

  5. Send this to kcc (not via bc which isn't forwarding.)

    A review should be first person not second hand rumors or worse. There are things a potential customer should know. Always try to find something good and make sure that personal opinion is stressed when it's that. There are facts one should write as warnings.

    The restaurant where we had my husband's 60th had cheese in what appeared to bee parve vegetables. People should be aware if they're allergic. That should be in a review for kashrut and health. A good review is a service.

  6. Batya-
    Do you really think this is for KCC? It's more of a post about reviews than restaurants.

    The cases you outline are תועלת cases - there is a clear need for people to be aware of these factors, for their own protection. I'd agree that this is more than justified, it is obligatory.