Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Mr. Klein served as fundraiser for a prominent yeshiva, Toras Yisrael, for two decades. During this time, he developed strong connections with many donors.

One donor in particular, Mr. Stein, grew extremely close to Mr. Klein and donated most generously. One day, he confided to Mr. Klein, “Out of respect to you, I have earmarked a very substantial sum for the yeshiva in my will.”

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After 20 years, Mr. Klein moved on to work for a different yeshiva, Ohr Chadash. Mr. Stein began contributing to Ohr Chadash out of his great respect for Mr. Klein, and, as the years passed, he shifted the bulk of his contributions from Toras Yisrael to Ohr Chadash.

One day, Mr. Stein approached Mr. Klein. “If you remember, I confided to you years ago that I had earmarked a very substantial sum in my will for Toras Yisrael,” he said. “Now that you are working for Ohr Chadash, I am considering changing the will and earmarking the money for Ohr Chadash. What do you think?”

“Ohr Chadash could very much use the additional funds,” replied Mr. Klein. “But I’m not sure it would be ethical to change the will at the expense of Toras Yisrael. I think it best for you to consult a halachic authority.”

Mr. Stein called Rabbi Dayan and presented the facts to him. After listening and considering the matter, Rabbi Dayan replied, “Machaneh Ephraim (Hilchos Tzedakah #7) discusses whether a person who pledged tzedakah for a certain needy person can give it instead to a different needy person. He cites a dispute between the Maharash Yafeh (Ashkenazi) and the Radbaz [#134] on this matter.

Machaneh Ephraim ultimately rules that he cannot, based on the Mordechai who says a poor person can force an oath on someone who, he claims, pledged to give him a gift. Evidently, once a person pledges to give someone something, he has a legal obligation to do so. This rule is based on the principle of amiraso lagavoha kimesiraso l’hedyos – a pledge to the Almighty is tantamount to a transaction with a person, and is legally binding [Shach, Choshen Mishpat 87:51; see, however, Ketzos 87:21, 212:4].

“Nonetheless, Tzedakah U’mishpat [9:1] suggests that it should be permissible to give the money to a different cause with hataras nedarim.

Pri Yitzchak [1:51] writes that a person has a moral responsibility to honor his verbal commitment. One who doesn’t is considered mechusar amana, lacking trustworthiness” [Choshen Mishpat 204:7-8; 243:2].

“Nonetheless, a clause in a will differs from a regular pledge, and it’s difficult to apply the concept of amiraso lagavoha to it. A secular will typically assigns assets after one’s death, so the pledge is not in force now, and a halachic will (depending on its nature) often contains an explicit clause that allows for retracting. Thus, not only may it be permissible to change the name of a tzedakah beneficiary in a will; it may be permissible to retract a gift entirely.

“Furthermore, some maintain that mechusar amana does not apply when circumstances change significantly,” concluded Rabbi Dayan. “So since your will was drafted with Mr. Klein’s position in mind, one can argue that a change in his circumstances justifies a change in your will” [Rema 204:11].

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Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, a noted dayan. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e-mail to subscribe@businesshalacha.com. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e-mail ask@businesshalacha.com.