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Shabbat Parashat Haazinu 5776

Pninat Mishpat: What to Do with Abandoned Jewelry

(based on Shut Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 122)

Case: A long time ago a young woman (Sarah) hired herself out as a housekeeper at Reuven’s house. She placed gold jewelry by him as a guarantee that she would do the job, but she did not arrive on the job or reclaim the jewelry. Reuven wants to know what the moral thing to do with this jewelry is. Some people in town claim that Reuven did not act properly. They claim that Sarah wanted to back out of the employment, and Reuven refused and withheld the jewelry, and that he is inquiring out of embarrassment (as a worker is allowed to quit a job, and it is wrong to withhold a poor woman’s jewelry). They claim he is a thief whose obligation to return the object is pressing.

 

Ruling: Actually, if Sarah left the jewelry in the context of Reuven trying to stop her from quitting, then we actually can assume that she was mochelet (relinquished her rights) to receive them back. Although usually not claiming one’s property that is being watched or that is collateral in someone else’s possession is not a sign of mechilla, it is different if Sarah asked for them and Reuven refused. If this occurred in a place where she could have easily gone to complain in beit din or to someone else and she did not do so, we can assume mechilla.

One should not claim that even if there was mechilla, it was b’taut (based on mistaken notions), i.e., perhaps Sarah thought that Reuven had a right to keep the jewelry as collateral when she did not keep her commitment. This is because even when one can back out, it is not always moral to do so, and therefore it is reasonable to appease Reuven by allowing him to keep the jewelry. In that way she would be protecting her professional reputation. Therefore, while there could have been ta’ut, we will not assume it without further indication (see Tosafot, Bava Metzia 67a).

If the above were not the circumstances of Sarah’s behavior, we need to consider the possibility that she did not come for her things because she died, in which case ownership would have been transferred to her inheritors. The Shach (Choshen Mishpat 285:7) brings an opinion that if the identity of the inheritor is not known, one takes the property away from the one holding it and gives it to a special guardian. However, this opinion is incorrect, especially when we did not know during her lifetime who her relatives are. We treat the situation as one where no one has a personal claim, even though theoretically one can come forward. Therefore, the possessor can do what he wants with the property, just that it is an act of piety to do something that can bring merit to the deceased.

However, it is not likely that she died and is more likely that she was prevented by circumstances from assuming her position. If so, she did nothing wrong and deserves, from legal and moral perspectives, her jewelry back. Since she may not know this, Reuven has to make serious efforts to return the jewelry to Sarah like any other lost object. Nowadays, we can accomplish this by putting an advertisement in a newspaper. Assuming there is nothing special about the jewelry, it is best to have them evaluated and then rent them out so that their value will not be lost to their owner in the meantime. Although one can argue with this suggestion, since there is some logic to say that Reuven can keep the jewelry, it is certainly reasonable to rent them out in a way that Sarah may end up gaining.

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