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Does this story in the Talmud imply that Jewish law says it's OK to disclose trade secrets if it can be argued that it saves lives?

Rabbi Yochanan was sick with scurvy, and he went to a certain non-Jewish woman [for treatment]... She [said]: Swear that you will not reveal [the remedy]. He said: I swear to the God of Israel I will not reveal it. She then divulged it to him and the next day he revealed it in his [public] lecture. [A rabbi asked:] But did he not swear to her? [Another rabbi answered:] He swore: To the God of Israel I will not reveal it, [implying that] I may reveal it to His people Israel. [The first rabbi rejoined:] But is this not a profanation of the [Divine] Name? [The second rabbi answered:] [No, because] he stated [that provision] to her originally. [Avodah Zarah 28a]

Note that the rabbis' concern was Rabbi Yochanan's oath, not the fact that he revealed a trade secret.

(Not what I originally asked, but a useful area to explore.)

  • It seems that your question is not about disclosing secrets, but keeping an oath(?). Please resolve the contradiction - either change the title or the question. – Al Berko Oct 31 '18 at 11:10
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    R'Yochanan didn't eat fruit? – Clint Eastwood Oct 31 '18 at 12:50
  • Why did you tag it as Pikuach Nefesh? – Al Berko Oct 31 '18 at 13:25
  • I think yichud is a bigger issue here. XD – ezra Nov 30 '18 at 6:25
  • @ezra Who says there was a yichud here? Do you want a yichud story? Go to Shabat 127:b – Alaychem Remember Monica Dec 26 '19 at 8:36
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Like all things in Halacha it depends on the situation. There are also additional consideration like Hasogas Gevul that would come into play even when there is no intrinsic trade secret or copyright issues.

As far as the Gemroah in Avoda Zorah is concerned that was a unique situation of a common life and death illness without a well known cure.

The CHAVOS YA'IR (#69) explains that only in the case of such a public need ("Tzorech Rabim") Rebbi Yochanan held that one may render his oath invalid, even when it involves another person. However that limiting factor of "common life and death illness without a well known cure" would be relevant in learning out any trade secrets halachos from that Gemorah as well

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Usually, the revealing of trade secrets would cause a loss to the party who is keeping the secret. For example to reveal the ingredients to say a popular soda drink would damage their business since the competition would develop their own version. There would be a substantial monetary loss.

Then there is the ethical behavior. Jews seen as revealing trade secrets would be considered unethical and there would be issues of chillul Hashem.

Depending on the context, it might be damaging to all Jews. For example if the Rabbi who is involved in certifying that Coca Cola is Kosher were to reveal the ingredients of Coca Cola, he would not only be doing something unethical, and cause a substantial loss to the company, it would also damage the reputability of Kashrus Organizations and businesses would see that Jews and their Kashrus are not reliable, honest individuals. This would cause a massive chillul Hashem, but also delegitimize the kashrus industry.

The Talmudic discussion here, is an entirely different scenario - where the issue is the betterment of society as a whole. Would it be unethical to reveal the way Teva Pharmaceuticals makes a certain medicine, thus enabling a generic compound to be made, thus providing a cheaper alternative for the drug, and thus would be a betterment to the community as a whole. This would ostensibly save lives. There are a number of issues here. Firstly the healing of Rebbi Yochanan was conditional on revealing the remedy. In the case of Teva, you're entitled to the drug and it is non-conditional, provided the doctor allows it. It seems therefore that Rebbi Yochanan's agreement was not an agreement in the true sense because she knew he would reveal it prior to the treatment, and made him swear otherwise. He needed treatment and it seems it was illegitimate to withhold that information. In the case of Teva, there is no condition and they don't assume you will reveal their trade secret. Anyone in their employment would probably sign a non-disclosure agreement which effectively means that legally you'll be obligated not to reveal anything with stiff penalties otherwise. Halachically, this agreement would probably be binding. (see Dina d'Malchusa Dina - Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat, 369:6-11)

This Article discusses your question from a perspective of contractual law and the effects of that in general as well as the Halachic ramifications.

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  • It seems that all opinions of Dina D’Malchusa would agree that such an agreement is binding - perhaps even the Rosh, who is the most lenient of the group. – DonielF Oct 31 '18 at 9:48
  • Would the fact that knowing the ingredients does not mean one can replicate the product? The ingredients list does not reveal how those ingredients are mixed, the proportion, in what order, or otherwise processed. – JJLL Dec 26 '19 at 20:54

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