If a person has mistakenly taken money or an item belonging to someone
else and does not know who the correct owner is, or if a storekeeper
overcharged or shortchanged a customer and has no way of identifying the
customer to make restitution, what manner is prescribed in Halacha to
compensate the rightful owner of the money or items?
A. Any time that a person has taken money or an object from someone else,
and it was not a lost item that the original owner had given up hope of
ever getting back, whether it was taken intentionally (and he would now
like to do Teshuva) or in error, he is obligated to return it to the
original owner. If it is impossible to locate the original owner, he must
take the money or the value of the item and use it for Tzorchei Rabbim,
B. The definition of "community service" in this context, is to use it
for the needs of the public in a manner that it is most likely that the
original owner of the money or item will benefit from the service that is
now being provided with their money.
C. Based on this, the money should not be donated to charity
organizations, synagogues, or Yeshivos, unless it is known that the
person that the money is supposed to go to is a member of one of these
organizations, or is supported by them. If it is unknown where he lives
and what organizations he is involved in, it is recommended that the
money be donated to organizations that cater to all members of the
community in some manner.
For example, it would be proper to donate it to organizations that loan
medical equipment to the elderly and the sick in the locale in which he
probably lives. In this manner it is likely that someday he or one of his
heirs will benefit from this donation. It would be even more preferable
to purchase a piece of medical equipment with the funds, and lend it to
people in need of it.
The Gemara in Bava Kamma 94b, which is also quoted as the Halacha in
Shulchan Oruch (Choshen Mishpat 366:2) states that if someone has stolen
money but is unable to compensate the rightful owner because he does not
know from whom he has taken it, he should use the money for community
needs, such as digging wells for the people of that city. Rashi there
explains that although this is not considered a proper return of the
stolen money as required by the Torah, and therefore is not the
preferable method of doing so, since water is a communal necessity, the
victim of the theft will at least partially benefit from his funds when
used in this manner.
This applies in any case that money has been improperly taken, even if
unintentionally. The Torah obligates the taker to return it. Therefore,
when the identity of the proper owner is unknown, "communal service" must
be performed with this money, in a manner that the original owner will
have the utmost benefit from his funds.
Therefore, if the money is donated to institutions that the owner may not
have any benefit from, there is nothing gained in terms of fulfilling the
Mitzvah of returning the money to the rightful owner. If a person steals
money and donates it to charity rather than return it to the rightful
owner, he has done nothing to correct the sin of theft! Therefore, we've
offered one possibility in our answer section in which it is probable
that someday the owner or his heirs will benefit from such an
organization. Obviously, there are other possibilities that vary in
different communities, and every individual should decide based on his
This week's class is based on a column by Rabbi Tzvi Shpitz, who is an Av
Bais 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
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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!