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Journey to Virtue
by Rabbi Avrohom Ehrman

[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.]

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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 destination.

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...

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Relinquishing Hope

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.

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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 apply:

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...

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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 outright theft.

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.

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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 situation.

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

Reprinted with permission from Innernet



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