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Direction Needed

The Color of HeavenArtscroll
Topic: Agreements, Verbal

Name@Withheld wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

I am a film director. I work in advertising. After much pressure and considerable preparatory work on my part, I reluctantly agreed to direct a TV advert. I felt very uncomfortable about my decision.

Meanwhile, although I had said "yes," no-one was in a position to reciprocally confirm the job as mine, i.e. the actual client had as yet to say "yes." A weekend passed. I then said I was declining to pursue the job. I was accused of unethical conduct.

I reasoned that my doubts and discomfort about the project's outcome would seriously impair my creative performance, and that it was in the client's best interests that I withdraw, even though such a withdrawal would constitute a serious embarrassment for me, the production company and the client's ad agency. Was I wrong?


Dear Name@Withheld,

This is a tough one. And since it is a financial issue that involves others, it requires a real live Rabbi to hear both sides I can just give you basic guidelines based on your side of the story: (In my answer, I will assume that you were not yet legally committed by implied contract or industry standard.)

The Talmud says: "Your YES should be righteous," meaning that a person should stand by his word.

The Shulchan Aruch rules that one who breaks a verbal agreement in a business transaction -- even if the deal has not been legally concluded -- is considered unfaithful and "out of favor" with the Sages.

So, for example, let's say I'm selling you my car, and we agree on a certain price. As you begin writing out the check, someone comes along and offers me more money. It would be unscrupulous for me to cancel my deal with you and to sell it to the newcomer, even if legally I am able to do so.

Now, your case appears to differ from a standard "business transaction." You aren't selling a car. Rather, you're "selling" your talent and creativity. According to your description, you agreed to take on the project thinking you would be able to put your creative talents to it, but later you realized that you don't have it in you. This is more like agreeing to sell someone a car which you later realize you don't own. In such a case, backing out isn't as much a lack of faith as a mistake made in the beginning.

So, if you think you can do a good job without harming the client's interest, you should reconsider in order to uphold your word. But if you can't, you can't. I'm sure you will make apologies to the appropriate parties, as well as a commitment to exercise more care in future agreements.

    Sources:
  • Tractate Bava Metzia 49a
  • Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 204:7

 
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