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Keeping Promises: A Full Obligation?


As part of our current series on truth and falsehood, we will this week turn to a basic obligation to truth, one crucial both in education and in everyday life: keeping promises.

There is an expression: “promises are promises”—promises are to be kept and not broken. But secular civil law distinguishes between promises and contracts. A contract must be honored, and failure to honor a contract can be penalized by law. A promise, however, does not fully bind a person. Promises may be broken, and breaking a promise generally draws no legal sanction.

Is this distinction true in halacha? To what degree does Torah law require a person to keep his word? Does the nature of the promise make a difference? Is there a difference between a promise to children and a promise to adults? Under which circumstances is it right and proper to break a promise?

These questions, among others, are discussed below.

Dealings in Good Faith

As we have already noted in past installments, a person has an obligation to conduct all his dealings in good faith. This duty is all the more true of business dealings, in which we must ensure that all our dealings are fair and just. The principle is mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 156:1).

Chazal write (Shabbos 31a) that the first question that a person is asked upon entering the World of Truth is: “Did you deal in good faith?” Rav Chanoch Taitelbaum (a leading rabbi of nineteenth century Galicia) explained why this question precedes even the questions of being engaged in Torah study and in procreation (Shut Yad Chanoch no. 62):

“The first thing upon which a person is judged is the fulfillment of obligations that derive from common sense, and which have applied since the day man was created upon the world—as Rav Nissim Gaon has written. The first question is therefore, “Did you deal in good faith?” After this, a person is judged concerning his obligations as a Jew, somebody whose fathers stood upon Sinai. In this category, the first question concerns Torah study.”

The obligation to deal justly and fairly is thus paramount in Jewish tradition. Indeed, the Midrash (Mechilta, Beshalach 1) writes, “Somebody who conducts his business affairs in good faith and people are content with him—it is considered as though he has fulfilled the entire Torah.”

We have already seen that deceit and dealing in bad faith can involve the Torah prohibition of geneivas daas. Now we will focus on keeping promises.

Good Faith in Gifts

Concerning gifts, we find a discussion in the Gemara (Bava Metzia 49a) about somebody who promises his fellow a gift. Rabbi Yochanan is cited as stating that one who promises to give someone a gift is able to retract his promise, meaning that he is not monetarily responsible for his word. The Gemara proceeds to ask: “Is this not obvious?”—and therefore refines the citation from Rabbi Yochanan: “It is permitted to retract.”

However, Rav Papa explains (in the same Gemara) that this refers specifically to the promise of a large gift; for a small gift, the promise must be honored.

The reason for this distinction is the reliance of the prospective recipients. Whereas for a large gift the recipient naturally will harbor doubts over whether he will in fact receive the gift and therefore will not take the promise at face value, the intended beneficiary of a small gift fully anticipates the fulfillment of the promise. Because the recipient has faith in the giver’s promise, the promise carries greater weight, and it is therefore obligatory to keep such a word.

The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 204:8) rules in accordance with this distinction, explaining that the obligation to keep one’s word applies specifically to the promise of a small gift.

The definition of which gift is considered small and which is large depends on the giver: For a poor individual a gift of $50 is large, whereas for a millionaire a gift of $1,000 might be considered small.

Source of the Obligation

What is the source of the obligation to keep one’s word?

According to some authorities, the obligation to keep one’s word in the case of a small gift is a full Torah obligation, which is derived from biblical instruction, “You shall have a just hin(Vayikra 19:36).

Although the simple meaning of the verse is that one must use correct measures in commerce, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 49a) cites the explanation of a beraisa: “Your ‘yes’ (hen) shall be just, and your ‘no’ shall be just.”

However, other authorities write that the obligation to keep one’s word is rabbinic (see Ramban and Rosh; Sema 204:12; Tosafos Yom-Tov, end of Shevi’is), and that the Torah prohibition is reserved for somebody who never meant to keep his word.

It is important to note that even for a large gift, where there is no prohibition against retracting, it is forbidden to make a promise if the person has no intention of keeping his word.

Promises Without a Recipient

As noted, the obligation to honor one’s promises is contingent on the recipient’s reliance. Based on this, there is room to question whether the obligation can apply even to promises made in the absence of the recipient: if he doesn’t know about the promise, he surely doesn’t rely on it!

The Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (Laws of Sales 6) cites an explicit ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 243:1-2), stating that the law of keeping promises applies even to a promise made in the absence of the recipient.

Yet, he proceeds to question the rationale behind the ruling (Tziyunim 53) and based on this difficulty a number of authorities rule that the obligation does not apply to such promises (see Peri Yitzchak Vol. 1, no. 51; Machaneh Efraim Ona’ah 28). Many, however, rule that it does apply (Minchas Pittim 243:2; Betzel Ha-Chochmah 5:160).

Promises Made to Children

Quoting from Mahari Algazi, Rav Meir Arik (Minchas Pittim, Choshen Mishpat 204:8) writes that the principle noted above concerning the absence of a recipient applies even to promises made to children: A child lacks daas, and his reliance is therefore insufficient to obligate the keeping of promises.

A similar assertion is made by Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld (Salmas Chaim, Vol. 2, no. 79), who was asked why the Gemara cites a special prohibition of lying to children, for fear of training them to lie (Sukkah 46b). Surely, the regular obligation to keep promises ought to apply? To this, he responded that: “It seems that the principle of a small gift applies to an adult, and not to a child.”

Yet, there is room to distinguish between the cognition required to perform legal transactions, and the level required for basic reliance. Although a ten-year-old cannot perform a Torah kinyan, it is possible that he nevertheless relies on his father’s promise no less than his thirteen-year-old brother.

Provided the child is older than three or so, there is therefore room to argue that the prohibition will apply.

Under this assumption, the special prohibition on lying to children can be explained as referring to cases in which the obligation to honor a promise does not apply, such as a large gift, or a situation where there is no reliance on the part of the child.

This debate is particularly relevant for Afikoman promises, as we have discussed on previous occassions. On account of the special occasion and the unique status of the Afikoman gift, one can assume that children indeed rely on the promise, and the gift should be duly given! [This is aside from the problem of lying to children.]

Keeping One’s Word in Transactions

When the promise in question refers to a sale rather than a gift, the halachah is more stringent: Because the issue does not involve a promise but rather a transaction, it follows that there is no difference between a large and small transaction. Even where no kinyan has been made, so that the parties involved can in principle go back on the deal, the Rambam (Mechira 7:8) and Shulchan Aruch (204:7) rule as follows:

“Somebody who conducts a business transaction in word alone – it is proper for him to keep his word, even though he did not take any money, and although nothing was written and no collateral exchanged. A buyer or seller who retracts, although he does not receive a curse [which is given to somebody who retracts after money was exchanged], is considered lacking in faith, and the spirit of the wise is not at ease with him.”

According to many opinions, retracting in this manner involves a full prohibition, as Shut Raanach (1:118) explains at length, assuming that this is a rabbinic prohibition. Some authorities (see for instance Rosh, Bava Metzia 4:12) even imply that doing so involves a Torah transgression based on a positive mitzvah. The Rambam, however, stresses that “it is proper” for a person to keep his word, rather than speaking of an actual prohibition. At the same time, the Rambam includes the halachah in his Laws of Sales: Honest dealing is certainly part of the Torah business law.

In his Laws of Ethics (Hilchos De’os), the Rambam refers to Torah scholars, and is still more demanding: “A Torah sage must conduct his business dealings with honesty and good faith. When his answer is ‘no’ he says ‘no,’ and when his answer is ‘yes’ he says ‘yes.’ He is stringent with himself in his accounting, gives and yields to others when he buys from them, but is not demanding [about what they owe him]. He pays for his purchases immediately … He accepts obligations in matters of buying and selling for which the Torah does not hold him liable, in order to uphold and not go back on his verbal commitments. If others have obligations to him by law, he grants them an extension and pardons them. He lends and bestows gifts.”

It is therefore certainly proper and just practice to ensure that one always keeps his word in business dealings (see also She’iltos, Vayechi). The Meiri (Bava Metzia 49a) extends this principle even to being faithful to one’s thoughts – though he stresses that this applies only to the most pious: After having decided in thought to complete a transaction, they stick to their decision even though the other side remains unaware of it. This of course is a very high level and few are those who reach it, yet it remains an ideal of honesty and integrity that we can strive towards.

The words of Rabbeinu Yonah provide us with a fitting conclusion:

“One who promises something to his fellow must keep his promise… for the other has relied on him, so that breaking the promise is a way of falsehood and is comparable to a person who has broken a covenant, as it is written: ‘The remnant of Israel shall not do wrong, and shall not speak falsehood, and no trickery shall be upon their mouths’ (Tzefaniah 3:13).”

May we walk the ways of the just, and deal faithfully with all.

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