The Talis Exchange and Other Lost Stories


Dovid asked me the following shaylah: “I placed my talis in shul and, upon returning, discovered that it had been replaced by a similar-looking talis. I left the talis undisturbed, and hung up a sign noting the exchange. Unfortunately, no one responded, and indeed, the owner may not even realize that he has my talis. Should I take his talis home? May I use it, or must I purchase a new one and leave his until he claims it, which may never happen?”


A laundry returned the correct quantity of items that had been brought in originally; however, the customer, Reuvein, later realized that one sheet was not his. A different customer, Shimon, picked up his items and noticed some things were missing however, the laundry insisted that they had returned whatever he brought. Shimon subsequently discovered that Reuvein had one of Shimon’s missing sheets, and he clearly identified his missing sheet. Reuvein claimed that the sheet was a replacement for his sheet that was lost, and that he is, therefore, not required to return it. Must he return the sheet?


Someone attended a wedding with one coat and, mistakenly, returned with a different one. May he use this coat and assume that the other party is agreeable to the exchange? Does this depend on which coat is more valuable?


On the subway you see a frum, unfamiliar person rush off the car, forgetting her umbrella. May you keep or use the umbrella, knowing that the owner will soon realize her loss?


The concern in all these situations is that one is using someone else’s property without permission. This is called sho’el shelo midaas, borrowing without the owner’s knowledge, which is usually halachically equivalent to stealing (Bava Metzia 41a; 43b)! In general, one may not use an item until one receives permission from the owner.


Since the loser is wearing my talis, why can’t I simply assume that we have traded taleisim? I’ll keep his talis, and allow him to keep mine. (Although the correct Hebrew plural is taliyos or talisos, I will use the colloquial taleisim.)

Although Dovid may grant permission to the other person to use his talis, can he assume that he has permission to use the other person’s talis? Let us examine a relevant discussion:


Someone whose clothes were replaced with someone else’s at a tailor may use what he received, until his garment is returned. However, if the exchange transpired at a shiva house or a simcha, he may not use the garment he received, but must hold it until the owner claims his property. What is the difference between the two cases? Rav answered: “I was sitting with my uncle, and he explained to me, ‘Sometimes people tell the tailor to sell the item for them’” (Bava Basra 46a).

We see from this case that if I exchanged a coat with someone else at a simcha or at a shiva, I may not wear the coat, since I am “borrowing” it without permission. The fact that the other person is using my garment, knowingly or unknowingly, does not permit me to use his. Even if the result is that I must purchase a replacement, I may have to do so, even though a perfectly nice garment is sitting unused in my closet, since the garment is not mine.

However, if the exchange happened in a tailor shop, I may use the replacement.


Why is the tailor shop different? The Gemara presents a rather cryptic answer to this question: “Sometimes people tell the tailor to sell the item for them.” What does this mean?

The early poskim explain that when the exchange transpired in a repair shop, one may assume that the following situation occurred:

Someone brought a garment to the tailor, asking him to sell it for him. The tailor erred and sold your garment instead, and then paid the money received (minus his sales commission) to the original owner of that garment. When you came to claim your garment, the tailor realized his error, and also realized that he must compensate you for your item, since he probably has no way to retrieve it. However, he had no cash available, so he gave you a replacement instead – the garment that he was supposed to sell (Tur and Sma, Choshen Mishpat 136:1). Since the tailor already paid the original owner for his garment, he now owns it and is fully authorized to give it to you as a replacement for your lost garment. This case is referred to as nischalfu keilim beveis ha’uman (items that were exchanged in a craftsman’s shop).

The next passage in the Gemara’s discussion is now almost self-explanatory:

Rav Chiya, the son of Rav Nachman, explained that the ruling of nischalfu keilim beveis ha’uman applies only if the repairman himself gave you the different garment, but not if his wife or children gave them to you.

Obviously, if the tailor’s wife or child gave you the wrong garment, you cannot assume that this was because of the tailor’s earlier error. It is more likely that they simply mistakenly gave you the wrong garment, which needs to be returned.

Similarly, the following concluding passage of this particular discussion is clear.

Rav Chiya, the son of Rav Nachman, continued: The halacha of nischalfu keilim beveis ha’uman applies only if the repairman told you, “Here is a garment.” However, if he said “Here is your garment,” we assume that he erred, since he is not giving you your garment.

If the tailor had sold your garment in error and is now sheepishly providing you with a replacement, he would not tell you, here is your garment. Therefore, he must have mistakenly given you the wrong garment, and you must return it.

We see clearly that the ruling of nischalfu keilim beveis ha’uman applies only when I can assume that a tailor or other repairman inadvertently sold or disposed of my item and can legitimately offer me the replacement. Otherwise, the situation is comparable to the case of garments exchanged at a simcha, where one may not use the received garment without permission.

Thus, referring back to question #3 above: Someone attended a wedding with one coat and, mistakenly, returned with a different one. May he use this coat and assume that the other party is agreeable to the exchange?

The answer is that we have no basis with which to permit you to use the other person’s coat.

At this point we can analyze Question #2.

A laundry returned to Reuvein the same number of items he had brought them; however, one sheet is not his. Shimon claims to be missing some items, which the laundry denies. Shimon proves that the sheet is his, yet Reuvein claims that the laundry gave it to him as a replacement for what they lost, and that he is therefore not required to return it. Must he return the sheet?

One of the interesting and surprising aspects of this shaylah is that this actual case was asked over 600 years ago!!

Answer: Shimon did not give the sheet to the laundry for them to sell. Therefore, the laundry gave Shimon’s garment to Reuvein without authorization, and he must return it to its rightful owner, even if Reuvein has no other way of being compensated for his loss (Terumas HaDeshen #319). The reason for this is obvious: Laundries do not usually act as agents to sell people’s clothing, and in any case, Shimon clearly denies ever making any such arrangement.


Let us return to our first original question. Someone took Dovid’s talis and left behind a similar-looking one. The owner has not responded to any of his notices, and Dovid suspects that he does not even realize that an exchange transpired.

Based on the above discussion, it would seem that Dovid has no choice but to treat the talis as unusable and to consider purchasing a new one. However, there is another Gemara discussion that affects our case, so don’t run to the store just yet. Let us examine the following passage:

Shmuel said, “Someone who finds tefillin in the street should estimate their worth and may wear them himself” (Bava Metzia 29b). If the finder has no need for a pair of tefillin, he may sell them and put the money aside for the owner.  The Rosh (Bava Metzia 2:16) rules that the finder may even use the money in the interim.

Shmuel’s statement presents an obvious question:

His ruling seems to contradict the principle that borrowing an item without permission is tantamount to theft. Why can the finder wear (or sell) these tefillin? As we are all aware, one of the Torah’s mitzvos is to return a lost object to its owner (Devorim 22:1-3; Shemos 23:4). How does the Gemara permit the tefillin finder to wear them and not return them to the owner? And, even if we correctly assume that “estimating their worth” means that he is responsible to return the value of the tefillin to their owner, if and when he locates him, why is this case different from the normal obligation to return the actual lost item itself to its owner? Obviously, there must be something about tefillin that permits the finder to keep them and simply repay their estimated value.

Some poskim contend that this ruling applies only to a mitzvah object, such as tefillin, where the owner wants someone else to use them, rather than have them sit unused (Shach 267:16, in explanation of the Rambam, Hilchos Gezeilah 13:14). However, most authorities imply that this ruling applies also to non-mitzvah items, in cases where the owner is satisfied with simply receiving compensation equal to their value (see Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 267:21). The basis for this second opinion is the continuation of the Gemara’s discussion:


The Gemara asks why someone finding tefillin may wear them, since this ruling appears to contradict a statement that someone who finds books may not use them, but must hold them for the owner. Why are tefillin different from seforim? The Gemara answers that a person wants to get his own books back, whereas he can always purchase new tefillin. This implies that people have no strong attachment to any specific pair of tefillin, whereas they have developed a bond with their own seforim, since they are difficult to replace. From this, one could infer that there is a difference between finding an item that the owner does not mind replacing and finding an item that he does not want to replace, and this would seem to have ramifications for someone who finds a talis, an umbrella, or any other easily replaced item.

Although this seems to be the obvious point of this Gemara, elsewhere the Gemara appears to rule otherwise. If someone found coins placed in a deliberate fashion, the finder may not spend this money and replace it with other coins, but must hold these very specific coins and return them to their owner (Bava Metzia 29b). Obviously, the owner is not concerned about receiving these specific coins, and would be very satisfied with receiving replacement money. Why is it not sufficient to simply return coins of the same value? We see that returning replacement value is not satisfactory, even when it makes no difference to the owner if the particular coins are returned to him, or if he is given others of equal value in their stead.

The answer is that in the case of lost tefillin, two factors must be met before one may use them. In addition to the point mentioned above, a second factor is that a finder who chooses not to use the tefillin but give them back becomes a guardian, who is responsible to care for them. He must then occasionally air them out and ensure that they are kept dry (Rosh, Bava Metzia 2:18). (When a person wears tefillin daily, he automatically airs them out at the same time, which benefits them.) Thus, the owner of the tefillin actually benefits more if the finder sets aside money, since there is now no risk of damage to the tefillin. This is qualitatively different from finding lost coins, which require no care other than storing them in a secure place.

We can therefore extract the following principles:

If taking care of a lost item requires some effort, and also, the owner does not care whether or not the original item is returned to him, the finder may estimate the value of the lost item in order to, eventually, repay this amount. Otherwise, the finder should hold the lost item and await the owner’s return. (There is another case mentioned when the finder sells the lost item for a similar reason, but that case is beyond the scope of this article.)

Having established the rule, let us see which cases fit the rule, and which do not. Clothing does not usually fit this rule, since people are interested in getting back the same garment that they lost. A person is comfortable with his own clothes, and often purchasing something to one’s taste is not a simple matter. Therefore, someone finding a lost garment may not sell it and hold the money for the owner.


On the other hand, the average person does not develop a personal attachment to his umbrella and is perfectly satisfied to have a usable replacement umbrella. Similarly, a man is usually not that concerned about his specific talis and is satisfied with a replacement. In addition, both of these items are comparable to tefillin and not to coins, since, if they are never used, they become musty. (Normal use of an umbrella airs it out.) Therefore, someone who locates a lost umbrella may use it after estimating its value.

We are now prepared to answer Question #1 and also Question #4.

First, Question #4: On the subway you see a frum, but unfamiliar person rush off the car, forgetting her umbrella. May you keep or use the umbrella, knowing that the owner will soon realize her loss?

Clearly, she will despair of recovering her umbrella as soon as she realizes her loss. However, one may not pick up the umbrella until after she has realized her loss, and this may happen only some time after she leaves the subway. If you pick it up soon after its having been left, the umbrella is still the property of the person who lost it, and the one picking it up is responsible to return it.

However, a person is usually not concerned about owning his specific umbrella, but is satisfied with money to purchase a replacement. (If indeed, the umbrella that was lost appears to be a designer umbrella, the halacha will be different.) Therefore, even though the owner still owned the umbrella when you found it, you may claim the umbrella as your own, and simply make a mental note how much it is worth. Should you ever meet its owner, and should she prove that the umbrella was hers, you would have to compensate her for it.

And now, our analysis of the opening question, The Talis Exchange

Dovid had placed his talis in shul, and it was replaced by a similar-looking talis. His attempts to alert the owner were unsuccessful, and indeed, the owner may not even notice the exchange. May he use the other talis or must he purchase a new one?

I believe that most men do not feel attached to their particular taleisim, and this case is, therefore, comparable to the tefillin case of the Gemara. Assuming this to be true, someone who finds a lost talis may estimate its value and then either wear it or sell it. Either way, he should record the value of the talis and intend to return it to the owner, should he ever come back for it. (When I first published this article, I received several responses disagreeing with me, contending that most people are more possessive of their taleisim than I felt they were.)


The careful reader may have noted that our discussion is heading to an unusual conclusion. Although the Gemara rules that the owner is less concerned about retrieving his tefillin than retrieving his seforim, today, the opposite is generally true – an owner is usually not concerned about getting back the same sefer, since one can usually purchase it again in a bookstore. (However, the Gemara’s halacha would remain true if he had written notes in the sefer, or for any reason that would give this particular sefer special meaning.)

On the other hand, many people own hand-picked tefillin and want their specific pair back (Minchas Elazar 4:9; see Pischei Choshen, Aveidah 6:ftn23). They may have purchased tefillin whose parshiyos were written by a specific sofer who no longer writes, or made by a specific batim macher who has a long waiting list. Thus, after analyzing the principles of the above-mentioned Gemara, the Minchas Elazar decides the opposite of its conclusion and rules that the original owner gets his tefillin back.

However, an average person is usually satisfied with a replacement pair of tefillin, provided that they are absolutely kosher and of equal halachic quality. Thus, although the principles of the Gemara are infinite, the specific cases that match them change with the specific society in which they occur.

Returning lost items is a beautiful and important mitzvah. As we now see, the details of observing this mitzvah are often very complicated – and can vary from item to item.

Mystery in the Coatroom and Other Lost Stories or Some Practical Aspects of Hashavas Aveidah



clip_image002Our 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?


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.


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).


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.