The Story of Miriam which we read about in this week’s parasha is one of the six ordeals we are obligated to remember every day. Miriam, who loved her brother with all her heart and risked her life to save him was not spared of tzra’as after speaking negatively about him. Therefore, this week’s article will focus on Hilchos Lashon Hara and Rechilus with a contemporary slant – writing reviews and rating products or services. Is writing a customer review permissible? Is rating a service or product considered l’toeles? Can pushing the like button on social media be prohibited? Is there a difference between bad service and a bad product? Can positive feedback be prohibited? Which prohibitions could be involved? Are online surveys permissible? Some companies pay for writing reviews and filling out surveys. What could make writing them permissible? What could permit writing a negative review? 95% of online consumers check reviews before purchasing a product. Is believing the negative ones permissible? Of this and more in the coming article.
Lashon Hara – the Prohibition
In this week’s parasha we read about Miriam, Moshe Rabbenu’s beloved sister who, her relationship notwithstanding, was punished immediately with tzora’as after criticizing him.
The Torah warns us: “Be cautious regarding the lesion of tzora’as, to observe meticulously and you shall do according to all that the Levite priests instruct you; as I have commanded them, [so shall you] observe to do. Remember what the Lord, your G-d, did to Miriam on the way, when you went out of Egypt” (Devarim 24:8-9). We are obligated to remember the story that appears in this week’s parasha and refrain from speaking or conveying any information that involves Lashon Hara. In this week’s article we will fulfil this mitzva of remembering the ordeal as commanded in the above mentioned pasuk, focusing on the current manifestation of the timeless halachos of Shmiras Halashon.
Very often, after buying or using a service — be it a doctor at a health fund clinic or a purchase on Amazon — the client’s or consumer’s feedback is requested. This rating could be visible to other consumers or limited to the administrators, but it is used by others for making future decisions. Social media also allows users to push the like or dislike button on posts to easily announce reader’s preferences and satisfaction.
Is providing feedback permitted?
Leaving a review may involve several halachic issues. If a negative review does not include all the details and writing will cause damage to the seller or service provider, doing so involves the prohibition of illegally damaging another person. Even if a positive review does not contain all the relevant information, it may involve damaging another person.
A review in which all the information is 100% true can still be 100% Lashon Hara.
A negative report that could sow discord between the salesperson who gave the service and his boss, would transgress the prohibition of rechilus.
Even a positive review might consist of the prohibition of: “He who blesses his friend in a loud voice early every morning, it shall be considered a curse for him” (Mishlei 27:14).
The severity of the prohibitions of Lashon Hara and rechilus — gossip-mongering, spreading lies or imprecise information, needs no introduction. Therefore, we will only focus here on filing information when the facts are true, or expressing one’s accurate experience with a service or product.
True Lashon Hara
The Chaffetz Chaim (Hilchos Lashon Hara, 1:1) writes: “One is forbidden to speak badly of another Jew, even if it is completely true. This is called by Chazal Lashon Hara [while false slander is considered Motzi Shem Ra, a more severe sin] and the speaker transgresses the negative commandment ‘You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people’ (Vayikra 19:16).”
In his footnotes, the Chaffetz Chaim (Be’er Mayim Chayim, 1) explains that many mistakenly assume that when the information is true, repeating it is not prohibited. While this concept is a simple enough mistake to refute, he deems repeating and stressing it again and again to ensure this mistake is erased from public perception.
What is Lashon Hara?
Lashon Hara is any transmitting of information that could potentially harm, hurt, or embarrass another Jew, whether communicated in writing, speaking, or even hinting. Negative feedback is obviously included in this prohibition, but also positive reviewing that includes a hint of negativity or even information that could possibly cause others to rethink using a service or purchasing a product. For example, writing that the food at an establishment was “red hot and spicy, just the way I like it” may be positive for one person but negative for another – especially if the food establishment does have other non-spicy items on the menu. On the other hand complaining that the delivery person didn’t leave the package close enough to the doorstep, or didn’t take out a used appliance is an example of unquestionable Lashon Hara which must not be repeated.
We must remember that when filling in a product review, even if the negative information is unequivocally true, it remains Lashon Hara. When written for the sole purpose of saving others from damage it may be permitted, but only when the seven conditions are present (as we will explain below).
In addition to the prohibition of telling Lashon Hara, there is another prohibition related to transmitting information: rechilus. Rechilus means communicating information that could sow discord between Jews. For example, if a Jew opens a watch store where there is another watch store in the area, revealing the identity of the new rival to the first owner is forbidden. While his negative feelings for his rival are inappropriate and unreasonable, since they are, nevertheless present, assisting in creating them is forbidden.
In writing reviews, if the service provider is an employee and his boss looks over the reports and deducts pay or otherwise harms or shames the employee who received negative feedback, giving it is forbidden under the prohibition of rechilus.
While there may be cases in which an employee is causing damage to his employer, one must carefully judge the case to see if it meets all the necessary criteria before passing on rechilus.
The pasuk in Mishlei writes: “He who blesses his friend in a loud voice early in the morning, it shall be considered a curse for him” (27:14). While the prohibition of slandering is clear, why does the Torah prohibit excessive praising? What could be wrong with saying something nice about someone else?
The Gemara (Erchin 16a) lists three examples for the problems that could result from excessive praising: the first is one publicly praised for his generosity causing thieves or tax collectors to descend on him and take all his money. Another example is publicizing someone’s open-house policy, causing every passer-by to stop in and eat even when the owner can’t afford it. The third example is one who praises another so much causing others to speak up negatively to balance out the praise.
It is important to note that while Emily Dickenson’s famous poem about words is certainly true (“A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say, it just begins to live, that day”), words written on the Internet go on living indefinitely. Any information uploaded on any website will circulate indefinitely and, unsurprisingly, tend to come back and haunt people in the most inappropriate times and places.
For example, complimenting a vendor for a blowout sale might cause other buyers to demand the same discount. Praising a product as lasting a lifetime may cause those whose product broke to write negative reviews of their own if their purchase turned out to be weaker.
Beneficial Lashon Hara
The Chaffetz Chaim (Lashon Hara 10:1) lists the seven criteria that must be met in order for Lashon Hara to be considered beneficial — in which case repeating it is permitted.
- The information must be 100% true and comes from direct knowledge, not from word of mouth, public news outlets, or even a best friend.
- The injustice must be halachically clear. Often, what people perceive as an injustice is not exactly so, and slandering is forbidden. For example, a caterer’s best friend who uses a different caterer for his events and even helps him find clients — while he may have not been nice to his friend, the veteran caterer, he is still doing nothing wrong. Therefore, slandering him for doing so is forbidden.
- Proper warning – before publicizing negative information about someone, even if done only in order to stop the damage, one must first approach the offender and request he stop. Only when all other means have been exhausted can one resort to publicity.
- If there is another way to stop the damage from occurring or achieve the desired affect without resorting to publicity one must do so.
- No extra details – when Lashon Hara is permitted one must take extra special precaution to speak very precisely — not one extra syllable can be inserted to describe the negative feedback beyond what actually occurred.
- Only for the desired benefit – when repeating beneficial Lashon Hara one must be certain that only the desired benefit is fueling his desire to repeat the story and nothing else – not jealously, revenge, anger, or pleasure (strange as it may seem, there is such an animalistic pleasure in gossiping).
For example: While David wants desperately to make Levi stop selling the damaged goods he sells, if his anger flares up when he sees Levi trying to sell those same goods to Yisroel, he is not permitted to warn Yisroel about the damaged product. Although in telling him about the defective product he will be protecting Yisroel from a loss, what’s fueling his drive to repeat the story is his bubbling anger.
Additionally, one who occasionally does the same thing, for example – sells defective goods as working ones – is not allowed to speak up about someone else doing it.
- The information must not cause excessive damage – if by publicizing negative information one might cause greater damage than what the Torah’s judicial system would have meted out, one is forbidden to repeat the information. For example: For selling a defective product worth 2$ one would have had, according to the Torah law, to return 2$, a negative review that would make the business go belly up is completely forbidden because that damage is far greater than anything a Beis Din would have required to pay.
Similarly, one who takes another person to court for defaulting on a debt instead of going to a Jewish Beis Din and receives more money than what he would have received had he gone to Beis Din, is considered as if he stole the extra money. Therefore, one who would take someone to court instead of a Jewish Beis Din cannot be informed about someone stealing from him.
Negative Reports – Summary
Writing a negative report or review about someone or something consists of the prohibition of Lashon Hara. If the report includes feedback on an employee there is an added component of rechilus.
When writing a report for public benefit, the following seven criteria must be met:
- The product or service must be clearly damaged or defective due to the seller’s fault. Often the product might be of excellent or reasonable quality, but failing to read the instructions causes it to break or malfunction.
- The injustice must be halachically clear-cut. Often, the seller might fail to mention certain details or leave out necessary information. This could cause major discomfort, and perhaps even damage, but it usually does not create halachically redeemable damage. Additionally, an uncourteous seller or uncomfortable interaction with a storeowner is not a halachically viable injustice.
- Pointing out the problematic issue to the seller is of utmost importance before leaving negative feedback. Usually mentioning the option of negative feedback is a sufficient deterrent to prevent repeated issues. Only when ignored can negative information be relayed.
- It’s important to try and think of other creative ways to prevent further damage before resorting to publicity.
- Not one single extra word can be added! Naturally, when describing a negative experience we easily fall into describing our feelings and opinions – all pure Lashon Hara. The only option here is to try and step into the seller’s shoes and describe the ordeal through his point of view.
When rating a service with the star system, giving less than three stars is considered negative feedback while five is a perfect product, nothing less. Four points is usually a high enough a rating to be a compliment while leaving future consumers room for further investigation — probably the best kind of feedback to give.
- Ulterior motives must never be the reason for writing a review — be it anger, jealousy, revenge, or even financial compensation. There are companies that pay for writing reviews, either with products, benefits, or points.
- Negative feedback must not cause more damage than halachically permitted. This point is almost impossible to determine, since as we mentioned – words on the Internet can be quoted and requoted, distorted unbelievably and equally damaging. It is impossible to determine the impact of a simple product review! Therefore, writing reviews, providing feedback on consumer experience, or rating a transaction is highly discouraged. In any event, before writing something, anything! even l’toeles, we recommend you sleep a night on it – often by the next morning it will no longer be necessary to write.
Even when giving positive feedback, choose your words with care. While one might like a homey feeling in the vacation home he rented, another would appreciate a luxurious experience. When choosing one description over another we may be misleading the next client or creating unrealistic expectations and dashed hopes. Additionally, one must never publicize a sizable discount he received so the next clients don’t demand it too.
Feedback on Non-Jews
The prohibition of Lashon Hara includes two parts – one is causing damage to another fellow Jew. The other side is damaging our own personality by focusing on the negative parts in people, Jewish or otherwise. The major Torah prohibitions involve focusing on the negative in fellow Jews, and those carry the Torah’s punishments. However the other part, too – training ourselves to see the negative, demands our attention.
Therefore, even where there is no prohibition of Lashon Hara involved because no Jew is harmed, for the sake of our own neshamah’s health it is recommended to refrain from writing negative reviews unless one is certain it will be saving others from real damage. (Here, even if all seven criteria are not present there is room for leniency.)
Reading Negative Reviews
Can I read the reviews previous customers wrote on Amazon to research a product? If there is a prohibition to write the reviews, perhaps the same prohibition prevents reading and believing them?
While believing is, indeed, forbidden, one is permitted to be cautious of negative information and protect himself from damage.
Therefore, while we must never see negative reviews people write as being true (because they could be paid reviews, perhaps commissioned by rivaling businesses or people simply trying to extricate discounts or gifts from vendors, in addition to the regular negative-oriented customers) the reviews can be perused to determine if the business or store is worth patronizing.
Negative reviews should almost never be written (for Jewish-owned businesses) because only rarely are they halachically permissible. When permitted and if all the seven criteria are in place, we recommend having another, non-related person write the review. An impartial point of view will give the feedback a balanced, neutral effect. It is important to remember that negative reviews can ruin a Jew’s livelihood, family, and even life, and is included in the terrible transgression of Lashon Hara, as well as oftentimes, rechilus.
Even positive reviews must be worded very carefully.
When reading a review, one must remain doubtful of its content, read only the points that seem relevant, and, if necessary, do additional research.