Bava Metzia 31

Return and return … and return?

Suppose you found your neighbor’s donkey wandering around town and returned it. Nice job! A couple of days later, it’s back in the town square hanging out — so you bring it home again. The third time you find it roaming, you might bring it back but feel the frustration rising. How many times are you obligated to return the same lost animal?

A mishnah at the bottom of yesterday’s page states that you are obligated to return it, even four or five times, a phrase that might not be meant literally but may imply that one returns it as many times as one finds it. The mishnah identifies the source for this rule as Deuteronomy 22:1:

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer.

A note for the grammar nerds: In the Torah, the verb “take it back” is doubled, hashev t’shiveim. In the biblical Hebrew, this form indicates emphasis — you must take it back — but the mishnah takes the repeated form to also signal that one should return the animal no matter how many times the animal goes astray.

A student in the beit midrash, the house of study, counters with a more limited read:

Say that from hashev one derives the obligation to return the animal once, and from teshiveim one derives the obligation to return the animal twice, and beyond that there is no obligation.

Perhaps doubling the verb means that one is only required to return the animal twice. After that, the onus is on the owner to keep track of his livestock. Rava responds to this suggestion with an even more expansive reading:

Hashev indicates that there is an absolute obligation to return the animal, even if it flees 100 times. Teshivem teaches another matter: I have derived only that one may return the animal to the owner’s house.

From where is the halakhah derived that one may return the animal to his garden or to his building in ruins? The verse states: Teshivem, to teach that in any case, wherever one returns the lost animal, he fulfills the mitzvah of returning it.

Rava says the first form of the verb already includes the unending obligation to return the lost animal. From the second form he derives that you can fulfill your obligation by returning the animal not only to the owner’s home but also to their garden or other properties.

Midrash halakhah, rabbinic interpretation of biblical verses as a means to derive rules of law, is both governed by rules and open to the imagination of the interpreter. Here, both are on display. That the verb in the verse is doubled means that we have license to interpret it. But the rule doesn’t tell us if the doubling means we are obligated to return our neighbor’s animal only twice or an unlimited number of times, or that it gives us permission to bring the animal back to a variety of places without notifying the owner that we have done so.

As it often does, the Talmud doesn’t give us a final ruling. With all these possible readings, it is the latter that is codified into law, as Maimonides teaches

If a person who discovered a lost article returns it in the morning to a place where its owners enter and leave each morning, he is not obligated to concern himself with it any more. For the owner will certainly see it. This applies even if it is placed in a location that is not secure.

When does the above apply? To any article that is not alive. A live animal, by contrast, must be cared for by the finder until it is returned to a secure place in the owner’s domain. The owner need not be notified. 

Read all of Bava Metzia 31 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 30th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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