I buy used silver objects, melt them down and make new silver products. Recently a person brought me quite a few silver products to sell. While I was looking over the various items I noticed a phone number on a piece of paper. Suspecting that the seller was a thief, I called the phone number and asked the person who answered if he was burglarized recently. When he answered affirmatively, I asked him if he would like me to trap the thief in my store and call the police. When he said yes I quickly called the police and locked the store. Realizing what was happening the thief wantonly broke many items in my store causing me ten thousand dollars’ worth of damage. Can I ask the owner of the stolen goods to reimburse me for the damages I suffered in trying to help him recover his stolen goods? Was I required to do what I did? If I had bought the stolen goods would I have been entitled to reimbursement or would I have to surrender the goods to their owner without reimbursement?
Obviously, you should try collect your damages from the thief who caused the damage. We assume from your question that this is not an option.
In order to determine the answer to your questions we first have to understand the relationship you had with the stolen items. The Ramo (CM 348, 7), based on a ruling of the Mordechai, states clearly that your relationship was that of one who found a lost object. Even though the objects were stolen from their owner and not lost by him, nevertheless, since you did not steal the objects, your relationship is that of one who found a lost object. Thus, the laws that deal with some of your questions are the laws of returning lost objects.
This is also the approach of the Chavos Yo’eir (209, cited by Pischei Teshuvo 356, 2) who dealt with one of your questions. He was asked by a person who, similar to you, was offered a large silver item for half the regular price by a known thief. The potential buyer asked the Chavos Yo’eir whether he was allowed to buy it since the Shulchan Aruch (356, 1) rules that one is not allowed to buy stolen goods since if he does so, he will cause additional thefts. If burglars cannot sell what they steal they will be discouraged from stealing.
The Chavos Yo’eir ruled that, on the contrary, in his situation, he should buy the stolen silver in order to fulfill the mitzvah of hashovas aveido-returning a lost object to its owner. He said the SA only prohibited the purchase in case there were no other potential customers. However, in this particular situation, where there were others who would buy the stolen object and keep it for themselves, the questioner should buy it and return it to its owner in exchange for the money he spent in order to buy the stolen object. He will thereby fulfill the mitzvah of hashovas aveido.
Having established that, as far as you are concerned, the stolen objects had the status of a lost object we can first answer the question whether you were required to act as you did. The SA (264, 1) rules that one is not required to retrieve a lost object if he may suffer a loss as a result. The reason is that hashovas aveido is a command to monetarily assist another person, and one is not required to act in a way that may cause himself a loss in order to prevent another from suffering a loss.
The next question we can address is whether you would have been entitled to reimbursement if you had bought the goods from the thief. We have seen that the Chavos Yo’eir ruled that you were entitled, but he does not cite a source.
One can derive the answer from a Gemara (BM 93B) that rules that one who was paid to watch sheep (a shomeir sochor) must spend money, for which he will be reimbursed, up to and including the value of the endangered animals, if that is necessary in order to defend the sheep from an attack by lions. Moreover, if he fails to do so he is liable for the loss of the sheep.
However, if the watchman is unpaid (a shomeir chinom) he is not required to hire helpers. Tosafos (BK 58A) and the Rosh (BK 6, 6) rule that, nevertheless, if an unpaid watchman does spend money by hiring help even though he was not required to do so, he is entitled to reimbursement for his expenses. (These Rishonim comment that this is true only if the loss was virtually certain and not merely a nervous reaction.) The Shach (303, 8) cites this ruling and comments that it is clear from these Rishonim that this would be the case even if the person who spent money to save the animals was not a watchman at all but just someone who happened to be passing by.
Tosafos and the Rosh derive that one who bought stolen property from gentiles who stole it, in order to return it to its rightful owner, is entitled to reimbursement since the loss was otherwise certain. This is ruled by the Ramo (356, 2) in the case where someone bought stolen property from a known thief in order to return it to its owner. The Gra (356, 9) writes that the source is the Tosafos that we cited and it is derived from the law concerning one who spent money to hire help to save animals from being attacked by lions.
Similarly, in the specific case that you describe, spending money to save stolen goods was ruled in practical situations by the Divrei Rivos (292) and Mahari ibn Lev (1, 105) and (2, 27) (both cited by Be’eir Heitev 128, 17)). The Divrei Rivos discussed an unpaid watchman who spent money to save boxes of merchandise that belonged to someone who was deceased. He requested reimbursement from the heirs who refused, arguing that no one asked the watchman to spend his money. The Divrei Rivos, based on this Gemoro, ruled that the heirs must reimburse their father’s watchman. The Mahari ibn Lev specifically mentions also that the one who spent the money can even be a passerby.
Thus, we can answer your question that if you had bought the stolen goods in order to return them to their owner, you would be entitled to complete reimbursement since it seems certain that otherwise the victim would not have been able to recover his stolen property.
We can now discuss whether you are entitled to reimbursement for the damages you suffered when helping the victim recover his stolen goods. It is important to note that there are two differences between this case and what we learned that you would have been entitled to compensation had you spent money in order to help recover the stolen goods. One difference is that you did not spend money but lost money, and the second is that you did not decide to lose money but someone else caused you to lose money against your will.
We will now study whether there is a difference whether you spent money or willingly lost money in order to retrieve the stolen object. There are two cases in the SA that deal with this type of situation.
One ruling (CM 264, 3) concerns a flood which threatened to drown two donkeys. The SA rules that if the owner of the less valuable donkey saved the more expensive donkey while losing his own donkey, he is entitled to compensation for his loss in two situations. One is where the owner agreed that he would compensate the owner of the less expensive donkey for his loss if he will try to save his expensive donkey. The other situation is where the owner of the more expensive donkey was not present.
Thus, we see that even if the owner of the saved object never agreed to compensate the finder for his losses the finder is entitled to compensation if the owner was not present.
The other case (CM 265, 1) concerns an employee who had to decide whether he should retrieve a lost object when in order to do so he would need to take off time from work thereby forfeiting his salary for that time. The SA rules that if the employee can stipulate – either with the owner of the lost object or with three strangers – that he wants to be reimbursed for his lost salary, then he is required to salvage the lost object since he will not suffer any loss. However, if he is unable to do either of these, he does not need to save the lost object since, as we mentioned earlier, one is not required to sustain a loss in order to fulfill the mitzvah of hashovas aveido and he would lose since he would not be reimbursed for his lost salary.
The Sema (265, 8) and Taz question why he is not fully reimbursed even in case he is unable to stipulate with either the owner or three people. Since the owner was not present it should be like the case of the donkeys when the owner of the more expensive donkey was not present in which he is entitled to be reimbursed.
The Sema answers that in the case of the donkeys, since it was equally difficult to save either donkey, he would not have saved the more expensive donkey if he would not be reimbursed for his loss. However, in the case of the employee perhaps he would have agreed to salvage the lost object even if he were not fully reimbursed, since it is possible that he preferred the less strenuous activity of salvaging the lost object over his regular job even if he would forfeit part of his salary as a result. Thus, he is certainly entitled to be paid for retrieving the lost object, but not for the additional amount he would have earned from his regular job. We should note that the Taz (end 265) gives a slightly different answer but with regard to our situation there is no essential difference.
Tosafos (BK 58A) and others explain that the reason the owner of the cheaper donkey is not compensated in case the owner of the expensive donkey was present and wasn’t consulted by the owner of the cheaper donkey before he forfeited his donkey, is because the owner of the expensive donkey could argue that he would have found someone who would have saved his donkey without losing a donkey (They also give another reason but Nesivos 264, 4 says this is the authoritative reason.). From this we can deduce that in case the owner is not present, he must compensate the one who suffered a loss and cannot claim that the expense was needless because perhaps someone else would have saved his object without having to spend any money. Thus, we see that the difference between one who spent money and one who voluntarily suffered a loss is not significant.
We still have to investigate if you are entitled to compensation for the losses you involuntarily suffered at the hands of the thief. We also have to consider whether the fact that the owner told you to call the police is significant since everything we discussed until now is true even if the owner did not tell you to do anything. We will consider these questions next time, be”H.
In conclusion: You did not have to call the police, exposing yourself to physical and monetary danger. If you had bought the stolen goods you would be entitled to complete reimbursement for the money you spent if the price you paid was reasonable.