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Shabbat Parashat Chayei Sarah 5776

P'ninat Mishpat: Returning the Donations After the Recipient Died

(based on Shut Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 147)

Case: A poor man died, leaving a widow, a son and a daughter, for whom the community raised weekly support. Then the widow died. The gabbai tzedaka set up a fund for the son to use for a business when he becomes ready and for the daughter’s future dowry. The son grew up and received his money but died soon thereafter. His sister inherited the money, giving her a total of 600 gold coins, but she too died before she got married. The donors want their donations back, whereas the rabbi wants to use the money for community projects for the benefit of all.


Ruling: It is surprising that there is no mention of the daughter’s closest living relative’s claim. Apparently, there is no known relative, in which case the money is used for communal needs (Rosh, cited by Tur, Choshen Mishpat 283).

The Beit Yosef (CM 253) cites the Rashba that if one gave money for a poor girl’s dowry and she died, her inheritors keep the money. This is because once a poor person receives money, it is his, and he can even use it for uses that the donor did not intend. The Rama (CM 253:16) brings dissenters based on the following sugya (Bava Kama 110a-b). If someone stole money from a convert with no inheritors and swore falsely about it and then the convert died, he gets atonement by returning the money to kohanim and bringing a korban. If the thief paid the kohanim and died before bringing the korban, the money is not returned to his inheritors because the payment brought an element of atonement even without the korban. This implies that if the money given did not have its intended impact, the money would return to his inheritors. The Hagahot Maimoniot (Gezeila 8) learns from this that if one raised money for his daughter’s wedding and she did not get married, the donors can ask for the money back, as their intentions were not fulfilled. Similarly, the Mordechai (Ketubot 177) discusses one who promised to pay for a woman’s marriage, and then she died. He cites Rav Chaim Kohen as exempting the donor to pay and the Raavya as obligating him to give the money to the woman’s inheritors. The above gemara seems to contradict the Raavya.

However, I believe that there is no machloket but different situations. The Rashba is right that once the poor person receives money, the mitzva has been fulfilled and there is neither a need to return the donation with his death nor a prohibition for the recipient to use the money for something else. The Hagahot Maimoniot discusses a case where the father collected money for his daughter’s dowry but she did not receive it, in which case if she will not be getting married, the money is returned. The Mordechai is talking about a case in which the money has not been given yet, and the machloket is whether or not the fact that it has been earmarked is as if it was given.

Applying these distinctions to our case, the money which already reached the orphan son became his and after it went to his sister and she died, it goes to her inheritors (or the community if they cannot be found). One can deliberate about money raised directly for the daughter and is in the hands of guardians, whether it is considered like money in the father’s hands, which is returned. However, it is more logical that the guardians are considered an extension of her, in which case, the money does not return to the donors.

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