by R. Daniel Mann
Question: May one to decide not to go through with his donation pledge to a Jewish school? If so, must he take steps such as hatarat nedarim?
Answer: Your question is general, as will be the focus of our answer. Realize that details can make a big difference.
Pledges of a gift can obligate on various tracks. One follows rules of monetary laws: Only after a kinyan (act of finalization) to obligate himself or transfer an item can the gift be enforced. However, if one asserts that he will give his friend a modest present, he has a halachically recognized moral obligation to do so (Bava Metzia 49a). When the intended recipient is poor, the moral obligation exists even for a significant present (Rama, Choshen Mishpat 243:2). In that case, the basis of the moral obligation is “religious,” under the laws of oaths (nedarim) (Yerushalmi, Bava Metzia 4:2; Shut Harama 47). Indeed the idea of nidrei tzedaka is derived (Nedarim 7a) from a pasuk on oaths (Devarim 23:24). Jewish schools that promote Torah values and observance are considered a proper recipient of tzedaka funds (see our article of Va’eira 80).
Each element has rules as to when it applies and why a pledge might not be binding. When one becomes obligated based on neder, he can often (see one of the exceptions in Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228:21) remove the neder with hatarat nedarim – he professes regret about having made the oath, and the assembled “court” can uproot it. The neder part of a pledge to tzedaka can similarly be undone (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 258:6); the process is called sh’eila. However, the fact that this neder is for the direct benefit of the worthy recipient, and thus backing out erases his rights, impacts in a few ways. For one, once the donation reaches the gabbai, the pledge cannot be undone (ibid. see Arachin 6a). This largely parallels the rules of kinyan, as the gabbai is considered “the hands of the poor” (see Tosafot ad loc.; Bava Kama 36b). Also, while she’ila can work if done, poskim warn not to agree to nullify the pledge (Shut Haradbaz IV:134; Pitchei Teshuva, YD 258:8). However, this idea does not totally shut the door to undoing the vow. In the parallel discussion of nidrei hekdesh, the Shulchan Aruch and Rama (YD 203:4) say that one should do hatarat nedarim only in the case of dochak (roughly, pressure or difficulty). Therefore, for example, if a rich person pledged a large donation and before giving it, he lost his wealth to the point that it is not feasible to follow through, there are grounds for sh’eila.
Another scenario in which a pledge does not have to be fulfilled is when it was based on a mistake (ta’ut or shegaga). The concept that ta’ut nullifies obligations/agreements applies both to monetary matters and to nedarim (see Shulchan Aruch, YD 232:6). In such cases, hatara is not even necessary. It is not always clear when the mistake is definite or significant enough to void the obligations. One of the cases in the Rama (ibid.) is a slip of the tongue regarding currency (e.g., stated $1,000 when he meant 1,000 NIS). The Chatam Sofer (Shut YD 237) talks about a more subtle case – the donor thought the recipient’s needs were well beyond their true level. The Shvut Yaakov (I:72) discusses one who promised to support a group of ostensibly righteous Torah learners, and it turned out that that many of them were far from righteous. He demonstrates that in principle this is a ta’ut, but in practice one should be cautious before reneging. The two latter sources both suggested being on the safe side by doing hatara even in cases in which they should not need it. Tzedaka U’mishpat 4:76 discusses at length cases of ongoing commitments in which over time things changed for the recipient (e.g., became rich, died) that change the rationale for the donation.
In summary, a pledge to a Jewish school is generally binding, but practically there may be reasons why it is not. In an actual case, one should carefully discuss the specific merits with a rabbi who can help put the facts and the halacha in proper perspective.