In the previous weeks we have discussed the process of returning a lost object to its rightful owner. Unfortunately, despite all of one’s efforts, he may fail to discover the true owner. What must the finder do with the item in the event that it is never claimed?
There is a Rabbinic tradition that in the Messianic times, the Prophet Eliyahu (Eliyahu HaNavi) will return to this world and answer all the unsolved questions. In this vein, Eliyahu will reveal the rightful owners of lost items. Until this time, a finder of an unclaimed item must continue to hold the item until Eliyahu comes and discloses to whom it must be returned.
This applies both to items that have a simun (identifying mark) and to items that have no simun but were picked up before the owner became aware of the loss. See part 8 for discussion of this this case in detail; In brief, when one finds a lost object that has no simun he must try to discern whether the owner has become aware that he lost the object. If he concludes that the owner was not aware at the time of the loss, or he cannot be certain, then he must look after the item until Eliyahu comes and reveals the owner.
If the item will spoil or become obsolete in time the finder must sell it as soon as necessary. He should record its value along with the details of the case, including the date, time and place where it was found. Moreover, a description of the item and any simun should be noted down. He must then be responsible to reimburse the owner if and when he is identified. Alternatively the finder may take the item for his own use, assess the value and repay that amount to the owner.
However, if the item is not perishable then it should ideally be held until Eliyahu comes. Nonetheless, if it is difficult to keep the item, one is permitted to appraise its value and sell it. There is one exception to this allowance to sell the item: If it cannot be easily replaced, (for example, a painting or hand-written notes) then one must keep it until the owner claims it or Eliyahu informs him of the owner’s identity.
*Much of the information for this essay is taken from “Halachos of Other People’s Money” by Rabbi Yisroel Pinchos Bodner
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and Torah.org