Should Finders Be Keepers? How Judaism Interprets Lost And Found

When one studies the Talmud, the ancient rabbis force us to look at issues that may seem straightforward and simplistic but in fact, are fraught with intricate nuances that do not come to mind at first glance.

What could be more simplistic than the concept of “finders keepers, losers weepers”?

You find something on the street… you look around to see if anyone is nearby who may have dropped it, and if no one is in sight, you have the right to keep it.  This happened to me recently… I found a wad of bills on the sidewalk totaling $80. There was no one nearby, I had no way to return it, so I kept it.  It did make me feel bad that someone was missing the money they may have needed for groceries.

The “lost and found department” of the Talmud has a list of complex policies and procedures that can guide both the loser and the finder on proper behaviors surrounding this common and seemingly simple life occurrence.  Central to this “department’s” policies is the concept of “ye’ush,” unconscious despair. Has the person (the loser) who dropped, misplaced or discarded the object relinquished their claim of ownership to the item for any variety of reasons? Have they given up hope of ever finding it thus justifying the finder to keep what they have found?

The answer to this central question it turns out is … it depends… or in some cases, “taku,” there is no answer despite multiple opinions offered by the sages. 

There are many factors that impact the ye’ush determination. Briefly, it depends on the situation surrounding the finding. The “situation” might include where the object was found and how the object was arranged on the ground. The value or lack of value of the object itself comes into play. Is it worth the effort of the loser to retrieve the object? Does it have any identifying marks that would help a finder to track down the owner?

The intent or lack of intent of the one who has lost the item must also be taken into account. What is the obligation of the finder to care for the lost item, as in the case of livestock, before the finder is located? Is the finder or owner rich or poor? The timing of when the owner realized that their item was in fact lost in relation to the finder claiming ownership is important, and described by the term, “anticipated ye’ush.” Would the loser have had the inclination to constantly check to see if the object was in their pocket and so once they lost it, they realized there was no hope in finding it? Similarly, was the object so heavy they would have known if they dropped it.

Given all of the above, how much of an effort must the finder make to try to locate the owner and return the found item before he or she can claim ownership?

What is the meaning of these lost and found guidelines for us today? At a basic level, what comes to mind is a sense of fairness that is illustrated by the ye’ush concept. It inherently allows those who have lost items to exercise their right to be notified about it, have an announcement made to the community that the object has been found, and/or to go retrieve it themselves. It also certainly reinforces the “Thou shalt not steal” commandment and helps to create a sense of stability in society. People can’t go around walking off with things they see without making some kind of effort to return an apparently lost item to its rightful owner, or they would be considered a thief.

Interestingly, the many nuances presented also make us more sensitive to the fact that there can be a variety of interpretations of a lost item we may encounter and how to act upon it. The key is to “act” upon it. It’s not just “finders keepers, losers weepers”. The finder has an obligation to fulfill out of respect to their fellow man. That obligation is to realize that the found object may have some monetary, emotional, or other value to the owner and each of us has to make an effort to return the lost item before claiming ownership. There are some fortunate people for whom the lost item is not critical, and others who may depend upon finding those lost items to maintain their families, and thus should not feel obligated to find the rightful owner. Yet overall, these guidelines do instill a sense of duty we have to each other to make sure losses are minimized for others, as we would want for someone to make the effort for us. 

Can the concepts presented also be applied to other “lost” things in our lives?  For example, if someone loses their way in life, loses their “distinguishing mark”, due to economic hardship, physical or mental illness and can’t find their way back, or as often happens, the person doesn’t even realize they have lost their way, what is our obligation as a society and as individuals to help reinstate them to wholeness, to help them find their way back?  We would not want them to get into a state of ye’ush (unconscious desperation) about themselves and give up hope of ever getting better or out of their destitute condition. As the “finder” of these individuals, whether they be our neighbor, brother, or a homeless person on the street, what is our obligation to “make an announcement” that this lost individual needs our help and inform other members of society who might be able to assist them? 

Aren’t we all a little lost right now, with the pandemic, unemployment, and political uncertainty?  Our obligation as Jews to “repair the world”, Tikkun Olam, is needed more than ever.  We need to return from our feeling of loss and find a new and better path to a safe, healthy, and happy future. We can only hope that soon our state of ye’ush will be over and we will be restored to a state of wholeness.  

Linda would like to thank her Talmud professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion California (AJRCA), Rabbi Dr. Elijah Schochet, for his teachings and inspiration.

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