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Finders

Ki Tetze | Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Many years ago, my younger brother and I were walking to school when Henry spotted a $5 bill on the sidewalk and picked it up. Five dollars was a lot of money to a small boy in the 1950s, so my brother did the only logical thing — he took the money to school and turned it in to the “Lost and Found.”

The secretary in charge told him that if no one claimed the $5 for 30 days, he would get to keep it. So he checked every school day for a month to see if the rightful owner had made a claim until he finally was able to claim the abandoned bill and indulge himself in an orgy of plastic Army men and comic books.

So did he do the right thing, or was he just a weirdo?

Among the many mitzvot contained in Ki Tetze are laws pertaining to found property. The Torah says: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find; you must not remain indifferent.”

Okay, so “finders keepers, losers weepers” is not a principle of Torah. But what if you do not know who the owner is? The Mishna in Baba Metziah teaches that one who finds property must publicize the find so the owner can make a claim. Moreover, it teaches, “These are the found things that the finder may keep, and these are the ones the finder is obligated to publicize.” Among the things the finder may keep are scattered fruit, scattered money, cakes of pressed figs, bakers’ loaves, pieces of meat, and brand-new vessels. Finds that must be publicized include fruit in a container, money in a bag, home-made loaves, and jars of wine or oil.

Why the difference? The items the finder can keep have no identifying marks and cannot be distinguished one from another, so there is no way for a claimant to prove that the specific item found is the one lost. The property is considered ownerless and may be kept by whoever finds it. However, property that has distinguishing marks or is otherwise identifiable must be publicized when found, and when a claimant can describe its unique characteristics, the finder must return it.

It’s a wonderful system — a finder cannot keep what the rightful owner should be able to identify, for that would be theft, but someone who claims a lost item must be able to positively identify it to prevent fraud.

But what about my brother? As the Mishna says, there’s no need to publicize scattered money. It has become abandoned property, so the finder can keep it.

And so the Torah teaches what I have known for more than 50 years — my brother is a weirdo!

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