Question: Must a wealthy person, who is not a talmid chacham, pick up and return a lost object that is beneath his dignity to be in his possession?
Short Answer: The wealthy person is exempt from picking up and returning such a lost object, but if he wants to act properly (“lifnim mi’shuras ha’din”), he should pick it up and return it to its owner.
I. Sack or Box
The Mishnah (Bava M’tzia 29b) states that if a person finds a sack, box, or any other item that is ordinarily not taken (by a finder), he need not take it to return to its owner and he may leave it where he finds it. Rashi explains that we are discussing an item that is “g’nai” (i.e., embarrassing) to the finder, as he is an important individual. Because the item is something that the finder himself would not retrieve if it was owned by him, he need not return it for someone else.
The Gemara (Bava M’tzia 30a) expounds that the pasuk “v’his’alamta mei’hem” implies that there are certain times when it is permitted to ignore a lost object. For example, when an elderly person finds something that is beneath his dignity, he need not pick up the item to return it. The Gemara (Bava M’tzia 30b) adds, in the name of Rava, that “beneath his dignity” is defined as whether the finder would retrieve the item if it were his own.
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 263:1) codifies these Gemaros, ruling that a finder need not pick up a lost item that is beneath his dignity, i.e., an item that he would not otherwise retrieve for himself.
II. Above the Letter of the Law
But what if the finder wants to return a lost item that is beneath his dignity to pick up and return?
The Gemara (Bava M’tzia 30b) recounts a story about Rabbi Yishmael ben Rabbi Yosi. A man asked Rabbi Yishmael to help him load his wood. Rabbi Yishmael instead purchased the wood and made it ownerless. After the man reacquired the wood and again asked Rabbi Yishmael to help him load the wood, Rabbi Yishmael tricked the man by purchasing the wood and by claiming to make the wood ownerless to everyone in the world except this man. The Gemara explains that even though it was beneath Rabbi Yishmael’s dignity to help load the wood (and thus had no obligation to instead purchase the wood), Rabbi Yishmael acted lifnim mi’shuras ha’din – above the letter of the law.
The Rambam (Hilchos G’zeilah V’Aveidah 11:17) extrapolates from this Gemara that it is virtuous for a person to act above the letter of the law and return lost objects that are beneath one’s dignity.
The Rosh (Bava M’tzia 2:21, and cited in the Beis Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 263:3) disagrees. The Gemara (Bava M’tzia 30b) discusses a person who finds an object in the field. It is not beneath the dignity of the finder to return this object in the field, but it would be beneath his dignity to return the object in the city. The Gemara queries whether the finder must return the item to the owner even if the owner is located in the city. In other words, since the finder started to perform the mitzvah (by picking it up in the field), must he complete the mitzvah? The Gemara does not answer the question.
The Rosh notes that while some poskim rule that the finder must return the object even if the owner is in the city, the Rosh himself rules that it is no different from a classic case of finding an item beneath the finder’s dignity. We do not allow the finder to denigrate the honor of the Torah by returning the object, and thus, here too, he is not obligated to return it to the owner in the city. The Rosh explains that Rabbi Yishmael in the Gemara only went above the letter of the law by paying for the item; but even Rabbi Yishmael would not have allowed the finder to return an object beneath his dignity.
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 263:3) rules like the Rambam, while the Rama rules like the Rosh, that the only thing for the finder to do is to pay the owner for the lost object. Thus, Ashkenazim would seemingly be forbidden to return an item that is beneath the finder’s dignity.
Indeed, the sefer Hashavas Aveidah K’Hilchasah (2:11:29) cites Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who ruled that the finder who picks up a lost object that is beneath his dignity may even place it back in the spot where he found it. However, in order to avoid this eventuality, the Pischei Choshen (Aveidah 1:9:28) cites the Erech Lechem who notes that if a finder is unsure whether he will be able to locate the owner to pay him, he should simply wait by the lost object and watch it until a worthy finder walks by and takes the item in order to return it to its owner. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (cited in Halachos of Other People’s Money, p. 158) agreed with this ruling.
III. Scope of the Rama
As an aside, what is the scope of the Rama? By every scenario where a mitzvah is beneath the dignity of the doer, is he now forbidden to perform the mitzvah?
The Mishnah B’rurah (Biur Halachah, Orach Chayim 250, s.v. ki), citing the Chavos Yair, addresses this issue. Assuming that this Rama applies to other mitzvos as well, the Mishnah B’rurah asks how certain Amora’im were permitted to perform menial tasks in preparation for Shabbos, thereby embarrassing themselves? He answers that it was permitted because everyone who witnessed them prepare for Shabbos understood what they were doing and why they were doing it. In contrast, writes the Mishnah B’rurah, returning a lost object is not something that is recognizable to the casual onlooker, and thus it is forbidden for a finder to return an object beneath his dignity according to the Rama.
Interestingly, with respect to a talmid chacham who wants to testify in court despite it being beneath his dignity, the Pischei T’shuvah (cited in the sefer Seder HaDin, p. 547) suggests that it is dependent on the machlokes between the Rambam and the Rosh. However, the Radvaz (cited ibid) rules that even the Rosh would allow him to testify. The Birkei Yosef (cited ibid) explains that we are more lenient by testimony because the degradation to the witness is not as noticeable as by returning a lost object.
IV. Who Is Important?
Who is included in this halachah? In other words, is a wealthy person forbidden from returning an item simply because it is beneath his dignity to be seen with such a lost item, or must the finder be a talmid chacham or elderly person to be exempt?
As an initial matter, it is debatable whether a wealthy individual is included in the exemption to begin with. The Even HaEzel (G’zeilah 11:13) cites the Shitah M’kubetzes who notes that this is a machlokes between the Rambam and the Rosh, as well. The Rambam only exempts a talmid chacham or elderly person from picking up an item beneath their dignity. A wealthy person would still need to pick it up and return it. On the other hand, the Rosh does not limit this exemption to a talmid chacham or elderly person, implying that everyone is exempt from picking up an item that is beneath one’s dignity.
However, the sefer Hashavas Aveidah K’Hilchasah (2:9:19) cites Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l who rules that even if the exemption applies to a wealthy person, it must be because he is naturally embarrassed to be seen with the object, as opposed to merely not worth his time to retrieve because of its (lack of) value. Indeed, the Pischei Choshen (Aveidah 1:9:24) similarly cites the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, who notes that a person who believes that he is important and dignified still must pick up the item if other people don’t think that it is beneath his dignity.
The Aruch HaShulchan (263:4) likewise notes that the exemption applies to other important people besides a talmid chacham or elderly person. This is what Rava is adding in the abovementioned Gemara (Bava M’tzia 30b). However, there is a fundamental difference between a talmid chacham and another important person with respect to this exemption. The ruling of the Rama, that the finder may not return the item that is beneath his dignity, only applies to a talmid chacham because of the degradation to the Torah for him to return it. Another important person, however, may still return the item should he wish to act properly.
Next Week’s Topic: May a person ignore (and not pick up) a lost object that has no identifying features?