Mr. Gottlieb, though not wealthy, was known for his generosity. He scrupulously gave 10 percent of his earnings to charity, and often much more. Among his regular charities was Yeshivas Ohr Israel. At the recent Dinner, Mr. Gottlieb pledged $10,000 toward the Yeshiva’s scholarship fund.
Two weeks later, Mr. Gottlieb passed away, before he had a chance to honor his pledge. His inheritance went to his only child, Dovi. After the shiva was concluded, Dovi received a visit from the financial administrator of Ohr Israel, Mr. Goldin.
“Your father pledged $10,000 to the yeshiva’s scholarship fund two weeks before his death,” Mr. Goldin said. “Honoring your father’s pledge promptly would be a great merit for his memory.”
Dovi, however, was hesitant. He did not particularly identify with Ohr Israel; his attitude toward it had always been somewhat distant. In addition, Dovi’s own financial situation was not stable.
“I affiliate myself with other Torah institutions and am experiencing my own financial issues at the moment,” replied Dovi. “I don’t see myself donating to Ohr Israel.”
“But your father already pledged that amount,” Mr. Goldin said. “You owe us the money.” “Did my father sign any agreement with the yeshiva or make any other binding commitment?” asked Dovi.
“It was a verbal pledge,” acknowledged Mr. Goldin. “But verbal commitments also have to be honored, particularly charity pledges.”
“My father pledged that amount,” said Dovi. “I never pledged it to you.”
“But when he made the pledge, he committed his money to the yeshiva,” said Mr. Goldin. “We’re not asking you to donate your own money, only from your father’s estate.”
“That money is now mine,” responded Dovi. “There’s no difference between my money from before and what I inherited from my father. If nothing was committed in writing, his pledge doesn’t obligate me to donate.”
“Perhaps you don’t share your father’s enthusiasm for Ohr Israel,” said Mr. Goldin. “But it still seems to me that, as his heir, you are obligated to honor also his verbal pledges.”
“I am not convinced,” said Dovi. “I will verify the matter and get back to you in a week.”
“Thank you for your time,” said Mr. Goldin. “We hope that you will decide to honor your father’s pledge as a merit to his soul, regardless.”
Dovi called Rabbi Dayan and asked if he could advise him on the matter: “Am I required to honor my father’s verbal pledge?”
“Whether an heir is obligated to honor his inheritor’s verbal pledge is the subject of an intricate dispute,” said Rabbi Dayan.
“Oh, really?” exclaimed Dovi. “Who discusses the issue?”
“This case was disputed outright by the mechaber, Rav Yosef Karo, and the Rama,” said Rabbi Dayan. “A person pledged a sum of money to the poor of Eretz Yisrael in his will. The heirs challenged the will, claiming it was not drafted properly. Rav Karo upheld the will for a number of reasons. One was that even if the will was not drafted properly, a verbal pledge to charity is also fully binding. The Rama [Responsa #47-48:3] disagreed with him, arguing that a charity pledge is considered a vow a person must fulfill, but does not obligate the heirs if not contractually binding through a properly drafted will or another form of kinyan. Interestingly, in that particular case the Rama enforced the ruling of Rav Karo anyway, out of his great respect for him.”
“Is this dispute reflected in Shulchan Aruch?” asked Dovi.
“Yes,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “The Shulchan Aruch [C.M. 212:7] writes that if someone pledged to charity before his death future income from his real estate, it must be given to the poor, even though such a future agreement is not contractually binding. The Rama comments that only the person himself must fulfill his pledge as a vow, but not if he died already. Ketzos Hachoshen [290:3] explains that the crux of the issue is whether the requirement to honor one’s charity pledge generates a legal obligation, a lien, on the money.”
“So I don’t have to honor my father’s verbal pledge according to the Rama?” said Dovi.
“You cannot be forced, though the issue is not simple,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “A number of authorities maintain that even the Rama concedes that the vow creates a legal obligation when the assets are already in existence. [See SM”A 212:21; Pischei Teshuvah 212:9 citing Chasam Sofer.] Furthermore, if the father already set aside the money before he died, the heirs are required to give it.” (Nesivos 250:4; Tzedaka U’Mishpat 4:28-29)
“What about the issue of honoring my father?” asked Dovi.
“If a person instructed his children to give the money, there is kibbud av in fulfilling his words,” replied Rabbi Dayan. (Pischei Teshuva 252:3) “There is also no doubt that fulfilling his charity pledge is a way of bringing him great merit and serves as a proper tribute to his neshamah.”