Hilchos Choshen Mishpat
Volume I : Number 20
Items Left In Public Areas
There are people who leave their possessions in public areas such as
schools, Laundromats, swimming pools, and repair shops and do not return
to claim them. In order to fulfill the Mitzvah of HaShovas Aveidah
(Returning Lost Articles), what are the obligations of the school
administrators, shop owners, etc., regarding locating the proper owners
and returning the items?
What action can be taken to ensure that in the future they will not be
obligated to return every lost item left on their premises, and that they
will be permitted to do with the items as they see fit?
- A. If the items that were left have identifying marks, the store owner,
etc., may inform the owner of the unclaimed items that if he does not
come to claim them within a reasonable period of time (generally one week
is sufficient), the items will be disposed of. If he is a repairman and
the owner has not been paid for the work that the repairman did to the
item, the repairman may inform the owner that he will sell the item, keep
the money owed for the repair, and return any additional money to the
owner when the owner chooses to come claim the item.
- To ensure that in the future there is no obligation to track down the
owner of every item left on their premises, the store owner or school
administrator may post a sign in a noticeable area on their property,
stating that they only permit personal possessions to be brought onto
their property on condition that after a certain reasonable period of
time (for example, after the school year is completed), any lost or
unclaimed items will be disposed of, without further notice.
If they post such a sign, they may do as they see fit with the items,
after the stated period of time.
The Gemara in Bava Metziah 101b states that if someone leaves his
possessions in someone else's property without permission, the property
owner is permitted to remove the items and throw them into the
marketplace. This is quoted as the Halacha in the Shulchan Oruch,
Choshen Mishpat 319:1. The Rema there quotes the opinion of the Rosh
that the property owner should first inform the owner of the items,
regarding the consequence if the possessions are not removed within a
reasonable period of time. After the owner of the items is notified and
the period of time is past, the property owner may remove the items
from his domain, despite the fact that doing so will most likely result
in the items being stolen or vandalized.
Alternatively, the property owner may decide to charge the owner
"storage fees," in the form of a certain amount of money, per day that
the item remains in his property against his wishes. In this case, once
the total amount of the fees equals the total value of the items, the
property owner may keep the items for himself. However, the property
owner should not assess the value of the item. This determination
should be made by three other objective people.
All of the above also applies to items that have been left at a shop or
store to be fixed or cleaned, as long as the owner of the item was told
that the item must be picked up by a certain time and did not do so.
The advice in Answer B is considered acceptable practice by the majority
of Rabbis, although there does not seem to be an explicit source for this
in the Gemara and the Shulchan Oruch.
The advice in Answer B seems to apply to all situations, whether the item
was left there intentionally or unintentionally. If the items were left
there intentionally, the Mitzvah of HaShovas Aveidah does not at all
obligate the store owner to return them, since they were never lost.
Therefore, the sign informs the owner that the item will be disposed of
after a certain period of time, as per the requirement of the Rosh above,
and after that time, it is considered like an item placed in someone
else's property without permission.
Even if the items were left there unintentionally, in which case it would
seem that the store owner would be obligated in the Mitzvah of HaShovas
Aveidah, the sign informs the person who owns the items that entrance
into this property with personal possessions is conditional on acceptance
of the terms mentioned in the sign. Consequently, if the owner does not
agree to these conditions, he is trespassing, which is a form of theft.
We can therefore assume that if the items are left there for longer than
the stated period of time, the owner of the items relinquishes his rights
of ownership, even without his knowledge, rather than insist on those
rights and violate the prohibition of theft.
This week's class is based on a column by Rabbi Tzvi Shpitz, who is an
Av Bet Din and Rosh Kollel in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. His
column originally appears in Hebrew in Toda'ah, a weekly publication in
Jerusalem. It has been translated and reprinted here with his
permission and approval.
This class is translated and moderated by Rabbi Aaron Tendler of Yeshivas
Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. Rabbi Tendler accepts full responsibility for
the accuracy of the translation and will be happy to fax originals of the
articles in Hebrew to anyone interested.
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Please Note: The purpose of this column is to make people aware of Choshen Mishpat
situations that can arise at any time, and the Halachic concepts that may be used to resolve them. Each
individual situation must be resolved by an objective, competent Bais Din (or Rabbinic Arbitrator) in the
presence of all parties involved!