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Q&A

If one designates a gift for another person, is it committed or can it be retracted?

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I know that if one designates something for the temple (an offering or a donation), it can't be taken back -- it's committed. Is this a general principle of designating things, or is it specific to the temple (because designating it for the temple raises its holiness and we do not lower holiness)?

Suppose Reuven is out shopping, says "Shimon would like that; I will get it as a gift for him", and buys something. Is it now committed to Shimon, or may Reuven change his mind and keep it for himself? If he may not change his mind but Reuven discovers that Shimon can't use it (for example he remembers that Shimon is allergic to that food, or discovers that Shimon is out of town and the item is perishable), what happens?

I think I learned that for an animal that can't be offered, the temple sells it (and so benefits), but I don't know if it's practical for Shimon to sell a food gift he's allergic to. Does Reuven give it to him anyway and it's up to Shimon to re-gift it? For the case of Shimon not being available to receive the gift, the only temple parallel I can think of is items that were designated and not delivered before the destruction, but I don't know of any discussions of that case.

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Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 241:1, in my own, free translation:

If someone gives a gift… the recipient acquires it only by one of the standard ways of acquiring property.… But by a verbal agreement alone the recipient doesn't acquire anything, and each party can renege.…

And 243:1–2:

If someone transfers a gift to his friend through a third party, as soon as that third party makes the act of acquisition, the recipient has acquired it, and the grantor cannot renege.… But that's where he told the third party "acquire this gift for so-and-so"; if instead he said "bring this to so-and-so" then he can renege as long as it hasn't reached the recipient.…

There are more details in 241–258, but that's the general rule. In short, any transfer of property requires an act of acquisition, and is effective when that act takes place (unless stipulated otherwise). In 243, "acquire this for so-and-so" effects the acquisition as soon as the third party has lifted the object, while "bring this to so-and-so" doesn't.

Similarly, 269:1:

If someone picks up an ownerless object on behalf of his friend, though he didn't say anything, his friend has acquired it.

So, to your first question:

Suppose Reuven is out shopping, says "Shimon would like that; I will get it as a gift for him", and buys something. Is it now committed to Shimon, or may Reuven change his mind and keep it for himself?

I suppose (of course, ask your rabbi for a practical ruling) it would depend on his mindset. If he thought "I'm buying it so Shimon owns it" then the act of acquisition was made for Shimon and the object is Shimon's. If he thought "I'm buying it and will give it to Shimon as a gift" then it's his own.

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