Benji Livingstein took a job with a contractor during his summer break from Cambridge. He was assisting in the renovation of an 18th century London mansion on a sprawling estate that has been sold many times over the past 200 years.
Benji was directed to tear up an old wooden floor in a room that served as the guest quarters for the past fifty years, to lay a new marble floor.
As he neared completion and pried apart the last few boards, he found wedged between the last board and the wall – an aged, but stunning diamond ring! Benji was torn about what he should do:
- Give the ring to the mansion owner?
- Give it to his boss?
- Keep it?
Hashavas aveidah, returning lost objects, is a mitzvah all of us encounter in the course of our lives, either as the “finder” or the “loser.” The basis for hashavas aveidah is a Torah law found in Parshas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:1-3):
If you see your brother’s ox or sheep going astray, you must not ignore them. You must return them to your brother. If your brother is not near you, or if you do not know who [the owner is], you must bring [the animal] home and keep it until your brother identifies it, whereupon you must return it to him. You must do the same for a donkey, an article of clothing, or anything else that your brother loses and you find. You shall not ignore it.
These laws are unique; they differ from other legal systems since Judaism places a personal duty on anyone who is able, to rescue the lost property of others – a responsibility that does not exist in common law. Only Torah law requires the “finder” to initiate the process of retrieving the article. The demonstrated concern for another’s lost property defines the ethical tone of the mitzvah and shapes much of its practice.
This class introduces students to Talmud study by addressing the following key questions and sequentially working through several case studies of hashavas aveidah:
- How does a finder determine whether he may keep an item he found or must return it?
- What are the underlying principles behind the rules?
- Does it make a difference what you find?
- Does it make a difference where you find it?