About two months ago I had a certain serious problem. I said that if the problem is resolved I will give a certain amount to tsedoko. Baruch Hashem the problem was resolved. A week ago my former yeshiva was having a campaign and they pressured me to pledge a certain amount. I did not remember that I had earlier committed to give money to tsedoko. Can I use the money that I will give to the yeshiva to fulfill my earlier commitment to give tsedoko? Someone told me that my first pledge is anyway not binding because it falls into the category of asmachta, i.e. since my commitment was only conditional it is not binding. Is that correct?
The first and most basic point which needs to be made is that when one pledges tsedoko his pledge is not merely a verbal commitment but is classified as a neder. This means that one who violates his pledge violates two Torah commands: the negative command of lo yachail devoro and the positive command of kechol hayotsei mipiv ya’ase – you must fulfill whatever you state.
Let us began with the issue of asmachta. The Shulchan Aruch in two places (Yoreh Deah 258, 10: Choshen Mishpot 207, 19) addresses this issue and writes that asmachta is not an issue in cases like yours. The Shulchan Aruch explains that the reason is because whenever one makes a neder, due to the gravity of his words we say that he is serious about his commitment and therefore it is not classified as an asmachta.
The next point we should mention is that the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 203, 4) writes that, in general, when one wishes to give tsedoko he should just give it without making a prior commitment, or at least just make his pledge right before he gives the tsedoko. The reason is because a neder is a very serious issue and one should refrain from making nedarim.
The Shulchan Aruch makes an exception for situations like your first commitment. He rules that if one has a problem and wishes to invoke Hashem’s help, he is allowed to pronounce a neder, like Yacov Avinu did when he went to Lavan. However, even then there are poskim (Shevet Hamussar) who write that nowadays one should refrain from making a neder even under these circumstances. However, this is just for the future since you already made your neder.
Next we should mention that this question shouldn’t really have occurred. When one makes a neder to give tsedoko (Yoreh Deah 257, 3) he must give the tsedoko right away unless that isn’t possible since the Torah writes that one who pronounces a neder must not tarry to fulfill his neder. This Torah obligation is called lo se’acheir. One is permitted to tarry only if there are no worthy recipients available. Since nowadays there are many needy individuals and causes, the prohibition of lo se’acheir applies. This is important in general. Therefore, Rav Chaim Kaniefsky (Derech Emuno: Matnas Aniyim 8, 8) writes that the Chazon Ish advised people to state when they begin giving ma’aseir kesofim that any money they set aside as ma’aseir kesofim should not become tsedoko money until they actually distribute it.
Your situation is therefore that you have two pledges: one made when you had the serious problem, and another made to your yeshiva. Your question is whether you can fulfill both of your pledges with the same money.
We can derive from the halachos of ma’aseir kesofim that you cannot. The Taz (Yoreh Deah 249, 1) writes that if, when one pledged money to purchase an aliyoh to the Torah, he did not have in mind to use ma’aseir money to pay off his pledge, he may not later make use of ma’aseir money to do so. The reason is because one can only pay off his obligations with his personal money, but not with tsedoko money. When one buys an aliyoh in shul he creates upon himself a monetary obligation. Therefore, he may not use his ma’aseir funds to fulfill his obligation to the shul. Similarly here you may not use your tsedoko money to pay off your newer debt to the yeshiva.
Now that we have learned that you have two pledges to fulfill, we may consider if there is any way you can avoid the requirement to fulfill both pledges.
We learned before that the halachic status of your pledges is that of two vows. In general, one can undo a vow by asking three people for reprieve from his vow. One must tell them that had he known such and such he would not have made the vow. For example, in your situation, you could tell the three people that had you remembered when you pledged the money to the yeshiva that you previously committed to give tsedoko you would have stipulated, at the time when you pledged to give to the yeshiva, that you will use the money you previously pledged to pay the yeshiva. We must therefore consider if this is a proper action in your situation.
In general, as we mentioned earlier, the Torah prefers that people refrain from making nedarim. Therefore, the halacha (Yoreh Deah 203, 3) is that we encourage people to undo their vows. However, that is true about vows in general. However, when one vows to donate something to hekdeish he should not undo his vow because it is desirable that people fulfill their vows and donate to hekdeish and if one undoes this type of vow, hekdeish suffers a loss. Therefore, we only permit undoing this type of vow if it will be difficult to fulfill his pledge.
In your situation, certainly if it is difficult for you to donate twice the amount you can undo one of the pledges. Even if it is not so difficult you can undo your second pledge because it is quite obvious that you would have used your first pledge to fulfill your second commitment. Therefore, you are not causing a loss to tsedoko. You should be specific to undo the second pledge and not the first one since the first one was made under duress and one should generally not (Yoreh Deah 228, 45) undo these types of pledges. The Chasam Sofer (See Pischei Teshuvo 44) explains that the rationale is that you sort of made a deal with Hashem and Hashem came through on his part of the deal so you should not back out of your end of the deal unless it seems desirable for Hashem that you undo your commitment.
Conclusion: You cannot fulfill both pledges by giving money to your yeshiva unless you first undo your second pledge by going to three people and expressing your regret for having neglected to mention, at the time when you made your second commitment, that you intend to fulfill your first commitment by giving to your former yeshiva.