Shabbat Parashat Vaetchanan| 5767
Ask The Rabbi
Question: I rent out an apartment, primarily for tourists for short stays. Often when I straighten up after they have left, I find articles of varying values left behind. I have spent numerous hours tracking down people and figuring out how to return items, many of which I know they do not care about. Do I have to continue expending funds (including mailing, writing checks instead of sending cash) and an excessive amount of time?
Answer: First we commend you for doing the mitzvaof hashavat aveida (returning lost objects) so diligently. It is possible that some of the returning was unnecessary (for reasons beyond our scope), but one of the major applications of acting beyond the letter-of-the-law is in this area (see Bava Metzia 30b). The letter of the law is open-ended, applying even to an object worth a perutah (a few cents) and not clearly limiting the amount of toil one needs to expend (see Pitchei Choshen, Aveida 8:1). You may demand compensation for related expenses and lost revenues (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 265:1), but we doubt you feel comfortable doing so. However, the essence of the mitzva is to help others, and at times the amount of effort is disproportionate to the recipient’s benefit, to the extent that he would not have wanted you to bother. It seems that in such cases, the spirit-of-the-law is that you should not have to bother. The only reason we bring up the spirit-of-the-law is that in cases it does not apply one need not feel bad about devising a valid halachic device to exempt himself from the mitzva, as we will discuss.
Often shuls are inundated with unclaimed objects left behind, many of which will never be returned to their owners. Many deal with the problem by posting a sign stating that items that remain unclaimed for x days will be deemed hefker (ownerless). In fact, several prominent poskim have given this advice (Igrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat II, 45; Minchat Yitzchak VIII, 146; Shevet Halevi IX, 308). In your case, where it is relatively easy to track down some owners, it seems wrong to make the matter a function of time alone. Rather, we suggest writing in a lease or stating clearly before the renter’s occupy the apartment the following: “Anything that is worth less than $20 and is apparently not of sentimental value will be held for two weeks. The renter exempts the landlord from making efforts to report finding such items, and the renter hereby relinquishes ownership to them as of two weeks after the end of the rental.” For more valuable items, you should continue “going the extra mile.”
Let us briefly explain the mechanism of this provision, something that the aforementioned poskim did not spell out. The gemara (Bava Kamma 69a) discusses one who did not want the poor to be guilty of thievery if they took more produce than the laws of matnot ani’im allowed. He, therefore, wanted to declare in the morning that whatever extra they would take was hefker retroactively to the moment of the declaration. The complication is that it is not clear which pieces of produce would be the extra ones slated for hefker. Therefore, bereirah (retroactive determination) is needed for the hefker to take effect, and this depends on the machloket among Tannaim whether bereirah works (ibid.). We rule that bereirah does not work in regard to Torah laws (Beitza 38a). How then can one be mafkir an undetermined object that will be lost to exempt from the Torah law of hashavat aveida? The answer is that bereirah applies only when the matter must take effect retroactively. If the hefker can take effect on delay at the time the matter is determined, it works (Tosafot Bava Kamma 69a; see Shut Harashba II, 82).
We also included an exemption from hashavat aveida prior to the hefker so that you should not be required to make efforts on insignificant matters during the two weeks. This works based on the rule that the intended recipient of mitzvot between man and man can exempt another from performing the mitzva on his behalf (see Tosafot, Shavuot 30b; Shut Harashba I, 18).
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated to the memory of
R' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld o.b.m.
Hemdat Yamim is also dedicated by Les & Ethel Sutker of Chicago, Illinois in loving memory of
Max and Mary Sutker
and Louis and Lillian Klein, z"l.
May their memory be a blessing!