Thus far we have determined when one is obligated to return a lost item and when he can keep it for himself. In the coming weeks we will discuss the laws of what the finder should do once he is clear that he is obligated to guard the item and try to find its rightful owner.
From the moment that the finder picks up the object he is responsible for safeguarding it. He is not permitted to pick it up and place it near the site where it was found in the hope that the owner will notice it. Rather, the finder must take it to his home or another safe place to guard it until it is returned to its owner. For example, if one finds a wallet on the street he may not place it on a nearby wall in the hope that the owner will find it there. Leaving such an item in a place where it can easily be stolen or damaged clearly constitutes a failure in adequately protecting the item.
Moreover, the finder is responsible for negligence whilst holding the item; Therefore if he was careless in guarding the item and it was lost, stolen or damaged, he is obligated to pay the owner the value of the item.**
For example, John found a watch on the street that has a clear simun (identifying mark). John placed the watch in his car and made a stop, leaving the watch in his unlocked car. Whilst he was out, the watch was stolen. John is responsible for paying the value of the watch to the owner because he was careless in its protection.
However, if the item was lost, stolen, or damaged due to factors beyond one’s control, he is exempt from paying the value of the item. For example, Dave found a pen and placed it in a safe in his home. A burglar managed to break through the security system in Dave’s home, break the safe, and steal the pen. Since Dave cannot be considered to have been negligent in safeguarding the pen, he is not obligated to pay its value to the owner.
A person reading these laws may feel it would be easier to avoid picking up lost items altogether and thereby avoid any chance of having to pay for any damage done to the item. However, the Rabbis teach us that the reward for fulfilling Mitzvot (commandments) such as this is so great that it is a small price to pay to risk payment of an item in the event of negligence. Moreover, such a Mitzva gives us another opportunity to develop the important trait of taking responsibility for the welfare our fellow man AND his property.
*Much of the information for this essay is taken from “Halachos of Other People’s Money” by Rabbi Yisroel Pinchos Bodner.
**This is of course in the event that he discovers who the identity of the owner.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and Torah.org