Question #1: MYSTERY IN THE COATROOM
Our shul has coats, umbrellas and other items that have been sitting in the coatroom for months. We have hung notices asking people to check if they have any clothing there, but many items remain. The shul is now undergoing renovation which will ruin whatever remains. What can we do with the accumulated clothing?
Question #2: ON THE STREETS OF NEW YORK
Walking down a New York street, Suzie’s attention is attracted by a bag, bearing the logo of a seforim store, that is lying on a street corner. Opening the bag, she discovers a sefer that appears to have been purchased from that store and a handmade sweater. What should she do?
Shaylos like these happen to each of us almost daily. What rules govern what to do with found property?
In this week’s parsha the Torah teaches: You shall not see the lost ox or lamb of your brother and ignore them; you shall certainly return them to your brother. If your brother is not nearby or you do not know him, gather the animal into your house and it should stay with you until your brother inquires about it and you shall return it to him. So shall you do to his donkey and to his garment and any other lost item of his that you find; you may not ignore it (Devorim 22:1-3). The Torah here amplifies the mitzvah taught in Parshas Mishpatim where it states: If you will encounter the lost ox or donkey of your enemy, you shall certainly return it to him (Shemos 23:4).
Although the Torah discusses oxen, lambs and donkeys, the rules of lost objects apply equally to our modern shaylos. Assuming that you might be able to identify the owner of an item, you are usually required to pick up a lost item and return it to the owner. However, there are many details about these halachos that affect the shaylos mentioned above.
THE BASIC RULES
When must a finder pick up a lost item in order to return it, and when is retrieving it optional? When must he leave it untouched? When must he attempt to locate the one who lost it and when not? When may he keep a lost item and when not? The first step in understanding these complex rules is to understand the legal concept called ye’ush. Ye’ush is when a person despairs of retrieving his property. Here is an example:
Someone lost something in a place where whoever finds it will probably not return it — for example, in a city where most people do not return lost objects. Since the owner does not expect to recover his property, ye’ush transpires even though the owner could readily identify what was once his possession. In this case, the finder is permitted to keep the found object (Bava Metzia 24a). Why?
Ye’ush is halachically equivalent to relinquishing ownership. Since the owner already accepted the loss, the Torah does not require the finder to return the lost item. However, this applies only if the finder picked up the lost object after ye’ush took place. If the finder picks up the lost item after ye’ush, he is not required to return it, nevertheless, it is still preferable (lifnim mishuras hadin) to return the lost item to the owner (Bava Metzia 24b).
AN IMPORTANT EXCEPTION
Although a finder may keep an item after ye’ush, as I explained above, there is a very important caveat. He may only keep the lost item if he can assume that the owner has already found out about his loss and therefore was me’ya’eish, despaired from recovering it (Bava Metzia 21b-22b). However, if the finder picked up the lost object before ye’ush, he became obligated in the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, and may not keep the item even after the owner despairs of recovery (Bava Metzia 26b). This is true even if the owner will be me’ya’eish as soon as he becomes aware of his loss. Since the owner is as yet unaware of his loss, he cannot consciously despair and create ye’ush. This situation is called ye’ush shelo midaas, a case where the despair is inevitable, but has not yet transpired.
YE’USH SHELO MIDAAS – “UNKNOWING” YE’USH
One of the debates that initiates many into Gemara study is the dispute between Abaye and Rava regarding ye’ush shelo midaas, a situation in which we know that the owner will be me’ya’eish as soon as he realizes his loss, yet as of this moment, he is probably still unaware of his loss. Abaye contends that ye’ush shelo midaas does not constitute ye’ush, because ye’ush does not make a lost object effectively ownerless until the owner becomes aware of his loss and despairs. Until this happens, the lost property still belongs to the first owner and the finder cannot take possession. Rava argues that ye’ush shelo midaas constitutes ye’ush: since the owner will certainly despair of recovering the property as soon as he realizes his loss, we assume that ye’ush has already transpired and a finder may keep the lost item (Bava Metzia 21b-22b).
How do we rule?
Although in the dozens of disputes between Abaye and Rava, Rava’s opinion usually wins, this is one of the six exceptions where the Gemara rules according to Abaye; ye’ush shelo midaas does not constitute ye’ush. Therefore, one cannot take possession of a lost item unless one can assume that the owner has already discovered his loss and despaired of its recovery.
Here is a practical case:
On the subway you see a frum but unfamiliar person rush off the car, forgetting her umbrella. Clearly, she will be me’ya’eish as soon as she realizes that she is missing her umbrella; nevertheless, according to Abaye you may not keep the umbrella unless you are certain that she has realized her loss before you picked it up. Before that time, the umbrella is still the property of the person who lost it and someone picking it up becomes responsible to try to return it.
How long must you wait to be certain that she discovers her loss? This depends on the circumstances. If the owner left the subway this moment and it is raining, you may assume she realized her loss as soon as she reached the street. However, if it is not raining, or she was transferring to another train, you must wait until it rains to assume that she has realized her loss.
May you leave the umbrella in its place? After all, the Torah states that you may not ignore a lost object.
The answer it that there is no requirement to pick up a lost item if there is no reasonable possibility that you will be able to locate the owner.
Must one abandon the umbrella? Halachically, one may not take possession of the umbrella, but can pick it up for the loser. However, once one picked it up, some poskim contend that one is responsible to hold on to it indefinitely. (In my opinion, one may take the umbrella and use it after following certain procedures which I discussed in the different article.)
We are almost ready to analyze what to do in the case-studies I presented at the beginning of the article. But first we need to explain one more principle.
SIMAN – AN IDENTIFYING MARK
When the Torah required returning a lost object, the Torah was primarily referring to an item bearing an identifying mark (a siman) since the owner may still hope to recover it (Mishnah Bava Metzia 24b). One who finds an object with a siman in a place with a substantial population of observant Jews should assume that the owner was not me’ya’eish. The finder must retrieve the item and return it to its owner. If the finder cannot readily identify the owner, one is required to announce it (Mishnah Bava Metzia 27b).
A siman is something that positively identifies an object as belonging to its owner (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 267:4). It must be a feature by which the owner could clearly identify the object as his own, such as a nametag, or an unusual marking or blemish. Color or style of manufacture is not a valid siman (Sma 267:9) since knowing these characteristics do not demonstrate that one is its rightful owner. A siman must be a characteristic that only the owner would know (see Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 267:12). Therefore, the fact that something is obviously homemade, such as a hand knit sweater or scarf, is in itself regarded as having a siman (see Mishnah Bava Metzia 25a).
When one announces that he has found a lost item, he should not reveal the siman, nor return the item to the person claiming to be its owner unless the claimant reveals knowledge of a valid siman (Bava Metzia 27b).
If a lost item has no siman, the finder is not required to retrieve it since he cannot return it to the owner. Nevertheless, in several instances the finder may not keep the item even though the lost item has no siman, and in some circumstances he should not pick up the lost item. One situation is where the owner does not yet know that he lost it (ye’ush shelo midaas). Since we rule like Abaye that ye’ush shelo midaas is not valid ye’ush, one cannot acquire an item until ye’ush transpires. On the other hand, returning this item to its rightful owner is impossible since the person claiming to be the rightful owner must identify the object with a siman (Bava Metzia 27b). Therefore, it may be better not to pick up an item where the law of ye’ush shelo midaas applies.
The second instance where the finder may not pick up an item is when the owner intentionally placed the item in a particular place (makom hinuach) and subsequently forgot about it. For example, one finds a coat or umbrella abandoned in a coatroom, or a talis hanging outside the men’s room. In these cases, by removing the item from its place one jeopardizes the owner’s ability to retrieve it since the owner might later remember where he left it and return for it. However, once the finder removed the item, the owner can no longer retrieve it and will thereby suffer a loss. Therefore, the finder should leave the item unhindered (see Bava Metzia 25b).
I once left a sefer, one volume of a multi-volume set, in the coatroom of a wedding hall. Later that day I realized that I had left the sefer behind and I returned for it. Alas, the sefer had disappeared already!! Had the finder of this sefer followed the halacha, I would still possess a complete set of these Mishnayos; instead I need to borrow this volume whenever I need it.
The major exception to this latter case is when the forgotten item will disappear. The Gemara provides an example of this situation: someone found an item that had been placed in a garbage heap that is usually abandoned, but is being cleared away (Bava Metzia 24a). Obviously, the owner is better off if the finder takes the item and announces it, than if he abandons it and it disappears.
But, wait a minute — How will the owner be able to claim the item if it has no siman? Didn’t I mention earlier that one may not return an item unless the owner proves his ownership with an identifying siman?
KNOWLEDGE PROVES OWNERSHIP
The answer is that in this instance the location of the lost item serves as its siman. Since no one but the owner knows where the item was hidden, this information validates his claim (Bava Metzia 22b). Therefore one should take the item and announce it as a lost object.
At this point, we can now analyze the first question raised at the beginning of this article:
Our shul has coats, umbrellas and other items that have been sitting in the coatroom for months. We have hung notices asking people to check if they have any clothing there, but many coats still remain. The shul is now undergoing renovation which will ruin any remaining clothing. What can we do with them?
This case has an obvious solution. Since the renovations will ruin anything remaining in the coatroom, one may certainly remove them and treat them as one would treat any other lost objects. Although under these specific circumstances some poskim permit disposing or keeping these items, most authorities require these items be kept in a secure place in case the owners returning for them. One should place a notice on the bulletin board advising people whom to contact.
At this point, we can discuss our second question at the start of the article:
Walking down a New York street, Suzie notices a bag bearing the logo of a seforim store that contains a handmade sweater and a brand new sefer. What should she do?
As I mentioned above, there is no requirement to return a lost item unless (a) the item has a siman and (b) one found it in a place where the loser thinks people will return it.
Regarding the sefer, if it is brand new, it will probably have no identifying siman. On the other hand, if the sefer is used, it may have a siman. However in this particular case, even a brand new sefer will have a siman, since it was located together with the sweater, which has a siman.
However, in this particular case, Suzie is not required to return the items or attempt to locate the owner since she found them on the streets of New York. As I mentioned above, someone losing an item in a place where most of the population does not return lost objects is me’ya’aish as soon as he realizes his loss. After ye’ush has transpired, there is no requirement to return an item, although it is meritorious to. Thus, Suzie is not required to locate the owner, although it is preferable to do so.
By the way, returning the sefer to the store accomplishes nothing, since the store no longer owns it. However, contacting the store and notifying them that she found the bag is certainly meritorious since the loser may thereby be able to contact her.
May Suzie keep the lost items?
This will depend on whether we can assume that the owner already realized he had lost them. If he has not yet realized, Suzie may not keep them since ye’ush shelo midaas is not valid ye’ush. Even if we were to assume that the owner will eventually give up hope of seeing his property again, Suzie cannot take possession since ye’ush took place only after she picked up the items. Thus, Suzie cannot keep the sefer and sweater unless she is reasonably certain that the owner realized his loss before she picked up the bag.
A REVIEW OF THE BASIC RULES:
We have learned the following basic rules of returning lost items:
I. Someone who finds a lost item that bears a siman, that is, some way that the owner can prove his ownership, must return the item if it was found in a place where most people return lost objects (see Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 259:3).
II. Someone may ignore a lost item if there is no way that it will be returned to its owner anyway.
III. After the owner of a lost object despairs of recovering the object, we treat it as ownerless.
IV. Something found in a place where most of the population does not return lost objects may be treated as ownerless even if it has a siman.
V. In the last three situations, if the item has a siman, it is preferred, but not required, to return the item.
VI. Someone who picks up an item before the owner was me’ya’eish may not keep it, even if he kept it until we are certain that the owner was me’ya’eish.
VII. One should not touch an item that an owner placed down intentionally unless the item will disappear.