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Teruma-Found a Schoolbag on a Park Bench



I was walking one evening in a park in a frum section of the city and noticed a high school girl’s schoolbag lying on a bench. I looked around but didn’t see anyone who might be the owner. I was in a predicament. My thoughts were that perhaps it is best to leave it there since probably the owner will realize in the morning that the schoolbag is missing and will then return to look for her schoolbag. If I took the schoolbag she would never know who found it and I might not be able to discover who lost it. However, perhaps I should take it since there are all kinds of people who roam the park and perhaps by the morning someone will just take the schoolbag and perhaps there were identifying features which would enable me to discover who lost it. To take the schoolbag and leave a big sign wasn’t feasible because I didn’t have paper and scotch tape and I don’t live close to the park. What should I have done?


The underlying spirit of your question is correct. While the Torah prohibits us from ignoring a lost object and also commands us to actively attempt to return it, one must know the recommended procedures in every case. The principle is that the Torah requires one who discovers a lost object to act in a manner that will maximize the probability that the lost object will be reunited with its owner.

A practical application of this principle, which pertains to this situation as well, is the following ruling of modern poskim including Rav Eliashev zatsal. The opinion of most Rishonim (see Shach 260, 24) is that if one notices a lost object that has identifying features (simanim) in a place which is not totally safe one must take the object and put up a notice. However, contemporary poskim (See Hashovas Aveido Behalacha 1, 9) rule that if the object is not valuable one should leave it there even if the place is not safe since, nowadays, it is much more likely that the owner will retrieve his lost object if it is left there. Thus, for example, if one notices a child’s lost yarmulka in the playground one should leave it there. Even though there are identifying features, nowadays the likelihood that the yarmulke will return to its rightful owner is much greater if it is left where it was, so that is what one should do unless he knows or can determine by himself to whom the yarmulke belongs.

In your situation, there almost certainly are identifying features since there are personal effects inside the school bag. However, perhaps the contents are not valuable and there is nothing inside the schoolbag that will enable you to identify its owner, in which case it is better to leave the bag where it is. On the other hand, perhaps there is a name and maybe a telephone number some place inside the bag in which case you should take the school bag and call up its owner since that is certainly the best thing to do. Therefore, in order to decide what to do it is critical to determine if there is anything that will enable you to contact its owner.

It would seem that there is no problem to pick up the school bag, search its contents and check if indeed you find a telephone number, name and address etc. However, one has to be careful because the Gemara says that one who picks up a lost object has the legal status of a shomeir, a guardian over the object. There is a dispute in the Gemara (BK 56) if he has the responsibility of a paid watchman, a shomeir sochor, or a volunteer watchman, a shomeir chinom. But certainly one who finds a lost object must watch over it.

Based on this Gemara, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Kuntress Hashovas Aveido) points out a common mistake that stems from people’s lack of knowledge of this law. People often pick up a lost object and instead of posting a notice that they found a lost object they pin the lost object itself to the bulletin board. He states that this is forbidden since the finder is obligated to watch over the lost object on behalf of its owner and not leave it attached to a bulletin board, which is not a safe place. Second, since doing so constitutes negligence on the part of the finder, according to both opinions of the status of the finder, he will be liable to the owner for the entire value of the lost object if anyone besides the true owner takes the object.

This ruling is also why modern poskim (Rav Eliashev, cited in Mishpat Ho’aveido 267, 10, 3, Rav Shlomo Z. Auerbach cited in Hashovas Aveido Kehalocho) rule that one may not turn over a lost object to the police if the police do not adhere to the Torah’s rules concerning how a finder must watch over a lost object and also they must only return the object to one who proves he is the true owner by describing identifying features.

Thus, if you pick up the school bag you may not be allowed to put it back on the park bench because you became a watchman for the object and not only is it prohibited but you even will be liable if anyone else takes it.

Therefore, if you are able to look through the bag without picking it or its contents up to a height of twenty-five centimeters (about a foot) that would be ideal because one doesn’t become a shomeir until he performs an act that would enable him to acquire the object if he wanted to buy it and it was for sale. Since one who wishes to acquire a school bag must pick it up (hagboho), therefore, if you don’t pick it up you won’t become a shomeir.

The Pischei Choshen (Aveido 2, footnote 23) extends this leniency by ruling that if one picks up a lost object with the specific intention to become a shomeir only if he is able to return it to its rightful owner, this conditional intention is effective and if he cannot determine who the owner is, he is not responsible for the lost object and he may return it to where he found it. This is ideal in your situation since you can have conditional intention and if you look through it and you can determine the identity of the owner, take it and call her up, and if not just leave it where it is.

However, the ruling of the Pischei Choshen is controversial since the Gemara (BK 56B) states that the Torah imposed the status of a shomeir on anyone who finds a lost object and Rashi explains that this is derived from the pasuk (Devorim 22, 2) that states that one who finds a lost object must keep it in his house until the rightful owner claims it. Rav Chaim Brisker (cited by Birkas Shmuel BM 17, 4) understood that the act of picking up a lost object imposes on the finder the status of a watchman even if he has no desire to assume this status and even if the act that he performed would normally not impose on a watchman the legal responsibility of a shomeir. Similarly, the Chazon Ish (BK 6, 6 in parenthesis) proves that even if one picks up a lost object with specific intention to return it to where he found it, nevertheless, he has the status of a shomeir and will be liable in case something happens.

However, it seems that even Rav Chaim and the Chazon Ish agree that in this specific case that you would be allowed to return the object to the park bench if you can’t discover any phone number etc. The reason is because the Torah requirement to watch over a lost object is confined to one who is enjoined to return the object to its rightful owner. However, since the poskim rule that in case you cannot identify the true owner the Torah wants you to leave it, therefore, the Torah never imposed upon you the status of a shomeir. Therefore if, after carefully examining the contents you cannot determine its true owner, you may return it to the bench.

We note further that in case there are no identifying marks at all then there is an additional reason why you may return the school bag to the park bench. (As we said above, this is probably not true in your case.) The reason is because the majority opinion is that the Torah never commanded us to return lost objects without identifying features and contemporary poskim (Rav Eliashev and Rav Nissim Karelitz) rule that one may act in accordance with this lenient opinion. This reason applies regardless of where the lost object is located but only applies when there are no identifying features, which, again, is probably not the case in your situation.

In conclusion: You should open the school bag and search for anything that will enable you to contact the owner. If you are successful in your search, take the schoolbag and contact its owner. If you can’t find anything you should leave the school bag where it was. Ideally, you should make this examination without picking up the school bag or its content significantly, but even if it was necessary to raise it you should return it to the park bench if you were unsuccessful in determining the owner, unless the contents were valuable.


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