Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 29 January 2011 / 23 Shevat 5771

Yes, No Direction

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Name Withheld:

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 at the time but agreed nonetheless — partly because I had already invested much time, and partly because I felt pressured.

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 not confirmed his “yes”. A weekend passed. I then said I was declining 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 interest that I withdraw. I substantiated this by pointing out that I was withdrawing despite the fact that such a withdrawal would constitute a serious embarrassment for me, the production company and the client’s ad agency. I also noted that I would be incurring loss for my preliminary work, and that, in any case, I hadn’t heard a formal agreement from them.

Was I right or wrong?

Dear Name Withheld,

This is a tough one. And since it is a financial issue that involves others, it requires a Rabbi on location 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 (Bava Metzia 49a) says: “Your ‘yes’ should be righteous”, meaning that a person should stand by his word.

The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 204:7) 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 you’re selling me your car, and we agree on the details of the sale. Then, as I begin writing out the check, you decide to renege on the deal. It would be unscrupulous for you to do so, even if legally you are technically allowed to do so.

However, 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 that 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. And, of course, in your case there wasn’t a final confirmation from the client yet.

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. This is so even though you hadn’t as yet received a formal agreement from their side, because the intention was to reach an agreement, and, apparently, the other side is still interested. But if you can’t cut the job, you can’t. In which case, you’ll certainly apologize to the appropriate parties and express a commitment to exercise more caution in future agreements.

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