Shabbat Parashat Vayeira| 5771
P’ninat Mishpat: An Unspecified Obligation Following a Specific One(condensed from Shurat Hadin, vol. II, pp. 119-123)
Case: A couple signed a divorce settlement among whose provisions was an obligation of the husband (=def) to give 500 shekels a month [some two decades ago] toward support for his daughter. The wife complained this was not enough, but def said it was all he could afford. At the time of the kinyan sudar (act of confirming agreements), def said he was accepting upon himself to support his daughter until age 18. When it was explained to him that this could obligate him in support even beyond 500 shekels a month, he immediately vehemently objected and at first refused to give a get unless his understanding was accepted. Later he agreed to the get but asked that his interpretation be accepted.
Ruling: Despite the open-ended nature of the obligation as stated at the time of the kinyan, there are several reasons to limit it to 500 shekel, as we will explore.
The matter of an open agreement that follows a detailed one has halachic precedent. The Rama (Choshen Mishpat 207:1) says that if one made a conditional agreement and then confirmed the agreement with a contract that omitted the condition, we assume the condition remains. The Gra (ad loc.) says that this is based on the gemara (Ketubot 72b) that says that when one betrothed a woman on condition and then married her without stipulation, the condition applies. Even those who argue do so only because one would not want to have conjugal relations which could turn out to be extra-marital (if the condition is not met). Also there would be at most the need for a get, but the husband would not be obligated monetarily with a ketuba. [Analysis of the gemara and its application had to be omitted.]
Even if we were to accept the obligation at the kinyan as exceeding 500 shekels, we rule that one can back out of an obligation created by a kinyan sudar as long as the matter is still being discussed at the same sitting (Shulchan Aruch, CM 195:6). Here, def protested in the direct aftermath of the kinyan.
A further question is how to determine the level of support of an unspecified obligation. The Shulchan Aruch and Rama (Even Haezer 114:6), regarding one who obligated himself to support his step children and subsequently divorced their mother, disagree as to whether one gives minimal support or average support that one gives to members of his household. [While skipping the analysis of comparing the cases,] it appears that here, where def was pressured into the obligation, def could rely on the Shulchan Aruch’s opinion that the obligation is minimal, and it might not exceed 500 shekels.
According to two minority opinions, the obligation is not valid. One is that we follow what one is assumed to be thinking even if he does not spell it out (see Rama, CM 207:4). Also, the Rambam (Mechira 11:16) posits that obligations that don’t have a set monetary limit are not binding.
In summary, based on certain compelling arguments and some weaker ones, def is not obligated in child support beyond the 500 shekel a month he accepted in the signed agreement.
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