By the Bais Hora'ah
I retold my family a story (as related in sefer Chasan Sofer, “Kinyanim,” p. 142, quoting a letter written by the Chasam Sofer). They had many questions regarding the halachic aspects of the tale, so I am contacting you for a halachic explanation of the story.
In 1826 Rav Amram Chasida, Rav of Mad, Hungary, settled in Tzfas. The poverty that existed in Tzfas at that time was so acute that people did not have bread to eat. The Chasam Sofer, who highly respected Rav Amram, would raise funds for him and his family and send them to Tzfas.
After living in Tzfas for a mere four years, Rav Amram Chasida passed away at the young age of 40. The Chasam Sofer did not inform the donors of Rav Amram’s passing so that they would not refrain from fulfilling their pledges [Chasam Sofer did not even eulogize his passing until about nine months after his death (see Drashos Chasam Sofer, vol. 2, p. 330)]. The rest of the story will be told in next weeks newsletter, iy”H.
Q: Isn’t withholding from donors the news of Rav Amram’s death deceptive, thus violating the prohibition of geneivas daas? If the Chasam Sofer knew that news of Rav Amram’s death would cause them to refrain from donating, why was he permitted to withhold that information?
A: Poskim discuss whether one may employ deception in order to collect tzedakah. For example, someone who was collecting funds for a Torah scholar in desperate need asked whether he could tell people that he is collecting for hachnasas kallah so that he could raise more money. Many authorities rule that since geneivas daas is prohibited, it is certainly prohibited to deceive people into giving more tzedakah than they would have given had they known the truth (C.M. 228:6; Shevet HaLevi 2:119).
It is also possible that employing such deception not only violates the prohibition of geneivas daas but may even constitute actual theft since he is convincing donors to give for a cause that does not exist. Even in circumstances where it is permitted to compel a person to give tzedakah and the only way to compel the reluctant donors would be to use such deception (Y.D. 248:1, 256:5), it is not permitted. Only beis din is empowered to compel a person to give tzedakah and the person being compelled must be present (Y.D. 248:1 with Shach 4). Utilizing deception is comparable to compelling a person when he is not present and thus not allowed (see Tzedakah Umishpat 7:).
In this story, however, it seems that this is not applicable. When the donors made their pledges, Rav Amram was still alive. The reason the Chasam Sofer did not inform them of Rav Amram’s passing was so that they would fulfill their pledges. He was not employing deception so that they would pledge more money, he was ensuring that they would follow through on the pledges that they were obligated to fulfill, since the need to support Rav Amram’s family was ongoing.
There is a debate whether one who pledged to give money to a particular poor person must fulfill that pledge if the poor person passes away, since it may be presumed that the benefactors wanted the money to go to the poor person rather than his heirs (see Machaneh Ephraim, “Tzedakah” 6; Ketzos 207:9). In this case, since the money was collected for Rav Amram and his family, all authorities would agree that the benefactors must fulfill their pledges because his family
remains in need.