Talmidav Shel Aharon
35-5767: Mitzvah 69
August 20, 2007
Mitzvah 69 – It is a positive commandment to return something lost to a member of Jewry
Hafetz Hayim: As Scripture says, “you shall surely bring them back to your brother” (Deut. 22:1). If one turned a blind eye to it, he disobeyed a positive commandment and violated a negative one. If he took the lost object and did not return it, he also disobeyed this positive commandment and violated two prohibitions. It is a religious duty to return a lost object even to a wicked person. But if someone eats non-Kosher meat out of spite and defiance, or he violates the Sabbath openly, he is a heretic, and it is forbidden to return a lost object to him. If a person finds something with which it would be beneath his dignity to bother, and were it his own he would not trouble himself with it, he has no duty to bother with this. If, however, he wishes to act beyond the strict line or letter of the law, he may do so, and may blessing come upon him. Now, Rabbenu Yona wrote: If it is a religious duty to devote effort to rescue another person’s items of monetary value, how much more certainly must we expend effort to rescue him himself, to do something to save him in his time of distress. It applies everywhere and in every time for both men and women.
In Judaism, one is not allowed to say, “I don’t want to get involved.” We have duties to G-d and we have duties to ourselves and we also have duties to our society. This is one of them. A lost object may be of little interest to me, but I can not just ignore it and walk on by. I have an obligation by this commandment to protect that which was lost and make a proper attempt to locate the owner. If the object is properly labeled with the name of the owner, I have to search out and find the owner and return his object in as good a condition as I found it. I can not allow it to become any more damaged than it already may be and, if I keep the object for any real length of time, and I am fixing my own similar objects, I should fix the lost property as well.
If the object found has no name on it, but it does have marks by which it can be identified, than we must publicize the finding of the object and ask those who would claim it as their own, to describe the identifying marks. For example, if jewelry were found, all that needs to be done is to announce that “a bracelet” was found and those who come to claim it can describe it in order to identify it.
If the object has no name on it or marks that could identify it, than I do not have the obligation to seek the owner. It is assumed that the owner has written it off as lost, and therefore it should be considered ownerless and the finder can keep it. For example, cash that is lost but not in a wallet or identifiable purse, that has no unusual marks on the bill, could not be returned because all money looks alike and there is no way to identify the true owner.
If the object is not worth saving, that is, it is so inconsequential that there is just no point in returning it, than we do not need to return it. If you find an old pair of beach shoes in the sand, and they could be identified but clearly the person who left them would not come back to find them, they could simply buy themselves a new pair, then we have no obligation for returning the object at all. If the owner did come and ask about it, it would probably be more charitable to buy him or her a new pair of shoes.
If I find an object that should be returned, and I don’t try to find the owner, I am in violation of this law and the law that insists that we don’t ignore the property of our neighbor. If I take the object and don’t seek the owner, I violate those laws and the law of robbery as well. I have kept something that does not belong to me.
The owner of the object does not matter. If we know who it belongs to, we have to return it, even if that person is our enemy, or if that person is wicked. As for the heretic, since he as separated himself from the community, he does not get the benefits of being a part of the community. The issue of eating treif meat or violating Shabbat should not be taken literally since these are very subjective Mitzvot. You may not keep my level of Kashrut or do what I do on Shabbat but that does not make one a heretic. If one denies G-d, than such a person is outside the community. As a Conservative Jew, I am not so sure that I would be so quick to brand someone a heretic or not to return an object that was once owned by a non-Jew. In all cases, retuning lost property is a great Mitzvah and even if we don’t have the obligation to return it, if we do so, we are praised for going above the letter of the law. At the end, we are reminded that if it is so important that we return lost property to a person, how much more important it must be if we save a person from distress, danger and trouble. We just cannot sit by and let someone else save the person. The only restriction on this is if saving someone else would endanger out lives. We are not obligated to save anyone or anything if, by saving him, her or it, we would be endangering our lives.