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Shabbat Parashat Bechukotai 5775

P'ninat Mishpat: Buying Looted Seforim from the Slovakians

(based on Chelkat Yaakov, Choshen Mishpat 21)

[Some of Rav Breish’s most interesting responsa are related, directly or indirectly, to the Holocaust. One critical question he deals with in simanim 16-20 is what to do with deposits of those who could not be found after the war. However, that issue is too long and involved to present in this forum. This week’s topic below is fascinating, and the responsum is short.] 


Case: During the war years, in the “Land of Blood,” Slovakia, the evil government stole the property of Jews whom they sent away to distant places, many of them to their deaths. They now have many thousands of sifrei kodesh, which they want to sell. Is it permitted to buy seforim from them?


Ruling: One has to assume that most owners of such seforim had yeiush (gave up hope of receiving the property back, in which case, ownership is lost from stolen objects). One important rabbi claimed that in regard to Torah seforim, yeiush should not apply because only a Jew would buy them (based on Rama, CM 236:8). However, that claim come from a different context, that a buyer has to return the specific property to the original owner. Even so, the original owner must reimburse the buyer for the money he paid the thief. In that case, the buyer may use the property until the owner is ready to reimburse him, in cases where the buyer had intention to recover the object from the thief. 

The Hagahot Harosh discusses the concept of redeeming stolen sifrei kodesh along the lines of the laws for redeeming kidnapped people, i.e., one should do so without exceeding the reasonable price for the seforim. In that context, as well, the redeemer may read the seforim until and unless someone reimburses him. The K’tzot Hachoshen (356:3) explains that there is a special arrangement to allow people to buy the seforim in order to save them from being disgraced.

In this case, it is possible that a buyer may keep the seforim even if the original owners later want to reimburse him and receive the seforim. This is based on the regular rule that one who buys from a thief after the owner had yeiush can keep them, due to an assumption that the aforementioned Rama’s logic does not apply. The Rama is working with the understanding that if no Jew buys the seforim from the thief, he will have to return them to the owner with some monetary arrangement. In our heartbreaking situation, the original owners were sent far away, and, in similar situations in Europe, the looters eventually burnt the seforim in a very disgraceful manner. Therefore, the owners certainly had yeiush. It is like a situation where one’s wares were washed away by an overflowing river, in which case anyone who found them downstream can acquire them from hefker (a state of non-ownership) (see Bava Kama 115b, the Ran, Shabbat 120, and Shulchan Aruch, CM 259:7). The Rama just adds that it is proper to return such objects beyond the letter of the law.

I believe that the rabbis of Poland came out in the past with a pronouncement or a ban against buying such seforim from the authorities under similar circumstances. It must be deliberated whether that ban applies here as well. However, according to the basic law, there are no qualms about buying these seforim.



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