We now begin the concluding chapter of Sefer Chofetz Chaim. In his introduction to the chapter, the Chofetz Chaim writes, “In this chapter, we will explain when it is actually correct to speak rechilus, in cases where the speaker’s intention is to save the person from damage. I ask of Hashem that I should not stumble in a matter of halachah.”
If the Chofetz Chaim found it necessary to offer a prayer at this point, then surely we should handle such situations with the utmost care. We can liken this to a situation where someone faces the possibility of undergoing major surgery. The person would surely ask for a second, expert opinion before making any decisions. Likewise, when our spiritual welfare is threatened by the possibility of stumbling in matters of loshon hora and rechilus, seeking advice of a halachic authority is strongly recommended.
With these caveats, let us examine the following case:
You learn that your friend is in the process of hiring a particular contractor for repairs on his house. You know that this contractor is not to be trusted. You are familiar with cases in which he has repeatedly changed his price, used inferior material, and demanded additional money to finish the job. The Chofetz Chaim states that you must warn your friend, provided that you can fulfill the following five conditions: *
1. Do not jump to conclusions.
All of us have had the experience of having our assumptions soundly disproved upon gaining more information. Before you say something that will cause this contractor a loss of income, you must check your facts and be certain that they show the contractor to be untrustworthy.
2. Do not exaggerate.
Do not use any terms or expressions which will make the fellow appear worse than he actually is. Though you may think that you need to exaggerate so that your friend will take you seriously, it is forbidden nonetheless.
3. Be sure that your only intention is to accomplish something constructive. If you yourself had a bad experience with this contractor and you still harbor some ill will towards him, you should not be the one to tell your friend about his dishonesty. In such a case, it would be wise to seek the counsel of a rav (rabbi) to decide how your friend should be warned.
Furthermore, you must be sure that your friend will not turn the information into rechilus by repeating it to the contractor. As the Chofetz Chaim explains, if it is unlikely that your friend will heed your warning not to use the contractor, then you should not warn him. This is especially true if it is likely that when things do not go as planned, your friend will lose his temper and tell the contractor, “My friend Reuven was right in telling me not to use you!” If that happens, your friend would be guilty of speaking rechilus and you would be guilty of causing a Jew to sin.
4. Seek other alternatives.
If there is any way that you can get your friend not to use this contractor without relating the negative information, then that is what you must do. For example, you might recommend a less expensive contractor, whom your friend would probably want to use.
5. Carefully consider the impact of your words.
In our example, the result of your words should be that the contractor is not hired by this particular customer. However, if the contractor’s business might be ruined, the information cannot be shared. For instance, if your friend owned a newspaper and would publish this information in a consumer advice column, or if he might use some other means which would have a severe impact on the contractor’s livelihood, then it is forbidden to relate the information.
A competent halachic authority should be consulted regarding how best to prevent further fraud.
The wisdom of the Torah is plainly apparent in these laws. The Torah recognizes the need to warn a friend about potential harm. Yet it also encompasses an awareness that businesses and professional careers can be destroyed by mistaken assumptions or competitor’s gossip. The laws of relating rechilus for a constructive purpose are precisely designed so that we can walk the thin line between helpful information and destructive gossip.