Returning Lost Objects

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The Torah commands us to return lost objects and prevent a loss to our fellow Jew. [1] In general, if there’s an identifying mark of the lost object then there’s an obligation to return the object of our fellow Jew by safeguarding it, publicizing the loss of the object, and making sure that the rightful owner receives his object. Being that many of these cases involve intricate details that aren’t addressed below, in a real case, one should consult a competent rabbinic authority for guidance.

Torah Obligation

  1. When a person finds a lost object and ignores it, one violates the negative commandment, "Do not overlook a lost object." Some say that one also loses the positive commandment, "Pick up and return lost objects." If one picks up the object in order to steal it one also violates three commands altogether, overlooking the object, not picking it up, and stealing it. [2]
  2. The Mitzvah to return someone’s object includes a command to prevent someone’s loss. [3]
  3. There's an obligation to return the lost object of a Jew once one sees it within a distance of 266.67 amot. [4]

Where was it found?

  1. If the object is found in a place where it is irretrievable, such as if someone fell into the ocean, it’s assumed that the owner forfeited ownership and it is permissible to take and keep it. [5]
  2. If the object was found in a safe protected place, it can be assumed that the item was placed there by its owner and so the object is not considered lost. If one by accident picked it up, one should return it right away, but if one has left the area one may not return it but rather one must return the object. For example, if one found a key under a mat or a book on top of a public telephone booth, one shouldn’t pick up the object. [6]
  3. If an item is found in a unsafe place, the item is considered a lost object. For example, a book on a public bus station bench. [7]
  4. If an item is found in a semi-safe place, if the item has a siman then the item is considered a lost object. An example is a sweater draped over a park railing in a remote area of the park. [8]

Worth a Prutah

  1. There isn't a mitzvah to return an object worth less than a Perutah. For the purpose of this halacha, in America, one can consider the perutah to be a quarter (the lowest denomination coin that’s useable in buying something). [9]

Forfeiture

  1. If the owner says explicitly that he doesn’t expect to find it, that’s considered a forfeiture of the object and it’s permissible to take and keep. [10] Similarly if it’s evident that the object has been lost for a long time (which depends on the time, place, and object) such as if one sees moss or rust on the object, then it’s permissible to take and keep the object. [11]

Siman

  1. If an object has no identifying feature, then it is assumed that the owner has given up hope of finding the object and therefore has forfeited ownership of it. Therefore, one may take and keep the object. [12]
  2. The siman must be a unique feature and not a generic characteristic. [13]
    1. For example: a normal color, brand name, or stamp on the item with the company name are not unique features. However, a crack on the side or if a part of the object broke off are unique features. [14]
  3. The amount, weight, or length is considered a Siman only if that’s unique and not if that item is normally sold or found in that standard amount, weight, or length. [15]
    1. For example, “there were 6 keys on the key chain” or “there were 15 bills in the envelope” are considered unique features. [16]
  4. A unique wrapper, envelope, or basket is considered a siman. [17]
    1. An envelope from a local bank is not a siman, while a envelope from a foreign bank can be a siman. [18]
  5. An item that’s attached to the item can function as a siman such a tag. [19]
  6. The location where the item was placed is a siman. [20] The claimant must identify the specific location within the property and not just the general area or property where it was left. [21]

Items without Simanim

  1. Even if one finds an item without any Simanim one may only keep it if one is sure that the original owner has forfeited his ownership, which happens when the owner discovers that the item was lost. [22]
  2. If one finds an object without Simanim in an area which allows things to be considered lost objects, one should take it but may not keep it but rather one should hold onto it until Eliyahu comes and evaluates to whom it belongs. [23] Some hold that one is obligated to pick up a lost item in this situation and hold onto it until Eliyahu comes, and some disagree. [24]
  3. There are certain factors which allow one to assume that the owner knows about his loss and if the object has no simanim it would be permissible to take:
  • if the item is heavy (such as a hammer) [25]
  • if it’s evident that the item has been lost for a long time (it’s rusty or overgrown with mold) (there’s no fixed time because each situation and object is different, once one can be sure that the owner would have forfeited ownership one may take it) [26]
  • cash is assumed to have been discovered by the owner who then forfeited ownership because people usually check their money frequently. [27]
  1. In a place where Talmidei Chachamim are present one must pick up even an item without Simanim and announce it like a regular lost object because a Talmid Chacham (who is known not to lie) is trusted to recognize his object without any Simanim unless the item is brand new in which case it’s treated like an item without simanim in a place without Talmidei Chachamim. [28]

Lost object of a non-Jew

  1. There’s no Mitzvah to return the object of a non-Jew and some say that there’s a prohibition. [29] However, all agree that if one returns it with intention to make a Kiddish Hashem then it’s permissible and praiseworthy to return the object. [30]
  2. Additionally, all agree that if a Chilul Hashem will result then there’s an obligation to return the object. [31]

In an institution

  1. It’s appropriate that the administration of a public establishment put up a sign or made an announcement that will let those who go there that if objects are left there until a certain date the establishment will do as they see fit with the objects. [32]

If it’s not befitting to return a lost object

  1. For a respected or elderly individual, if it’s not befitting to pick up and return a lost object then one is exempt from the mitzvah and doesn’t have to pick up the object. [33]
    1. If the individual would not have picked his own item in such a situation, then one is exempt. [34]
    2. However, had one picked up one’s own item because it’s not worth the trouble (and not because it’s beneath one’s dignity), one is still obligated in the mitzvah. [35]
  2. In a place where such an individual would not be embarrassed, one is obligated in the mitzvah. [36]
  3. Even if one is exempt it’s proper and good to go beyond the letter of the law and return the object. [37]
  4. A woman is obligated in Hashavat Aviedah however if it’s not befitting to pick up such an object then one is exempt. [38]

Sources

  1. Sefer Hachinuch Mitzva 538, Rambam Sefer Hamitzvot Mitzvot Aseh Mitzva 204, Sefer Mitzvot Hakatzar of the Chofetz Chaim of mitzvot that can be fulfilled today mitzva 69 in positive mitzvot. see the second perek of Masechet Bava Metzia and Rambam Hilchot Gezela chapters 11 and onward.
  2. The Taz 259:1 holds that if one does not pick up a lost object one has lost both the positive and negative commandment of Hashavat Aveidah and Lo Titalem. However, the Sma 259:1 holds that there’s only a violation of Lo Titalem for overlooking a lost object. S”A 259:1 writes clearly if one picks up the object to steal it, there’s a violation of both the positive and negative command as well as Lo Tigzol.
  3. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 142) based on S”A 259:9
  4. Shulchan Aruch 259:! Brings the negative commandment not to pick up a fellow Jew's lost object. Shulchan Aruch C"M 272:5 rules that there's a mitzvah of carrying and picking up a fellow's animal and its burden up to a distance of 266 and 2/3 amot. The Bach C"M 259 writes that since carrying a fellow's burden and picking up his lost object are learned from one another there's an obligation to pick up a lost object if one sees it up to an distance of 266.67 amot.
  5. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 154-5)
  6. Rama and S”A C”M 260:9-10, Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 145-6)
  7. Rama C”M 260:10, Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 146-7)
  8. Rama C”M 260:10, Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 147-8)
  9. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 150)
  10. S”A C”M 262:5, Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 152)
  11. S”A C”M 260:1, Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 153)
  12. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 154)
  13. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 160 note 79)
  14. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 160-1)
  15. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 161)
  16. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 161)
  17. S”A C”M 262:19-20
  18. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 162)
  19. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 163) based on S”A C”M 262:18
  20. S”A 262:3, 9
  21. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 163)
  22. S”A C”M 262:3 rules that even if the situation is one in which the owner would probably forfeit ownership if it was dropped by the owner and so he was unaware of the situation one may not take the object. This is based on the opinion of Abaye in Bava Metsia 22b who holds Yiush Shelo MeDaat isn’t Yeush.
  23. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 167)
  24. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 170)
  25. S”A C”M 262:3, Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 168)
  26. S”A C”M 262:5, Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 153 note 45) quoting Pitchei Choshen (chapter 2 note 26) and Hashavat Aviedah KeHalacha (chapter 5 note 2) in name of Rav Elyashiv
  27. S”A 262:2. Most say that this assumption of Chazal is still applicable in our day including Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 168) including Mishpat Aveidah (pg 93) and Igrot Moshe Y”D 4:23.
  28. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 171-2)
  29. S”A C”M 266:1 rules that there’s no mitzvah to return the lost object of a non-Jew and there’s even a prohibition. The Bear HaGolah 266:2 writes that according to Rashi this prohibition would apply even to non-Jews nowadays but according to the Rambam then there’s no prohibition to non-Jews nowadays who believe in a Creator and are law abiding citizens. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 153) holds that there’s no prohibition nowadays. However, Hashava Aviedah KeHalacha (2:1 pg 33) writes that nowadays there’s a prohibition like S”A.
  30. S”A C”M 266:1 writes that if one has intent to make a Kiddish Hashem then it’s totally permissible and praiseworthy to return the lost object. Hashava Aviedah KeHalacha (2:2 pg 33) writes that it’s only permissible and praiseworthy if one is sure that returning it will result in Kiddish Hashem because the owner will praise Jews and not just the one who returned it (and if it’s a doubt one should refrain). see Rabbi Aharon Ziegler who quotes Rabbi Soloveitchik on the importance of returning a lost object to a non-Jew in fulfillment of the precious mitzvah of kiddush Hashem
  31. S”A C”M 266:1
  32. Yalkut Yosef (Kitzur S”A C”M 259,271 #28)
  33. S”A C”M 263:1
  34. S”A C”M 263:1
  35. Mamon Yisrael (Halachos of Others People’s Money by Rav Pinchas Bodner, pg 158), S”A HaRav (Hilchot Metsiah #37)
  36. S”A C”M 263:2
  37. S”A C”M 263:3
  38. Yalkut Yosef (Kitzur S”A C”M 259,271 #4)