Bava Matzia 18

Lost and found.

mishnah on today’s daf continues the Talmud’s discussion of which types of lost documents one is obliged to return:

If one found bills of divorce, or of emancipation of slaves, or wills, or deeds of a gift, or receipts, one may not return these items, as I say it is possible that they were written and then the writer reconsidered about them and decided not to deliver them.

As we saw in a mishnah back on Bava Metzia 12, someone who finds a lost document isn’t necessarily obliged to return it. The reason given in our mishnah is that it’s possible the initiator of the document may have changed their mind. We also don’t know who lost it — the writer or the recipient. So what to do?

The Gemara offers a number of factors to consider in deciding whether to return a lost document. First, the Gemara references a mishnah on Gittin 27 that rules a bill of divorce should only be returned if it is lost and found within a short amount of time, which is generally easy to determine because such documents are normally dated. Next, the Gemara considers the location where the document was found. If it was a place where caravans are common, near a courthouse or in a city, all these are highly trafficked places where we are rightly concerned that several passersby may share the same name and we won’t be able to figure out who the rightful owner is. 

Next the Gemara brings a teaching that suggests an obvious solution to this problem: Just ask the individuals named in the document. 

And Rabbi Zeira raises a contradiction (between this mishnah and a beraita that states): If one found a woman’s bill of divorce in the marketplace, when the husband admits (that he wrote and gave it to the wife), the finder must return it to the wife; but if the husband does not admit, he may return it neither to this one (the husband) nor to that one (the wife).

As the beraita suggests, if we can locate the relevant parties, we can just ask them. If the husband says that he wrote the document and gave it to his wife, it can be returned. 

Another way to determine whether the document is valid is to note if there are any distinguishing marks. 

Rav Ashi stated: Where he says: There is a hole next to such and such a letter.

Of course, there is a critical issue specific to bills of divorce: To be effective, it must be delivered into the woman’s hand by the husband, his agent or her agent. The person who finds a bill of divorce lying in the road is probably not the agent who was empowered to deliver it. And if a random person picks up a get and delivers it to the wife, it’s possible that she’ll receive it thinking her marriage is over even if her husband did not intend to execute it. It could also be invalidated because the person who found it did not have the authority to deliver it. This uncertainty concerning the status of a woman’s marriage is exactly what we seek to avoid by having a divorce process in the first place. 

So, what’s the final ruling? Does the mishnah stand, or are there circumstances in which a found document can be delivered? 

The Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 132:4), the principal code of Jewish law, rules that if a document is lost in a place where caravans are common, it should be handed over to the court, which waits until two people come forward to attest they are the parties named therein. And if there are any distinguishing features on the document — the string that tied it, the container where it was found, an identifying mark on the seal or the like — we can consider it valid and deliver it to the intended recipient.

Read all of Bava Metzia 18 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 17th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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