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The Jewish Ethicist: Shameful Shaming

The Jewish Ethicist: Shameful Shaming

Can I threaten to spread the word about someone who cheated me?


Q. My tenant caused me a large loss by canceling his lease on short notice. Can I shame him into making good my loss by threatening to bad-mouth him in our closely knit community?

A. Any kind of extra-legal sanctions should be viewed as a last resort. When you write that the cancellation "caused a loss," you must mean that it violated some explicit clause in the lease agreement specifying requirements for advance notice. If so, the same agreement presumably also dictates what the penalty is for breaching this requirement. If so, then your first course of action should be to seek a neutral forum, such as litigation, arbitration, or mediation, to uphold and enforce your claim.

If neither contract nor custom obligate the tenant to pay a fine, then it is certainly improper to shame him into paying one. This is no more than a kind of extortion.

However, sometimes there may be obstacles to legal recourse. Some obligations may be unrecorded, or informal, or not enforceable. In this case, it is sometimes appropriate to spread the story to others in order to enforce our rights. Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen of Radin, in his classic work on slander Chafetz Chaim, learns this from the following story in the Talmud:

Rav Gidel sought to buy a certain plot of land. Along came Rebbe Abba and bought it [first]. Rav Gidel went and complained to Rebbe Zeira. (1)

Jewish law restricts buying a plot of land if someone else is actively negotiating for it. So Rebbe Abba's purchase seems improper. Yet the transgression is not actionable; a court could not compel Rebbe Abba to sell the field to Rav Gidel. Thus the only recourse left open to Rav Gidel was to complain to some respected rabbinic figures.

However, as the Chafetz Chaim is careful to point out, Rav Gidel did not "bad-mouth" Rebbe Abba. His object was not to shame him but rather to turn to specific individuals who could persuade Rebbe Abba to offer some kind of settlement. The book makes clear that any intention whatsoever to shame the supposed wrongdoer is improper; all that is permitted is to turn to other individuals who have some specific ability to right the wrong.

"It seems to me that if he estimates that by telling other people how such a person did him an injustice in monetary matters and the like that this could bring him such future benefit, for example by telling people who have influence on [the wrongdoer],... it is permissible for him to tell them and to ask them to help him... It is permissible to tell others even though the story will embarrass his fellow, because this is not his intention. He only wants to protect himself so that he won't suffer any damage or sorrow or shame." (2)

The best place for you to resolve your disagreement with your tenant is in some kind of impartial forum. If you are convinced that you deserve some kind of settlement but for some reason litigation or arbitration are unable to enforce one, then it may be proper for you to turn to specific individuals who will be able in a discreet and pertinent way to help you attain one.

But it is certainly improper to publicly shame someone, or to threaten to do so. As we learn from the Chafetz Chaim, even turning to others in a permissible way is forbidden if our intention is not for reasonable self protection but rather to defame others.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 59a. (2) Chafetz Chaim volume I chapter 10:13.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at

July 8, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Natalie Kehr, October 18, 2007 11:15 AM

It is a public duty to tell

When I have been cheated or exploited by local firms I regard it as my public duty to make the facts known as widely as possible, and I certainly wish to know about the experiences my friends and acquaintances have had. Anyone wishing to buy a computer is welcome to ALL the correspondence I have had with my computer supplier, and they will then be in better position to decide what to buy. They may still decide to use the same company. Most people have horror stories about computers. However factual publicity is the only weapon some customers have at their disposal.

(2) Anonymous, July 17, 2006 12:00 AM


thank you

(1) Anna, July 11, 2006 12:00 AM

Do warn others

My late stepfather used to say 'They only do you once.'

I forgot, and allowed myself to be 'done' twice by a local plumber-my fault the second time for forgetting the above advice.

I have, however, warned other people about this firm-I don't want to see my friends being ripped off, and feel that I must prevent it happening.

I feel that one has an obligation to tell others and warn them if a person or firm is likely to rip them off.In my case, I have been very specific -they did x, y & z-rather than simply saying that they are crooks & leaving it at that. They may have done me twice, but they won't do the same to anyone I know if I can help it.

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