Mr. Alter passed away at age 85, leaving behind three children and ten grandchildren. When the shiva was over, the family opened the will. In his will, Mr. Alter divided most of his assets equally between his children, but granted significant sums to charity organizations that he had supported regularly during his lifetime.
In addition, he wrote: “I grant the grandchildren $10,000.”
“That was thoughtful of Abba to leave a token amount to the grandchildren,” the oldest son, Yaakov, said to his siblings. “$10,000 for the ten grandchildren means $1,000 each.”
“Grandpa left each of the grandchildren $1,000 in his will,” Yaakov said to son, Reuven.
“Can I see the will?” asked Reuven.
“I guess so,” replied Yaakov. “There’s nothing personal in it.”
Reuven looked at the will. “Excuse me,” he said to his father. “I think that Grandpa meant to leave each of the grandchildren $10,000, not $10,000 all together.”
Yaakov looked at the will again. “Why do you say that?” he asked. “The will does not say to give $10,000 to each grandchild. It says that $10,000 is granted to the grandchildren as a group. Divide the sum among you!”
“It’s true that it doesn’t say ‘each’ grandchild, but it also doesn’t say a ‘total’ of $10,000,” replied Reuven. “The stated sum, $10,000, can be understood for each!”
“I don’t want money to become a source of conflict and litigation between us,” Yaakov said to his son. “Let’s resolve the issue before we go for probate.”
“How do you suggest we do that?” Reuven asked. “You read it your way; I read it my way.”
The family agreed to turn to Rabbi Dayan for guidance. Yaakov, representing the children, and Reuven, representing the grandchildren, met with him. “Is each grandchild entitled to $10,000,” asked Yaakov, “or is $10,000 to be divided among them all?”
“The Torah states: ‘For the sons of Aharon you shall make tunics’ (Shemot 28:40),” replied Rabbi Dayan. “In Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 3:6) the sages require two ‘tunics’ for each son, whereas R. Yosi suffices with one tunic for each. Thus, according to the sages, the word ‘tunics’ applies to each one of Aharon’s sons. Similarly, the amount ‘$10,000’ should be applied to each grandchild.”
“However, the obligation of matanos la’evyonim, Purim ‘gifts’ to the poor, indicates otherwise,” continued Rabbi Dayan. “The Gemara (Megillah 7a) interprets this phrase to mean a total of two gifts, one each to two needy people. Thus, it seems that the word ‘matanos‘ applies to the entire group, and, similarly, the $10,000.”
“How can we resolve this contradiction?” asked Yaakov.
“Some explain that multiple items to one person remain a single gift, so that the verse in the Megillah cannot mean two ‘gifts’ to each,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “Alternatively, Pri Chadash (O.C. 694) differentiates based on the word order. The leading word sets the tone. Thus, each of Aharon’s ‘sons’ is entitled to two tunics, whereas two ‘gifts’ suffice for the mitzvah of matanos la’evyonim. Thus, the language of the will – ‘I grant the grandchildren…’ would indicate $10,000 to each.”
“However, others write that the Talmud Bavli rules like R. Yosi, that ‘tunics’ applies to all the sons,” continued Rabbi Dayan. “Thus, $10,000 is the total for all the grandchildren.” (Turei Even, Megillah 7b; Sho’el Umaishiv vol. I, 3:105)
“Can we infer from the Torah’s language to the language of a will nowadays?” asked Reuven.
“The language of the Torah, of Chazal, and of people nowadays can be different. Regardless, since the intention here is unclear,” concluded Rabbi Dayan, “we resort to the rule, yad ba’al hashtar al hatachtona, the plaintiff claiming based on the document has the weaker hand and burden of proof. Therefore, the grandchildren are entitled only to a total of $10,000, to be divided among them.” (C.M. 42:7; Yabia Omer C.M. 8:5)