Let’s say you’re walking around and find a bill of divorce with the names of the parties to the agreement. Is the document valid?
According to a mishnah on today’s daf, it is — but only if it was found soon after being lost, or if there’s some identifying marking on it that makes clear who it belongs to. Otherwise, it’s invalid. Immediately, the Gemara raises a contradiction from a mishnah in Bava Metzia that states the following:
If one found bills of divorce, or bills of manumission, wills, deeds of gifts, or receipts, this finder should not return them, as I say that they were written and then the writer reconsidered about them and decided that he would not give them.
(One could infer from this mishnah as follows): But if the writer said: “Give these found documents to the intended recipient” — one gives them, even if a long time passed.
Over in Bava Metzia, the mishnah says that lost documents are presumptively invalid and shouldn’t be returned to the named recipient and owner. The Gemara then goes on to deduce a counterintuitive implication of this ruling: If we’re concerned that the person who wrote the document might have reconsidered their stance, those worries are allayed if they reaffirm their commitment and direct the document to be delivered, regardless of how much time has passed. The core issue concerning the validity of a lost divorce bill or a will or a document granting a gift to someone is therefore whether or not the writer still intends for it to stand.
On our daf, the validity of a lost document — and thus whether it should be returned to whomever it was intended for — depends not on the writer’s intent, but on how much time has elapsed since it was lost and whether its ownership can be conclusively established. Hence, the apparent contradiction. So which is it?
Rabba said: This is not difficult. Here (in the mishnah on today’s daf) it is with regard to a place where caravans are found. There (in the mishnah in Bava Metzia) it is with regard to a place where caravans are not found.
Rabba says the two mishnahs are describing different situations. The mishnah on today’s daf is talking about a document found somewhere highly trafficked, so we’re concerned that there may be more than one person with the same name and therefore we can’t be sure who it belongs to. As a result, the document is only returned if it was found quickly or there’s no doubt about its ownership. The other mishnah is talking about a document found in a spot that is not highly trafficked, so even if a long time passed since it was lost, there’s no worry about name confusion and the issue of its validity rests instead on whether we believe the writer still stands by it.
For the rabbis, a place with caravans was the epitome of hustle and bustle, which leads to uncertainty over the ownership and validity of a document found there. Even if caravans per se aren’t as common today, we can see how the underlying point still holds. If a document is found in your neighborhood, we can be reasonably sure we know who lost it. In Grand Central Terminal, not so much.
Read all of Gittin 27 on Sefaria.