September 4, 2014
Among the many laws we find in this week’s parsha are the laws of returning lost articles to their owner. The civil laws of other countries rarely if ever include laws that require the citizen to help his fellow man. Their laws revolve around not harming others. Jewish law adds the positive dimension of helping our fellow man.
Regarding recovering and returning a lost article we have the following verse: Deuteronomy 22:2
“And if your brother is not near to you and you don’t know who he is, then you must take it into your house and it should remain with you until your brother seeks it, then you shall return it to him.”
And you shall return it to him – So that there is a [real] returning (restoration). The [animal] should not eat in your house the worth of its own value. Then you would then claim this [from the owner]. From here [the Sages] derived the principle: Anything that works and requires food (like an ox) should work and eat. Whatever does not work but requires food (like a sheep) should be sold (and that money returned to the owner).
Rashi is telling us to understand the spirit, and not just the words, of the law. When a person loses something and someone finds it and returns it to him, he has done him a great service. The man’s loss was retrieved. However, if a man finds a sheep and keeps it until its owner seeks it out, this could take weeks, maybe months, before its owner claims it. During all that time the finder must feed the sheep and keep it healthy, otherwise what kind of chesed is it to return an emaciated, sickly sheep to its owner?
But feeding the animal costs money. Should the finder pay for this out of his own pocket? No, Torah law does not require this of a person. To demand such expenditures from a person would probably discourage most people from “getting involved,” and they would pass by the lost article, which they saw on the way.
So the Sages gave the following advice. If the animal can do work, like an ox, put it to work, until the owner comes; that would more than cover its eating expenses. But if the animal is one that cannot do work, like a sheep, then in order to “return it” to its owner, you had better sell the sheep (the money received from the sale doesn’t cost anything to hold), and give that money to the owner when he comes.
This is brilliant advice. This gets at the spirit of the law, which is to help a person retrieve his loss, without causing him other losses in the process.
An example of how serious the Sages took the mitzvah of returning the value of the lost article, and not just the article itself, is the following incident (recorded in the Talmud, Taanis 25a):
“It happened that someone passed the home of Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa, and left there roosters. His wife found them and Rabbi Chanina said to her ‘Don’t eat those eggs.’ The eggs increased and they sold them and with the money they bought goats. Later the man who had forgotten his roosters passed by Rabbi Chanina’s home and said to his friend, ‘It is here that I forgot my roosters.’ Rabbi Chanina overheard this and said to him ‘Do you have identification that the roosters are yours?’ He gave him a sign and Rabbi Chanina ‘returned’ to him ‘his’ goats!”
We see that the Sages’ dedication to living by the spirit of the Torah is no less than their wisdom in interpreting it.
Traditionally, in cheder, the first tractate that was studied was Baba Metzia, a large part of which deals with damage, loss, claim etc etc. Rav Moshe Feinsten zatzal pointed out that as soon as the lesson is over and the bell goes, the boys run out to the playground to play. Immediately there arises the question of damages and lost property! Even if it is limited to lost footballs or ballpoint pens! In this way the students understand that what they have just learnt in the Talmud is relevant to today’s life.
I seem to remember a story that made the rounds of Aish HaTorah a few years ago. There was a young Jewish boy who had a basic Jewish education but as a teenager decided to go off to the far east in search of spirituality. He spent some time living in an Aswan and meditating. One day he and his guru went for a long hike along a mountain pass when the guru saw a wallet lying on the ground. He picked it up, took out the money and was about to throw it away, when his young disciple asked him if he wasn’t going to look inside to see if he could trace the owner.
” If fate has placed this money in my path, then it is a sign that it is meant for me” declared the spiritual master! But the young remembered that his cheder teacher had taught him about “hashavat Aveida” returning lost property as an important mitzva in the Torah. Suddenly he realised that he didn’t need to go to the Far East to find spirituality but went to study in a yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Meir Wise