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Shabbat Parashat Noach 5773

Ask the Rabbi: A Remote Chance of Returning a Lost Object

by Rav Daniel Mann

Question:  At the Siyum Hashas at MetLife Stadium, I saw an umbrella on the floor (field seats) near seats whose occupants had left a while before. Before leaving, I asked people in the vicinity and no one knew whose it was, so I took it. Later on I noticed a first name (a woman’s name, in a men’s section) on it, but I have failed to figure out how to identify its owner. What should I do now?


Answer:  The umbrella was probably purposely placed on the floor. You were right to leave it there initially, as the owner could return (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 260:9). However, after a while (security forbade one who left the stadium to return), it was fine to pick it up. If there were no siman (identifying sign), you could keep it (if we could assume the owner realized the umbrella was missing before you picked it up). However, between the name and the location (there were seat numbers), there are simanim. Therefore, at first glance, you would be required to effectively publicize your find, and if no one responded, keep it indefinitely (Shulchan Aruch, CM 267:15). (Yeiush after the object was picked up is not fully effective.)

One might argue that since people came from many different places, the owner would not believe he could retrieve it despite the simanim. It is a good question whether we would follow standard rules or accept such a claim (consider that in Talmudic times it was also difficult to retrieve lost objects- see Bava Metzia 28b). However, the claim is not clear in practice either. MetLife Stadium has a lost-and-found service and asks people to give found articles to a worker. (When that is the most practical system, one need not be concerned that workers don’t know the proper rules of returning lost objects- see Pitchei Choshen, Aveida 2:(53).) Also, the owner could have called a friend still at the stadium and asked him to retrieve it.

On the other hand, if one loses something in a public place with a majority of non-Jews, we assume the owner had yeiush (loss of hope). Here, it is a tricky question. The area was frequented by Jews at the time of the loss, so we might not assume yeiush (Shulchan Aruch, CM 259:3). On the other hand, if Jews only pass through but non-Jews who otherwise frequent it are more likely to notice the object than the Jews were, we assume yeiush (see Rama, CM 259:8). Were participants riveted to the event (see Nimukei Yosef to Bava Metzia 24a), or were they also looking to the floor for mitzvot (or free umbrellas)? Also, an umbrella on the floor was not initially a sign of a lost object, so Jews might not know to return it. On the other hand, the Rama (CM 259:7) says that when local law requires returning lost objects, one is obligated even when classical halacha does not require it. It is not clear to me what New Jersey law is in a case like this. In the final analysis you probably may keep the umbrella, but there is an element of beyond-the-letter-of-the-law to return it when feasible (see Bava Metzia 24b). 

Can you find the owner? Announcing the find in a local shul (Shulchan Aruch, CM 287:3) is futile. There is a tiny chance that MetLife would have details of someone looking for an umbrella from Aug. 1 (but e-mails are free). There is a website for reporting lost and/or found objects in Israel (www.ebood.co.il). This is a nice idea for Jewishly populous areas, but I was unable to find such a site for NY-NJ. We ask our readership to try to help you fulfill the mitzva (see bolded details above; we can be a go-between). If there are no results, feel even better about keeping it.

What if we could not assume initial yeiush, but you do not want a stash of objects waiting for Mashiach with unrealistic chances of returning them? Since an umbrella is readily replaceable, you could record its value and simanim to cover the remote possibility someone will step forward with simanim (Igrot Moshe, CM II:44; Pitchei Choshen, Aveida 7:(10)). It might be nobler to give it to someone in need so that the owner can receive some merit of tzedaka (Pitchei Choshen, ibid.).

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