If a man makes a vow to Hashem or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do. (Bamidbar 30:3)
Anybody who attends regular services in shul is familiar with the picture of charity collectors making their rounds, each with his personal tale and need. Of course, deciding to whom to give and how much is not always easy, and in the course of a single Shacharis prayer we might be forced to make several split-second decisions concerning donations to charity.
The question we wish to address is the following. Rather than giving cash, it has become fairly common to give collectors checks or charity vouchers. What happens if somebody gives away a check or charity voucher for $10, only to note that another collector had already entered the other side of shul. Rather than the $10 donation, he would like to split the donation into $5 each.
Having given the check or voucher to the first collector, does the donor retain the right to change his mind—to replace the $10 with a $5 check—or not? Furthermore, what is the halachah when the check was signed, but not handed over to the collector? Can the donor change his mind, or is the very signing of the check sufficient to obligate the donation to charity?
Defining a Check
The first issue that must be clarified in answering this question is the definition of a check. If a person gives actual money to a charity collector, he cannot change his mind. The donation is a full gift, and the gift cannot be retracted. Does a check have the same status as a monetary gift, whereby the donation is final and non-retractable?
In fact, there are three possible ways in which a check can be defined from a halachic perspective. One way is as an alternative to cash. As Harav Yisrael Yaakov Fisher used to say, in giving a check one does not say “I owe you,” but rather “I give you.” A check, in his view, was as good as cash for all intents and purposes.
A more formal version of this view is presented in by Rav Shalom Gelber in Nesivos Shalom (Ribis 173:55). Quoting from Haav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, he explains that “checks have become a traded entity.” A ruling of the Jerusalem Rabbinate (vol. 9) quotes a similar ruling from Harav Elyashiv shlita: “However, Rav Elyashiv has ruled that today’s checks are considered as everyday money, over lasocher.”
Of course, according to this opinion there is no question of retracting after handing over a check. Just like a person cannot revoke a given gift, so the giving of a check is irrevocable.
Yet, seeing a check as money depends primarily on the transferability of the check. These authorities saw checks as cash because it is the common custom in Israel to pass on checks from one person to another, their liquidity giving them the same status as cash.
Today, although this might still be true in certain sectors of society, as a general rule checks certainly fall far short of cash in terms of transferability. Most establishments will not accept a check as payment—and certainly not somebody else’s endorsed check. The statement whereby a check is “over lasocher” is hardly applicable to most sectors of today’s modern society.