Last week we discussed what constitutes a valid simun (identifying feature) that obligates the finder to try to return the lost item to its owner. In this article we will discuss the law in a case where there is no simun. Although in some cases the owner may pick it up and keep it, there are situations in which he must hold it until the Prophet, Eliyahu comes and tells him who owns it.
When a person loses an item he retains possession of it until he gives up on ever retrieving it. This abandonment constitutes a forfeiture of his ownership. Jewish law states that an item that has no simun (including lack of a specific location that can be used as proof of ownership) is considered forfeited once the owner realizes that it is lost. The reason for this is that he recognizes that he has no way of proving that he is the true owner of the object, consequently he will presume that even if the finder wants to return it, he will be unable to do so.
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 cannot be certain that the owner was aware of the loss at the time he found it, then he must look after the item until Eliyahu comes and reveals the owner.
There are a number of instances in which we can presume that the owner discovered his loss before the finder picked up the item.
1. When someone carries something heavy and it falls, it is very likely that in a short period of time after losing it, he will realize that he lost it. Thus, when someone finds a heavy item that does not have a simun, he can presume that the owner knew that he lost it before the finder picked it up. For example, if one finds a new hammer in a mall where shoppers carry their purchases with them then he can keep it; this is because a new hammer has no simun and its heaviness means that the owner will realize he lost it very soon after it fell.
2. When someone finds loose money he can presume that the owner is already aware of his loss. This is because people are extra aware of the amount of cash that they carry and tend to check frequently to ascertain that they still have it. Therefore, when cash is found, the finder can presume that the owner forfeited the money a short time after he lost it and he can keep it.The law is the same with regard to valuables such as jewelry, because their owners also tend to check for them on a frequent basis. Thus, a piece of jewelry found on the ground can be kept on condition that it has no simun.
3. When one finds an item that has clearly been lost for a long period of time he can keep it because it is obvious that the owner was aware of his loss long before the finder discovered it.
1. Much of the information for this essay is taken from “Halachos of Other People’s Money” by Rabbi Yisroel Pinchos Bodner.
2. The Rabbis tell us that in the time of Messiah, Eliyahu HaNavi will come and resolve all the uncertainties in Jewish law. He will further reveal the identity of lost objects that are being guarded by their finder.
3. This is of course, after the buyer has paid for the hammer.
4. It should be noted that, as we discussed earlier, if the majority of people who frequent that mall are non-Jews then the finder may keep it in any case
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and Torah.org