Talmudic pages

Shekalim 20

Finders keepers?

Today’s daf continues yesterday’s discussion about money found on the floor of the Temple in Jerusalem with an exploration about other lost items and asks: just how hard should we work to return a lost object?  

Centuries before the Talmud addressed this matter, the Torah had already ruled on this topic:  

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him …  and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

Today’s page, however, is concerned not with returning a lost object or animal to an identifiable owner, but with found objects that are seemingly ownerless (or at least, the owner can’t be readily identified). Examples on today’s daf include a container of wine found in a synagogue, a roasted goat found on the street, a round cheese found in someone’s lodgings and more. (Don’t ask me how someone loses an entire roasted goat.)

In most of these cases, the Gemara’s ruling is “finders keepers.” That is, there is no need to return the now ownerless object that has been presumably left behind by mistake. But just because you don’t have to try to return it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, as one rabbi asserts on today’s daf:

Rabbi Mana said in the presence of Rabbi Yosei: But I saw the rabbis announcing that they had found lost property, even when the item was found in a public area (and was therefore presumed ownerless). 

Rabbi Yosei said to him: If you were to find an article in a public area, you would not take it either. Rabbi Yona, your father, did not say this, but said: “If only that when we find some item, we should find it from the gate outward (i.e. in a public area that would not require us to look for the owner).” Even so, when Rabbi Yona found a lost article in a crowded public place, he did not take it for himself.

Rabbi Mana notices that, in fact, the rabbis announce publicly when such objects are found, in the hope that the owners will claim them — and this flummoxes him. What about “finders keepers”? Rabbi Yosei reproves him. His response to Rabbi Mana (in the name of Rabbi Mana’s father, for emphasis) points to an important dictum: just because you can do something, does not mean that you should do it. In this case, it might be permissible to use, eat or otherwise benefit from an ownerless object — but it wouldn’t be right. He appeals to Rabbi Mana’s ethical intuition on this: you would not take it either.

Today, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, many of us live in a sea of objects and possessions. But not all of us are in that situation — and this was not so for the rabbis who lived in a period of less wealth and far fewer personal possessions. Imagine the person living in the time of the Talmud who put down her full shopping basket, and then forgot where she left it. It’s very possible that if the rabbi didn’t announce its finding in the town square in the hopes that someone would let her know, she and her family would go hungry that night. 

Today, the rabbis wrestle with a distance between what the law requires, as they understand it, and what is intuitively “right” from an ethical standpoint. Clearly, they hope we will all choose the latter.

Read all of Shekalim 20 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 10th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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