For the week ending 15 February 2003 / 13 Adar I 5763

Keeping Your Word

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Question: I have been negotiating with a potential buyer of my home and made up my mind to sell it to him at a certain price. I even made a verbal commitment to do so but never legally formalized it in any manner. A higher offer has been made and I wonder if it is ethical for me to back out of my first commitment.

Answer: There are different levels of responsibility. If a kinyan act of acquisition has been made, such as receiving some down payment, the first buyer can halachically compel you to go through with the deal. (In the case of items which are not real estate, money alone is not considered a kinyan, but backing out may incur a Heavenly curse for going back on your word.) Where no kinyan has been made there is still an issue of faithlessness (Bava Metzia 49a) and a halachic authority must be consulted as to whether there is a justification for switching to the higher offer after making a verbal commitment to the first buyer.

How high a standard one should strive to maintain in keeping his word is illustrated by the story of the Talmudic Sage Rabbi Safra. He was in the midst of reciting the Shema when someone approached him to purchase an item he had for sale. Since Rabbi Safra could not interrupt his recital, the buyer assumed that he was not satisfied with the offer and therefore made a higher offer. When he finally completed the Shema, the Sage turned to the buyer and said: Take the article for the amount you initially mentioned, because I had intended to sell it to you for that sum.

This, conclude our Sages, was a fulfillment of what King David praises in one who speaks the truth in his heart. (Tehillim 15:2)

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