By: Rabbi Tzvi Price
Someone recently asked the Bais HaVaad the following question. The person had gone to a thrift shop that sold used clothing and had succeeded in finding a nice suit. While wearing the suit for the first time he reached into one of the pockets and found a hundred dollar bill that must have been left in the suit by the original owner. He wanted to know if he was allowed to keep the money or was he required to return it to the thrift shop.
This kind of question can arise at estate auctions, antique stores, used book stores, etc…. Basically, anywhere that used items are being bought and sold there is a possibility of finding something of value that had been placed in the merchandise by the original owner and forgotten there. Where does the discussion regarding these common scenarios start? A good place to begin would be from a pasuk in this week’s Parshah.
In Vayikra 14:34, the pasuk states, “When you arrive in the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I will give tzara’as (a kind of affliction that can appear on skin, clothing, or house surfaces) upon a house in the land of your possession….” Our Sages point out that when discussing the tzara’as of houses the Torah uses an expression that differs from that used regarding tzara’as of the skin. There the Torah states, “A man, when there will be in the skin of his flesh a saheis, or sapochos, or baheres, (three different types of tzara’as)…” (Vayikra 13:2) The Torah seems to be saying that the tzara’as that will appear on houses will be somehow an act of giving by Hashem.
Based on the Medrash Rabah, Rashi explains that, indeed, the tzara’as that was placed on the houses was beneficial to the Jews who had entered the Land of Canaan. Realizing that they were soon to engage in war against the Israelites, the inhabitants of Canaan hid much of their treasures in an attempt to safeguard them until the war was over. One of the places in which they hid their things was deep inside the walls of their houses. After the Israelites were successful in conquering the land, they searched the land for whatever hidden treasures they could find, but some of what had been placed in the walls of the houses remained undiscovered. The halacha regarding a house that has tzara’as is that after a certain point the house must be demolished. In order to reveal the treasure that was hidden inside the house, Hashem would give tzara’as on the house, forcing the owner to knock down the house, and thereby find the much more valuable treasure.