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Jewish World Review
Sept. 19, 2005
/ 15 Elul, 5765
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
How can I punish an abusive competitor?
Q: I have a competitor who is intentionally sabotaging
my business relationships. How can I get back at him?
For instance, he misled one of his clients regarding
his background; can I let the client know?
A: It's certainly regrettable that your competitor is
sabotaging your business. While Jewish law
acknowledges the right of firms to compete fairly for
customer business, this is meant to be done positively
by improving prices and service, not negatively by
actively interfering with competitors. (1)
However, I don't recommend "getting back at him."
There are two reasons: one ethical, and one practical.
The ethical reason is that vindictiveness is one of
the most dangerous qualities. The Torah warns us,
"Don't take vengeance and don't bear a grudge"
(Leviticus 19:18). The great Medieval commentary on
the commandments, Sefer Hachinuch, writes: "This
commandment brings great benefit to quiet feuds and to
remove enmity from people." If you have a legitimate
claim, you should refer it to adjudication, and if you
don't, then it would be unfair for you to punish your
The practical reason is that based on my experience,
sniping among competitors is highly damaging to
business. This is the ultimate kind of negative
competition, or "race to the bottom." In a prolonged
price war both competitors may be weakened, but at
least the consumer benefits. But in a smirch war, the
reputations of both firms become tarnished and the
discouraged consumer loses out, too.
For the same reason, disclosing your competitor's
conflict of interest is a real problem. In general, we
must be very careful of making damaging statements
about others; this is learned from the Torah's
admonishment, "Don't go about as a talebearer among
your people" (Leviticus 19:16).
However, there is an exception: when the revelation is
needed to save someone else from harm, it is
permissible. The very same verse concludes: "Don't
stand idly by the blood of your fellow" - don't evade
responsibility, rather take steps to protect him, as
you would want him to do for you. The Sefer Hachinuch
explains that the mandate is "not to go and tell
someone, 'Such a person said such and such about you,'
unless his intention is to prevent damage or quiet a
So we see that this permission has its own caveat:
there must be pure intentions. If your intention is
solely to protect the client from harm, then your act
is not one of slander but rather one of kindness; the
negative message is an unfortunate but quite necessary
by-product. But if your entire intention is to punish
your competitor, we can hardly excuse it by calling it
an "act of kindness" towards the client.
What do we do in this case? The Chafetz Chaim, the
classic Jewish work on avoiding slander, tells us that
when we have the obligation to reveal but we have
vindictive motives, we should try to focus and refine
our motives and then make the revelation to the
potential victim. (2)
But this advice is not really germane to your
situation. For one thing, some vague "misleading of
background" doesn't sound to me like a clear and
present danger to the client. But even more
fundamentally, it's not really realistic to think that
business competitors can bad-mouth each other without
vindictive motivations. In fact, the Chafetz Chaim
himself writes that we should never even ask one
tradesman about another competing one, since the
competitive urge is so great that this is virtually an
incitement to slander. (3)
When a competitor is fighting dirty, you have a number
of options. You are of course allowed to contact
customers and emphasize the value of your services,
and defend them against any unjust charges. Certainly
you may avail yourself of any legitimate avenues for
legal redress. Often it is helpful to contact the
competitor and confront him with the immense potential
for mutual damage of a sniping war among business
However, descending to his level and trying to snipe
back is not an ethical response and in addition is
almost certain to alienate the consumer.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 60a. (2)
Chafetz Chaim II 9:3, note 3. (3) Chafetz Chaim I 4:11
in footnote, see also I 10:11.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
administration, is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, Jerusalem College of Technology.
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