As the classic Uncle Moishy song tells us, returning a lost object to its owner (hashavat aveidah) is an important biblical commandment: “Oh boy, a mitzvah I will do: Hashavas aveidah — I’ll give it back to you.”
But how do we actually fulfill this mitzvah? On today’s daf, the Talmud explores what it actually means to give a lost object back to its owner. And more specifically, how do you return a lost object if the owner isn’t home or available? The talmudic debate offers us two possible answers:
First, Rabbah suggests a reading based on Deuteronomy 22:1: “You must take it back (hashev tashivem) to your peer.” Biblical Hebrew sometimes doubles verbs (as seen here) purely for emphasis. But for the rabbis, the doubled verb — which by their time had already become an archaic grammatical structure — is understood to convey added meaning. Rabbah concludes:
“Hashev” – I have only to return to the house. From where to his garden or to his ruin? The verse states: “tashivem” — to any place.
According to Rabbah, when one is fulfilling the mitzvah of returning a lost item, one only has to return the item to the domain of the original owner, to their house, garden or ruin. But noting that Rabbah’s interpretation appears to distinguish between a house and a garden or ruin, the Talmud takes this indirect delivery even further:
If we say to the garden that is secured or to his ruin that is secured, it is as his house. Rather, it is obvious — to his garden that is not secured, or to his ruin that is not secured.
According to this reading, a person performing the mitzvah of returning a lost item can drop it off in an unfenced garden or an unguarded ruin on the original owner’s property, and wash their hands of any responsibility for the item.
While the Uncle Moishy song discusses what children should do when they find a lost toy at school, it’s worth noting that the rabbinic context for this discussion, both in Deuteronomy and in Bava Kamma, is what to do when you find a lost animal. I think it’s worth noting that while you might safely leave a toy in an unguarded garden or ruin, oxen are pretty mobile, and I wouldn’t bet on the ox still being there when the owner finally returns. So Rav Yosef offers a different answer:
Actually, in a garden that is secured, or his ruin that is secured; and the difficulty to you, that this is the same as his house: This teaches us that we do not require the owner’s knowledge, in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Elazar. As Rabbi Elazar says: All require the owner’s knowledge except returning a lost item because the Torah included many returnings.
Rav Yosef rejects the idea that the doubled verb is giving someone permission to return an animal to an unsecured property. Instead, he follows Rabbi Elazar, who reads the biblical doubled verb as insisting that the laws of returning a lost item are different from other laws about returning items you’ve borrowed or rented. In the case of a lost item, the Torah allows someone to return it without the owner’s knowledge, as long as there is a reasonable chance the item will be recovered by the owner in due course.
The Talmud gives Rav Yosef here the last word: As long as you put the ox in a fenced garden or ruin, you can move on with your day (even if the owner doesn’t know it’s back), secure in the knowledge that you have properly performed a biblical commandment. Mitzvah accomplished!
Read all of Bava Kamma 57 on Sefaria.