“Concern for the Property of Others”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kee Teitzei contains seventy-two mitzvot, more commandments than any other parasha in the Torah. Of the many remarkable mitzvot that are featured in parashat Kee Teitzei is the mitzvah of restoring lost objects to their rightful owners.

In Deuteronomy 22:1 we read: “Lo tir’eh et shor ah’chee’chah oh et say’oh nee’dah’cheem, v’hit’ah’lahm’tah may’hem, ha’shayv t’shee’vaym l’ah’chee’chah,” You shall not see the ox of your brother, his sheep or goat lost, and ignore them, you shall surely return them to your brother. The Torah continues to explain that if your “brother” (the owner) is not near you or you do not know who he is, then you are required to gather the lost object into your house and it shall remain there with you until the owner inquires after it, and you return it to him. This procedure is true for a donkey, a garment, or any article that may be lost and you find it. You shall not turn aside and ignore it.

What are the finder’s obligations to the owner? Our rabbis deduce from the wording in the verse: “You shall take it home until the owner inquires after it,” that the finder must publicize the loss, so that the owner will hopefully hear that his object has been found and regain it.

In ancient times there was a special location in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem known as “Eh’vehn Ha’toh’ayn,” that served as the peoples’ “lost and found.” Lost objects were announced publicly on each of the three pilgrim festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) when all of Israel came to Jerusalem. If the owner was able to provide credible evidence of ownership, the object was returned to him.

Another method of restoring lost objects was for the owner of the lost object to enter the Temple and proceed to the left, in the opposite direction of all the other pilgrims. As he passed the people coming opposite him, he would inform them of his loss. The people would then comfort him, stating: “May He who dwells in this house put into the heart of the finder to immediately return your lost object” (S’machot, chapter 6). After the destruction of the Temple, it was customary to declare all losses in local synagogues and houses of study, and at all public functions. Eventually, the practice developed to announce all losses to neighbors and friends, and that was considered sufficient (Baba Metziah, 28b).

The rabbis in the Talmud derive from the phrase (Deuteronomy 22:1) “V’hit’ah’lahm’tah may’hem,” and you ignore the lost article, that there are times when one is actually permitted to ignore a lost object. Elders and other distinguished people who would not make the effort to restore even their own lost objects are permitted to ignore the lost objects of others as well. The basic rule of thumb is that a person must do for others what he would do for himself in similar situations (Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986, Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem in New York City, the leading halachic decisor of his time) asks why there is an explicit commandment to return a lost object. After all, who would ever think of keeping something that doesn’t belong to them and disregard a fellow Jew’s anguish over the loss? Rabbi Feinstein argues that human greed and laziness often influence the finders to claim the lost object for themselves, thereby avoiding the difficulty of searching for the rightful owner. The biblical verse, “V’hit’ah’lahm’tah may’hem,” says Rabbi Feinstein, can also be interpreted to mean that you will be tempted to hide yourself to avoid the trouble. Therefore, the Torah insists that returning a lost object be listed as a specific mitzvah (noted in the ArtScroll Bible, Stone edition, p. 1049).

I recall seeing the following remarkable ad published in the Lost and Found column of the Jerusalem Post. “Found: Ramban’s (Nachmanides) Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Chavel edition. Reward offered.” The finder was so keen to fulfill the mitzvah of “Hashavat Aveidah,” of restoring a lost article, that he took out an ad at his own expense, and offered a reward in order to encourage the original owner to come forth and claim his loss!

There is a well-known story about a religious young man who found a personal telephone directory in a telephone booth on 47th Street, in New York’s famed Diamond District. To find the owner, he began calling names listed in the address book. Among the names he called was a woman in Florida who said that the names in the book sounded as if the phone book may belong to her daughter. The woman asked the caller why he had invested so much effort to find the owner. He told the woman that as an observant Jew he felt compelled to restore the lost object since it was a mitzvah in the Torah.

The man contacted the woman’s daughter and indeed she was the owner. They made an appointment to meet in order to return the address book.

When the woman arrived the next day, she was exceptionally emotional. The man was delighted to return the lost phone book to the woman, but asked why she was crying. The woman thanked the man profusely and added, “You not only returned my phone book to me, you restored my mother to me!” She explained that several years ago she had become a Ba’alat Teshuvah, a religiously observant Jew. Her mother regarded her new lifestyle as cultish and soon stopped speaking to her. But her mother was so impressed by the man’s efforts to restore the lost address book that she reconsidered her position and was now proud of her daughter and the lifestyle that she had chosen for herself.

Would that all our efforts to return lost objects culminate in such wonderful results!

May you be blessed.