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.