Many a comic strip cartoon has tried to gain a laugh by focusing on the strange objects returned to the “lost and found” department of large stores or buildings. Anyone who has ever misplaced a package, lost a watch or forgotten their umbrella on the bus is certainly grateful when they can reclaim their possession.

Returning a lost item is a specific mitzvah in the Torah. This mitzvah is known as Hashavat Aveidah, and there are strict halachic (legal) parameters as to what one must do upon finding a lost item or seeking to claim an item. For instance, a claimant must be able to present an identifying mark (such as a design or a blemish).

According to Wikipedia (“Lost and Found”), “The first lost and found office was organized in Paris in 1805″ by Napoleon. But, in truth, there was a lost and found in ancient Jerusalem: “There was a Stone of Claims in Jerusalem: whoever lost an article went there, and whoever found an article did likewise. The latter stood and proclaimed, and the former submitted his identification marks and received it back” (Baba Metzia 110a).

The mitzvah of Hashavat Aveidah was considered so important that, in the times of the First Temple, “whoever found a lost article used to proclaim it during the three Festivals and an additional seven days after the last Festival (three days for going home, another three for returning, and one for announcing). After the destruction of the Temple–may it be speedily rebuilt in our own days!–the place of proclamation was moved to the synagogues and schoolhouses” (Baba Metzia 110a).

Whether at synagogue, through posted signs, ads in the classifieds, word of mouth or on the internet, it’s a relatively easy mitzvah to perform.

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