Question

Gavriel, the local shul gabbai, notices that a certain sefer (book) has
been lying in the same spot for the last six months! He assumes that the owner of this
private sefer originally placed it in this location but must have forgotten about it since
then. He looks inside the sefer and observes that the owner’s name is inscribed on
the inside of the front cover. Not recognizing the owner, he decides to take possession of
the sefer on behalf of the shul. Three weeks later, the (original) owner shows up and
claims his sefer. Should Gavriel return it to him?


Answer

One is obligated to return a fellow-Jew’s lost article. Ignoring this obligation
results in the transgression of two Torah commandments: (a) "You must return
them to your brother," and (b) "You must not ignore it, " (Devarim
22:1-2
). The finder must look after lost articles that have clearly-discernible
distinguishing marks. He must announce his find and return the lost article to its
rightful owner, if he correctly identifies it. If a lost article has no distinguishing
marks, there is generally no obligation to return it. The finder can keep it for himself,
as long as he is certain that the loser is already aware of his loss. The loser is then
assumed to have despaired of ever retrieving his property (yay’ush).

These laws apply if an item of property is actually lost by its owner. What is the law
regarding an item which looks as if it had deliberately been placed in its present
position (hinu’ach)? Such an item must be left where it is, whether it bears a
distinguishing mark or not. Even announcing your "find" and returning it to the
rightful owner, if he correctly identifies it, will involve him in a lot of unnecessary
work!

However, if you observe that this item has been lying in the same place for a long
period of time, or it is covered by a thick layer of dust, you may assume that the owner
forgot where he put it and therefore despaired of ever retrieving it. You may then keep it
for yourself. (This is according to the opinion of the Shach. The Rema holds that
deliberately-placed property may never be taken, even if the owner has despaired of
retrieving it). If the owner later shows up and reclaims his property, you are not
obligated to return it to him. You may nevertheless wish to go beyond the strict
requirements of the law (lifnim mishuras hadin) and give it back to him.

Public places (yeshivos, synagogues, schools, banqueting halls) are often faced with
looking after large numbers of forgotten items. Today’s leading halachic authorities
advise such organizations to display a clear sign in a prominent position, stating that
any article left for more than a given period of time (e.g. a month) will be considered
ownerless. When this time has elapsed, they may dispose of the article as they see fit.
Distribution to the poor is considered praiseworthy under these circumstances. The
original owner of the item shares in the merit of this charitable deed. The same advice is
appropriate for repair shops, dry cleaners, etc. who are also often left with uncollected
goods.

From the above, it would seem that Gavriel the gabbai was acting correctly when
he took possession of the sefer. He observed that it had been left untouched for a long
period of time. He therefore concluded that the owner had forgotten where he had left it
and despaired of ever getting it back. Had he claimed the sefer for himself, and not on
behalf of the synagogue, he could have been generous and returned it to the former owner.
However, since he has made the synagogue the legal owner of this sefer, he has no right to
give away its property. It must now remain in the synagogue. (Based on a halachic
ruling handed down by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, o.b.m.)