“I’d like to replace our stroller,” Mrs. Reich said to her husband. “I find it’s too heavy and would like a lighter one.”
“And what should we do with the old one?” Mr. Reich asked. “It’s still in good condition.”
“We could give it away to some other family,” suggested Mrs. Reich. “When we get the new one, you can post a sign in the shul.”
Later that week Mrs. Reich bought a new, lighter stroller and gave her husband a sign to post: “Heavy stroller in good condition available for whoever wants. Please contact the Reichs.”
A few days later, a family called to inquire about the stroller.
“We’re happy to give it to you,” said Mrs. Reich. “It’s sitting in our basement meanwhile.”
“We really appreciate it,” they said. “Can we come by next week and pick it up?”
“That’s fine,” said Mrs. Reich.
On Thursday afternoon Mrs. Reich went out with the stroller to the park. While she was pushing the baby on the swing, someone took the new stroller and walked off.
When Mr. Reich returned from work that evening, his wife related what happened. “What are we going to do now?” she asked. “We can’t afford to buy yet another stroller.”
“We’ll have to keep the old one,” said Mr. Reich. “There’s nothing else to do.”
“But I already told the other family we’d give it to them,” said Mrs. Reich. “It’s not nice to back out on them.”
“I know, I’m not comfortable about it either, but I think they’ll understand,” he said. “We only offered the old stroller because we didn’t need it, but now we need it.”
“Even so, we committed to them,” said Mrs. Reich. “We can’t simply say we changed our mind.”
“It’s not like they paid us anything or we signed any agreement,” said Mr. Reich. “We simply offered it verbally, but now circumstances have changed and we’re not in position to give it away.”
“I don’t feel comfortable about this without asking Rabbi Dayan,” said Mrs. Reich. “Would you please call him?”
Mr. Reich called Rabbi Dayan. “We offered our old stroller to a family last week, but our new one was stolen and we now need the old one,” he said. “Can we retract our offer and keep it for ourselves?”
“This depends on whom you offered the stroller to,” replied Rabbi Dayan.
“Can you please clarify?” asked Mr. Reich.
“For a transaction to be legally binding, it is usually necessary to perform a formal act of acquisition, or kinyan,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “For example, picking up the stroller or pushing it to the recipient’s property. Nonetheless, a person is still expected to honor his word. Furthermore, one does not uphold his verbal commitments is considered untrustworthy – mechusar amana – since the recipient relied on his word.” (C.M. 204:11)
“But it’s not as if I’m simply backing out,” objected Mr. Reich. “There was a change in circumstances; our new stroller was stolen.”
“The Rama addresses this point,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “Indeed, the consensus of later authorities is that a significant change in circumstances, such as this, is reasonable cause for a person to retract from his verbal commitment.” (Chasam Sofer C.M. 102; Pischei Choshen, Kinyanim 1:5).
“If it’s OK to retract, what difference does it make whom the recipient is?” asked Mr. Reich.
“The Gemara [R.H. 6a] teaches that a pledge to charity is tantamount to a vow,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “Thus, if the recipient was a needy family, the issue is not merely a verbal commitment but rather a vow to charity. This you may not retract from, even if circumstances change afterward.”
“Is there any way to undo the vow?” asked Mr. Reich.
“It is sometimes possible through hataras nedarim, nullification of vows,” replied Rabbi Dayan, “but it’s not simple for charity pledges. On the other hand, Rav S.Z. Auerbach, zt”l, indicates that if a person says hataras nedarim before Rosh Hashanah and annuls any vows made during the year, as is customary, a verbal commitment such as this – which was not intended to be a vow – would not take the status of a vow. Thus, if the recipient family was needy, the issue requires further clarification.” (See Halichos Shlomo, Moadim vol. I, Shalmei Neder 18)