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I recently had a bad business experience with a fellow Jew in our community. The person was not honest in conducting his business, and he ran off with a significant amount of money that I paid him in advance for his services (that he never provided). Someone recently asked me for his phone number to conduct business with him. Should I hand over the number? Or am I allowed to inform my friend that the man is a swindler?
Dear Ripped Off,
Your concern for a fellow Jew’s reputation, and your reluctance to speak negatively about him, is admirable. Many people in your situation would relish the opportunity to indulge in defaming the person who cheated them, and would feel justified in harming and maligning somebody who violated their trust or crossed clear boundaries of acceptable behavior in his dealings with them. Some might even consider it a mitzvah to ruin his reputation and consider themselves righteous heroes for spreading
The truth, however, is that lashon hara is not only something unethical, but it is a halachic violation with very specific boundaries which need to be studied. At the very least, the laws of lashon hara need to be seriously inquired about with competent rabbinic authority. We must take into consideration that there are very fine, delicate distinctions between what it forbidden, permissible, and perhaps laudatory to speak in such situations. And even when disclosing negative information about a fellow Jew is permitted, significant limitations apply, and this must be done only for the necessary practical benefit. One must never disclose negative information to satisfy a base inner drive for revenge or release pent-up anger and resentment. As such, a person in such a situation must be very careful in deciding which information needs to be spread and how it is to be spoken.
Turning our attention to your situation, it is certainly important to prevent somebody from entering into an agreement that could cause him financial harm, and thus it would be proper for you to discourage the person from doing business with an unscrupulous service-provider. It is imperative, however, that you speak only that which is necessary to prevent the person from sustaining damage, and not indulge in negative talk. The Hafetz Haim also writes that the motivation for sharing the information must be pure, and the intentions must be noble. Meaning, even after determining what is allowed and not allowed to be spoken, you must ensure that you speak out of genuine concern for the person who approached you for advice, and not out of vengeance.
In light of all this, you should convey to the person that it would be in his best interest to choose somebody else for the job, without being too descriptive or offering elaboration. In some situations, more detailed information is needed, and as no two situations are alike, every specific case must be carefully assessed to determine what information needs to be shared. In general, it is preferable to be as brief as possible, as the more words spoken, the more care must be taken to ensure that the boundaries of permissible speech are not crossed.
May Hashem grant you ongoing assistance in your desire to avoid forbidden speech, and grant you the bountiful blessings that one earns by guarding his tongue.
With warm wishes and
Rabbi Yechiel Elbaz