Hashovas Aveidah: All is Not Lost
The finder of an article has to return the lost object to its owner, even
if this belongs to his enemy (Exodus 23:4; Deuteronomy 22:1-3). This
obligation exists so long as the owner has not yet abandoned hope of
recovering his lost item which has a unique or distinguishing identifying
mark as he tries to locate the owner through public announcements and the
Hashovas Aveidah is the mitzvah of retrieving a lost possession and
returning it back to its rightful owner.
Why the Torah opposes “finders-keepers” and the importance of the
article’s return is underscored in how man relates to his possessions.
In contrast to some economic systems, the Torah gives man the ability to
accumulate capital. And it confers upon him the concept of private
ownership. But as with everything else in Jewish life, this must serve a
higher purpose. All chattel and property within man’s ownership are not
unqualified in their private use; instead, they are merely the requisite
tools for fulfilling his spiritual purpose in life. So G-d entrusts to
each person the necessary Kaylim, “vessels” with which to perform his
To this end, and for reasons beyond our comprehension, Divine Providence
designates that some people are destined for wealth and luxury, while
others must struggle with only a few assets to their name. Rabbi Yehuda,
redactor of the Mishnah, lived an affluent life mingling with the Roman
Emperor while his colleague Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta was decreed to be an
impoverished man. However they both succeed in their respective
lifestyles: each saintly scholar served G-d in his individual manner using
precisely the respective tools that G-d had bestowed upon him.
To what is the relationship between man and his property likened to? Rabbi
Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb p.243) puts it beautifully: “Property is
nothing but the artificially extended body, and body and property together
are the realm and sphere of action of the soul”. Just as the soul, man’s
essence, uses the body as the means of expression, so too, are man’s
possessions similarly the projection and an extension of the person’s
self. Hence, property is the vehicle of its master’s efforts to place his
unique imprint upon the world.
This explains a Jew’s obligation not only to honor his own possessions
(including a responsibility for any damage that they may cause) but also
to look after and preserve his fellow’s possessions.
That each object has a spiritual role to play is because each object is,
in itself, an indispensable tool through which the owner is expected to
serve G-d. Consequently, the owner needs to use each vessel. He cannot
fritter away his belongings in an aimless, reckless or haphazard fashion.
Nor can he afford its “loss” for it to go missing.
So discovering and returning a lost article performs a valuable service to
the owner. With hashovas aveidah, the finder has discovered a lost part of
his fellow man – namely his artificially extended body (property) – and is
returning it back to its roots. In so doing, he has once again granted the
owner the opportunity to use this lost object in the performance of G-d’s
will and in the observance of the sacred mitzvos.
However there must be an assurance how, despite having misplaced the
object, all is “not” lost as far as the owner is concerned. The found
object needs a Siman, “an identifying sign”. In-other-words, there must be
a symbolic indication confirming that the owner has not despaired (in
Hebrew Ye’ush) and how, by returning it to him, he is now back on track to
harness the object so that it ultimately succeeds in fulfilling its
function. Thus, every utensil as an extension of one’s self becomes the
personalized expression of the owner in the furtherance of his divine
Particularly in our affluent generation, it behooves us to vigilantly use
all of our many tools responsibly and effectively. It is vital that the
spiritual energy of every object is “not lost”; and that, if mislaid, it
is returned to the rightful owner so that it can be an accurate
representation and reflection of the owner’s tailor-made divine service.
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene and Torah.org.