Mr. Blank worked through the summer, so his family stayed in the city. “It would be nice to get away to the country for a weekend,” his wife suggested.
“Great idea!” Mr. Blank replied. “If we can find a place, it would be nice to go away for Shabbos Nachamu weekend.”
Mrs. Blank searched the classifieds for summer home rentals. “Here’s one,” she said to her husband. “Summer home available for weekends. Reasonable rent. Call Mr. Zimmer for details.”
Mr. Blank called Mr. Zimmer. “We saw your ad for the summer home in the newspaper,” he said. “Is it available for Shabbos Nachamu? How much is it?”
“It is available and costs $400 for the weekend,” replied Mr. Zimmer. “You’re welcome to come already Thursday evening.”
“I’ll discuss with my wife and confirm with you tomorrow,” said Mr. Blank.
The following day, Mr. Blank called Mr. Zimmer again. “Yes, we are interested in reserving the house for the weekend,” he said.
“Excellent,” said Mr. Zimmer. “Payment is due when you arrive. I’ll see you in a week.”
A few days later, Mrs. Blank received a call from her sister, who was spending the summer in their summer home. “We have a bar mitzvah back in the city on Shabbos Nachamu,” she said. “Our house is available that weekend if you’d like to use it.”
“That’s so nice of you,” said Mrs. Blank. “We actually are planning on going away that Shabbos. We reserved a summer home, but if yours in available that would save us the expense. Thanks a lot!”
“Guess what?” Mrs. Blank said to her husband. “My sister just offered us her summer home for Shabbos Nachamu. Can you call Mr. Zimmer and cancel the reservation?”
Mr. Blank called Mr. Zimmer. “This is Mr. Blank speaking,” he said. “We reserved the summer home for Shabbos Nachamu. In the end, we do not need it and would like to cancel the reservation.”
“But we already confirmed the reservation,” said Mr. Zimmer. “You can’t just back out now; that’s dishonest.”
“We just received an offer from my sister-in-law to use her house,” explained Mr. Blank.
“You’re still breaking you reservation,” objected Mr. Blank, “but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Mr. Blank was troubled. He saw Rabbi Dayan in shul that evening and asked: “Is it acceptable to cancel the reservation?
“Just as a sale requires an act of acquisition, a kinyan, to make it legally binding, so, too, a rental agreement requires a kinyan to make it legally binding,” said Rabbi Dayan. “A verbal agreement alone does not carry legal responsibility. Therefore, although you reserved the bungalow over the phone, since no kinyan or payment was made you have the legal ability to cancel the reservation. To prevent this, it is wise for landlords to demand a deposit payment.” (195:9; 315:1)
“The words alone mean nothing?!” Mr. Blank asked astounded.
“Words are meaningful, and a person has a moral obligation to honor his verbal commitments,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “One who does not uphold his words is called lacking trustworthiness (mechusa amana) and, possibly, even wicked.” (204:7)
“So then it is wrong to cancel the reservation?” asked Mr. Blank.
“It would be if you hadn’t received the offer from your sister-in-law,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “There is a dispute between the authorities if a verbal commitment is morally binding when there was a change in market conditions. The Rama [204:11] cites both opinions, and sides that one should not retract even in this case. However, later authorities lean towards the lenient opinion [Pischei Choshen, Kinyanim, 1:5].
“When the rental is no longer needed because another unit was received for free, the Chasam Sofer [C.M. #102] writes that this is certainly like a change in market conditions, so that it is not considered a breach of integrity.”
“What if I wasn’t offered the other bungalow for free, but found a better deal?” asked Mr. Blank. “Would that also be considered a change in market conditions?”
“The SM”A [333:1] indicates so,” answered Rabbi Dayan, “but this is questionable unless there was some new development in the market, so that one who is scrupulous should be careful.” (Emek Hamishpat, Sechirus Batim, #8)
“What if Mr. Zimmer had turned away other potential renters meanwhile?” asked Mr. Blank. “Perhaps he might not be able to find other renters now?”