Avoid or Advise?

Should we tell an incompetent merchant why customers are staying away?

Q. A merchant in our neighborhood is basically not patronized by members of our congregation because of the many bad experiences members have had with his service. Of course he has noticed this fact, but whenever he asks the reason for our abstention, we give some pretext. Should we just tell him straight out what bothers us?

A. Jewish law gives some valuable guidelines for your situation. On the one hand, the Torah commands us to give guidance and admonishment to others, in order to help them improve. On the other hand, this law is limited by a number of reservations that are meant to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

The Torah tells us, “Surely admonish your fellow man, and don’t bear sin towards him” (Leviticus 19:17). This verse tells us that we should strive to inform others of ways in which they can improve themselves; otherwise, we may build up unnecessary resentment and bear sin towards them. At the same time, this admonishment may not come at the expense of insulting them, which would also be a sin. The very next verse tells us “Love your neighbor as yourself”!

Practically speaking, there are three limitations on the mandate to admonish others:

  1. Admonishment must be gentle. Harsh and demeaning reproof does not fulfill the commandment.
  2. Admonishment is only a mitzvah if it is effective! The Talmud tells us “Just as it is a mitzvah to say something that will be heard, it is a mitzvah not to say something that will not be heard”. (1) In general, our tradition urges us to refrain from unnecessary speech in general; certainly there is no reason to hurt someone’s feelings if there will be no practical advantage.
  3. Even when it is proper to admonish, it is permissible to refrain if a person is afraid that he may be unfairly targeted as a result of his reproof. We know that many people have an unfortunate tendency to kill the messenger who bears bad news, and sometimes it is necessary to take this tendency into account. (2)

So the answer to your question is very simple. If you think that this merchant will actually be able to improve his service if someone clarifies the complaints against him, then it is certainly appropriate to gently explain to him what the true reason is for his commercial loneliness. But if you think that it is pretty unlikely that the storeowner will make any meaningful changes, or if there is a fear that he will react in an unpleasant or vindictive way towards the person doing the admonishment or towards the congregation as a whole, there is no obligation to do so.

(1) Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 65b.
(2) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 334:48 in Rema.