[Everyone knows that Jewish law covers issues like prayer, kosher
food, and holiday observance. But that is only one side of the story.
Jewish law also covers interpersonal relationships in business, home
and society. The following article presents some of the laws of how we
are obligated to protect the property of others. -Ed.]
* * *
Returning Lost Objects
The Torah states, "You shall not see the ox of your brother or his
sheep stray, and hide yourself from them. Rather you must return them
to your brother" (Deut. 22:1). We are therefore required to make an
effort and extend ourselves to save another person's property from
loss. Thus, a person who sees a lost object is required to return it
to its owner. In other situations as well, we are obligated to rescue
the endangered money or property of other people (e.g. a field about
to be flooded).
Similarly, one is required to help a lost person find the way to his
All the more so are we required to expend efforts to save another
person and to help him in times of trouble. All these mitzvot are
included in the commandment to return a lost object and the
accompanying prohibition that forbids looking away...
* * *
An item has the status of a lost object that must be returned only as
long as its owner still hopes to recover it. However, once he abandons
hope of ever seeing it again (by commenting, "It's too bad that I've
lost it," "Forget it," or similar statements), then the object is
subsequently considered ownerless and anyone who finds it is allowed
to keep it. However, if at the moment the finder picked it up the
owner had not yet given up on it, then the obligation on the finder to
return the object remains in force even after the owner does give up.
It can be assumed that the owner has given up hope of finding a lost
object, if all the following conditions are met: It must have no
identifying marks or features; it must be apparent that it was not
left in that place intentionally but rather was dropped or left there
unintentionally; the object must be one whose absence the owner is
likely to have noticed, either because of its weight and bulk or
because it has significant value (since it is presumed that a person
checks his pockets frequently to be sure his valuables are intact). If
any one of these conditions are missing one may not keep the object.
If an object has an identifying mark, then it is forbidden to keep it
for oneself, even though it is obvious that it fell from the owner's
possession accidentally. The owner will undoubtedly hope that it will
be found by an upright Jew who will fulfill the mitzvah of returning
it, since he will be able to positively identify it.
* * *
An Object Left Intentionally
If there is reason to suspect that the object was left in its place
intentionally (and all the more so if there is conclusive evidence
that this is the case), then a number of specific considerations
If the object was found in a safe place where people are accustomed to
leaving their belongings (e.g. a coatroom or tool shed), then whether
the object has identifying marks or not, one should simply leave it in
its place and not touch it. The general rule is that whenever there is
a possibility that the owner purposely left it there, and intends to
recover it, one should not pick it up...
If the object was found in a place where no one would deliberately
leave such an item (e.g. a public thoroughfare), one should take it
and treat it as if it had accidentally fallen from its owner's
possession. Thus, if it has identifying features one should advertise
that it has been found, while if it does not have identifying features
and there is reason to presume that the owner has abandoned hope of
recovering it, the finder may keep it for himself...
* * *
Personal Use of an Entrusted Object
It is forbidden to make personal use of an object one is holding for
safekeeping, even if it does not in any way affect the object's value
or future usability. If the guardian uses the object without
permission, his action is considered to be theft. It is all the more
so forbidden to keep the object for oneself, which is considered
It is forbidden to make use of money entrusted to one for safe-keeping
in an enclosed manner (e.g. a sealed envelope or a tightly bound
bundle) since this indicates that the owner wishes his money to remain
intact. Use of this money is forbidden just like any other object
entrusted for safekeeping. If, however, there is no such indication,
the guardian is allowed to use the money; if he does so, it has the
status of a loan that he is required to repay even if it is lost or
damaged through circumstances beyond his control. If he does not make
use of the money, he still has the status of a paid guardian, since,
in any case, he benefits from having the right to use it.
* * *
Liability for Loss or Damage
In the next paragraph, we state a number of general rules as to when
someone holding an object for safekeeping is required to pay for loss
or damage to the object. In practice, however, there are usually many
detailed and intricate considerations that must be taken into account
before making a final determination of liability; it is therefore
always advisable to consult with a halachic authority in any given
If an object being held for safekeeping is stolen, lost, or otherwise
destroyed, and the guardian had been negligent in his duty to guard
the object, he is required to pay compensation for the loss. E.g.: If
a bike was stolen, was it properly locked? If valuables were lost,
were they properly stowed away? If a house was broken into, was a door
or window left open?
If there was no negligence, however, liability depends on the terms
under which he accepted responsibility for the object.
(a) If he is watching the object as a favor without pay (shomer
chinam), he is free from any liability.
(b) If he is being paid to watch the object (shomer sachar) or is
renting it, he is normally required to pay in cases of loss or theft.
However, if the loss was caused by unavoidable circumstances, he is
free of liability. E.g.: If thieves broke into the house he is liable.
If he was mugged on the street he is not liable.
(c) If he borrowed the object, he is required to pay for all
categories of loss or damage He is required to pay the owner of the
object even if he was mugged.
In all of these cases, if the object's owner was working for the
guardian at the time the object was entrusted for safekeeping, the
guardian (i.e. the employer) is not required to pay. Furthermore, if
the object was rented or borrowed, and it broke during normal usage,
the renter or borrower is free from liability.
Excerpted from "JOURNEY TO VIRTUE" - the laws of interpersonal relationships in business, home and society. Published by ArtScroll/Mesorah