The halachos of lost and found
Prepared for print by Faigy Peritzman
I run a day camp, and at the end of every summer, I’m left with piles of items that were left behind. I send pictures home of all the forgotten items, plus call the ones with phone numbers written, but am still left with so many unclaimed items. What am I supposed to do with all of these?
The preferred manner of dealing with this common scenario is to place a sign in a prominent place (and/or email a copy to each parent) that all items left on the day camp grounds for more than a specific period of time, e.g., 30 days, are halachically considered ownerless (hefker). When the time period is over, you may keep those items for yourself, donate them, or discard them.
When walking through our bungalow colony, I always see items such as pacifiers, water bottles, sunscreen, and the like. Should I pick these items up and put them in a prominent place so the owners may find them more easily?
These type of items generally don’t have identifying marks (simanim), which means that the owner will likely be unable to identify the object as belonging to him and doesn’t expect to ever get it back. From a halachic perspective, he has forfeited his ownership and the finder may keep it (yiush).
But this only holds true if the item was found after the owner became aware that he lost the object and has therefore despaired of getting it back. If the finder picked up the item before the owner became aware of his loss, which means that he hasn’t yet despaired, then the finder may not keep the item, since it still belongs to the owner and must be returned to him.
Since it is sometimes difficult to determine when exactly the owner became aware of his loss, it’s advisable not to pick up the item but rather to just leave it where you found it, and hopefully the owner will find it on his own. If you already picked up the object, then you will need to hold on to it until you can locate the owner, which is likely not to take place until Eliyahu Hanavi comes and tells you who the owner is.
I returned a wallet to its owner and the fellow insisted on rewarding me. Do I lose the sechar of the mitzvah?
You certainly don’t lose the sechar of fulfilling the mitzvah, but it’s always preferable to do a mitzvah completely l’Sheim Shamayim, with no personal gain or reward.
I found a makeup bag and when I contacted the owner, she asked me if I could drop it off the next time I’m in her neighborhood. I feel pressured, because I’m not generally in that neighborhood, and I know I’m going to force myself to make a special trip now.
You’re under no obligation to make a special trip to return the item you have found. Once you have notified her, it’s her responsibility to come and claim the lost object. If she fails to pick it up after being given a clear deadline, the item becomes hefker.
My five-year-old brought home a pair of glasses he found in a private shtender in our shul. He doesn’t remember exactly which seat, but I think it makes more sense to go back to shul and leave them there than keep them at home.
The glasses need to be kept and guarded at home, but you’re required to put up a sign or post on the shul or community chat group to let the owner know that his glasses (which are considered to be “stolen” since your child took them from the owner’s shtender) are in your possession. Once you determine the identity of the owner, you’re required to deliver the glasses to him.
I was the last one to disembark our El Al flight when I noticed a bag with a sefer left on a seat. There was no name, but I was concerned to leave it for the airline’s lost and found as it will probably never make its way to its owner like that.
If neither the bag nor the sefer has simanim, you’re not obligated to pick up the lost objects. It’s best to leave it on the plane and let the airline lost and found take care of it.
I was at the pool with my kids and they found a watch at the bottom of the pool. The watch obviously doesn’t work anymore. Am I obligated to try to return it now?
A broken watch may also have some value, so if the item has a siman, then you would be obligated to try to return it. However, most watches don’t have simanim.
My son’s yeshivah dormitory has a policy that anything left in the dorm at the end of the zeman is automatically hefker. I label all my son’s items, and I asked the yeshivah if they could save things until the next zeman, so he could claim them when he realizes he didn’t bring them home, but they refused. Is this permitted?
Any institution catering to the public has the right to make their own lost-and-found policy. If the policy is that any item left in the dorm is automatically hefker, then the policy will include even items that have clear identifying marks. They have a right to refuse your request.
My kids are constantly picking up anything they see on the sidewalk and then are excited to do hashavas aveidah, but I have no way of knowing how to return any of these things. Still, I don’t want to discourage them from doing a mitzvah.
They need to be taught that every mitzvah has halachos and guidelines that need to be followed, and we don’t just do mitzvos because we feel like doing them or they make us feel good, but only because they are Hashem’s commandments that have to be followed according to the Shulchan Aruch. Doing a mitzvah without following the rules is like not doing the mitzvah at all, and this, too, is what chinuch is all about.
I have a lot of keys piled up in my home that we’ve found over time. Since a key is specific to a certain lock, is that called a siman, or may I get rid of them?
Since there is no way to know which key fits which lock, that isn’t considered a siman. But you may only get rid of them if you can determine that the keys were found after the owner realized he lost them. If the keys were found and picked up before the owner realized they were lost, you may not just simply get rid of the keys.
I found a cell phone a while ago and tried many times to contact the owner without success. I’m still hoping to track him down, but I now need an extra phone while mine is in for repairs. May I use this one?
Since you’ve identified the owner of the phone, but you haven’t yet been successful in reaching him, this is considered a lost object that has a siman. The halachah is that it’s forbidden for the finder to use the found item for his own benefit, even if you’re positive that the owner would gladly let you use it for your needs.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 853)
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