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The Case Of The Conflicting Commitments
‘A Breach of Faith
(Bava Metzia 49a)



Our sugya reviews a person’s obligation to keep his word. One who promises to give something to another as a present and reneges is declared to be guilty of a breach of faith (mechusar amanah) and is greatly disfavored by the Sages (above, 48a). Ramban (Kiddushin 17b) scathingly defines our sages’ disdain for such a person and states that they “regard him as evil.” However, a person is so regarded only if he fails to keep a promise that another believed, i.e., only if his promise is something that seems reasonable. If his promise is something so fantastic that it is normally beyond belief, he is not duty bound to keep his word, as the Sages assumed that the person to whom he promised never really believed it.


A Congregation’s Obligation

A question pertaining to our sugya arose involving a congregation that sought to renege on an obligation. The gabbaim claimed that in spite of their action, they were not mechuserei amanah because the matter involved a rather large gift and only those who renege on small gifts are so defined. The halacha, though (Shulchan Aruch 204:9), was determined according to the Mordechai on our sugya. The Maharsham (2:191) therefore ruled that a congregation that promises a large gift is not judged in the same manner as an individual. Poskim (Sema, Magen Avraham, ibid.) mention two reasons for distinguishing between congregations and individuals: 1) People rely on promises made by public bodies, even in instances of large grants, and 2) If a congregation pledges a rather large sum of money, all the members share the obligation. Each of them bears a reasonable share of the responsibility, each a small gift which presentation must be honored. A “small gift” is an obligation that is believed.


Rich Man, Poor Man

Poskim (Chavos Yair 45; Maharashdam, Choshen Mishpat 128; etc.) also remark that a rich person who promises a gift is judged differently than one who is poor, when promising an identical gift. A gift deemed small by the rich may be considered very generous by the poor. Still, a beit din does not force someone to keep promises. Such behavior is not a halachic obligation but an appeal by the Sages to act honestly (Maharik, shoresh 118).


A Public Announcement

Rabbi Alexander Katz (HaAgudah 6:66 and in Maharam Mintz 39) comments that synagogue gabbaim should announce that “such-and-such individual is mechusar amanah as he is not a man of his word and is disfavored by the Sages.” The announcement should be made before musaf of Shabbos (when generally more people are present in the synagogue) to punish the person and deter the congregation from such behavior. The poskim do not mention such a takanah, and Rabbi Chayyim Benvenisti (Kenesses HaGedolah 204, comment 9:17, in the name of Mordechai on our sugya) states that it suffices for a beit din to merely inform someone that he is mechusar amanah. Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna, in his Or Zarua, and other authorities (cited in Responsa Nechpah BaKesef, II, p. 265) indicate that even such notification is not obligatory.


Think Twice

Someone who promises a large gift does not have to keep his word, but the Peri Yitzchak (1:51) and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Mechirah uMatanah 1) stress that he should behave piously and fulfill every promise. The Mordechai adds a profound insight: While someone who reneges on a promise of a large gift might not be mechusar amanah; nevertheless, he must be careful in his behavior toward the poor, as in their eyes such promises resemble vows to give charity, which he must surely keep.


Tough Choice

A venerable person sought guidance in the following matter from Rabbi Yaakov Mordechai Breisch, zt”l, (Chelkas Yaakov, Orach Chayyim 24). He had promised to attend a certain event. However, shortly before the occasion, he received an invitation for a bris scheduled for the same time. Was he already duty bound to the prior commitment or was he to disregard that event and attend the bris, as Rema notes (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 265:12), “One who (is invited and) does not eat at a bris is like someone banished by Heaven.”

Apparently, the two events were geographically far apart, preventing attendance at both, or at best a very late arrival at either would be insulting. Rabbi Breisch remarked that certain halachos of bris celebrations prove that he must give preference to the earlier invitation. After all, the Rema (ibid.) adds that one who does not attend a bris because he wishes to avoid certain unworthy people is not obliged. Hence, if attending a bris involves disgrace, he is surely not “banished.” Failing to keep his prior commitment would make him mechusar amanah, a shameful disgrace, and this consideration alone obliges him.


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.