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Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim| 5771

Ask the Rabbi: retruning gifts after a broken engagement

retruning gifts after a broken engagement

Question: Our daughter was engaged, and her chatan broke off the engagement with complaints we know are untrue. We paid for many wedding expenses, and his side has not agreed to pay their share. The chatan had given our daughter an engagement ring and other jewelry, and we have received word that his family wants them back. Are we required to return them, or may we hold on to the jewelry until we have been compensated?

 

Answer: This question has two elements, one specific to Even Haezer (laws related to marriage) and another that is classic Choshen Mishpat (monetary law).

The mishna (Bava Batra 146a) says that certain sivlonot (presents that a chatan gives to a kalla before their marriage) return to the chatan if they do not get married. The basic distinction is as follows. Those presents (including food stuffs) that were meant to be used up during the pre-wedding celebration were appropriately given even if the end goal of marriage was not met and need not be returned. However, presents that were to last into the future are deemed to be done on the condition of marriage and must be returned if they do not get married (see also, Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer 50:3). Although usually we say that conditions that undo a transaction must be verbalized, when it is clear that a present is based on future expectation, it is deemed conditional. This is true even if the kalla is not at fault at all, including if one of the parties dies (ibid.). In fact, if the kalla backs out, then her side has to pay for the money the chatan wasted on the celebrations. (Similarly, a chatan is required to return the presents that he received from the kalla's side- ibid. 4). Thus, on the basic level, you are required to return the jewelry.

However, on the second level, your claims are likely to have merit. You spent a lot of non-refundable money on wedding preparations, which now, by his backing out, is a loss to you. It is likely somewhat complicated to figure out how much of the above the other side owes you, and it may depend on specific elements of agreements and the chain of event that we are unaware of. We will not express an opinion without hearing both sides, and it might require a formal beit din setting to determine an exact solution. However, since the other side has resisted dealing with the matter, the question is about taking the law into your own hands by withholding the jewelry.

Taking things of value in lieu of payment one believes he deserves is known as tefisa, and its laws are very complicated. The biggest limitations are against unilaterally taking something as collateral for a loan, which the Torah forbids (Devarim 24:11), causing damage during the tefisa, and when one takes something he cannot prove he deserves (Rama, Choshen Mishpat 4:1). However, the main problem is in the act of taking. If the other party had voluntarily given the object (as in this case), he can hold on to it as a guarantee until his rights have been properly addressed (whether by agreement, mediation, or arbitration) (see Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kama 3:5). While it is problematic to obtain the object through deception (K’tzot Hachoshen 4:1), that is certainly not the case here.

Legal tefisa can also be an advantage where it is unclear to a beit din which side is correct, as the one holding the object in hope of payment is no longer the only one trying to extract payment from the person in possession. (The details are too complex to discuss seriously in this context, but one can see Klalei Tefisa (CM 25), par. 7, 17).

All of this being said, it is extremely important from a personal, spiritual, and practical perspective to allow the painful matter of a broken engagement to heal with as good terms as possible. Extended recriminations and posturing can cause all sorts of problems for the chatan’s and the kalla’s futures. Therefore, one should make certain sacrifices to do what is smart, not just what is right.

 

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