Verbal Promises I
By Rabbi Daniel Travis
“...Let me gain possession of property for a burial place with you so
that I can bury my dead from before me.” And the Hittites answered, “Bury
your dead in your choice of our sepulchers. None of us will withhold from
you…”…And Avraham said, “Listen to me, and speak up for me to Efron son of
Tzohar. If he will give me the Machpelah Cave which belongs to him... for
the full price he shall sell it to me.”
Before Avraham approached Efron to buy his field, he spoke with all the
Hittites as a group. At that point, Avraham seemed content with their
assurance that they would give him a burial site, but when he turned his
attention to Efron alone, he would not accept Efron’s promise to give him
the land. Avraham insisted that Efron commit himself to selling him the
land. Why did Avraham suddenly change his negotiation tactics?
Avraham’s actions were directed by a number of halachic principles
regarding verbal promises. Under normal circumstances an individual is not
obligated to uphold a promise to give a very large gift (1). Since people
do not generally give such large gifts, it is assumed that one who made
such a promise was not being serious at the time. Nevertheless, if the
promise was made by a group of people, they are obligated to fulfill it
(2). Since each member of the group will have to contribute only a small
portion of the entire sum, we can assume that the promise they made
collectively was a serious one (3).
For this reason, when the Hittites promised to give Avraham any land he
might choose, Avraham could proceed with confidence, assuming that they
would not back down on their word. If an individual were to make the same
kind of promise it would not be binding. However, if someone pledges to
sell, he is obligated to keep his promise (4). This is why, when he dealt
with Efron alone, Avraham wanted an assurance that Efron would sell him
the land, and would not accept the land from him as a gift (5).
1. Choshen Mishpat 204:8; however, the Responsa of the Pri Yitzchak 51
states that it is praiseworthy for an individual to fulfill his word even
if he has promised to give a large gift.
2. Choshen Mishpat 204:9.
3. ibid., Semah 204:14.
4. Bava Metzia 49a; Choshen Mishpat 204:6. The Migdal Oz (Derech Eretz,
Ch. 4) writes that there is an exception to this rule: if the original
offer was a mistake, one is not obligated to fulfill it.
5. Chut HaMeshulash, Shaar HaMayim – Bereshith 23:4.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org