Question: Is it permitted to simply return a lost object to a lost and found department in a store or must you try to track down the owner yourself?
Short Answer: Many poskim allow a finder to simply return a lost object that he found in a store or mall to the lost and found department in the store or mall, even if the department will not necessarily observe all the laws of simanim in locating the owner.
I. Finder’s Responsibility
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 267:1) writes that a finder must protect the lost object until it is returned to the possession (and protection) of the rightful owner.
The Sm”a (267:1) cites the Tur who rules that where the finder knows the owner (or who he is), he is obligated to make sure that it is returned to him or his guarded field. Nevertheless, many contemporary poskim write that it is sufficient to inform the owner (i.e., by telephone or email) that you found his item. The owner is then responsible to come retrieve it from the finder.
Indeed, the Pischei Choshen (Aveidah 7:1:2) notes that a lost object should not be stricter than a watchman who is guarding a friend’s item. Just as the depositor must retrieve his item from the watchman, so too the owner must retrieve his item from the finder. Rav Yisroel Pinchos Bodner (Halachos of Other People’s Money, p. 177) cites Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l as ruling similarly.
II. Posting in the Paper
But what is the finder’s responsibility if he does not know who owns the lost object, but the object has identifiable features?
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 267:3), citing the Gemara Bava M’tzia (28b), writes that the finder must announce or post a sign in shuls and yeshivos to publicize the lost object. However, because this led to people playing tricks, it is sufficient to just publicize the object to friends and neighbors.
Practically, the sefer Hashavas Aveidah K’Halachah (3:1) cites Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe Yoreh Dei’ah 2:45) who notes that nowadays the finder must publicize the lost object in all public spaces, and not only a shul and yeshivah. However, Rav Moshe (Igros Moshe Orach Chayim 5:9) and Rav Nissim Karelitz both state that the finder only needs to publicize in the area where the item was found and not in the entire city.
The sefer Hashavas Aveidah K’Halachah adds that the sign should be placed in the ezras nashim for lost women’s items such as hats or pocketbooks. Crucially, Rav Moshe Sternbuch (T’shuvos V’Hanhagos (3:464) allows announcements about lost objects even on Shabbos.
Finally, Hashavas Aveidah K’Halachah adds that if the lost object is found in a certain public building, such as a wedding hall, it is sufficient to simply post an announcement in that hall and the finder does not need to post in the city’s shuls.
III. How Long?
How long must the sign about the lost object remain hanging? Must the finder rehang the sign if it falls down? The sefer Hashavas Aveidah K’Halachah (3:3) addresses this question, as well, citing Rav Moshe Sternbuch as ruling that one week is sufficient, as opposed to Rav Moshe Feinstein who rules that the longer, the better; but the finder need not rehang a fallen sign as long as the finder believes that the sign was seen by many people.
IV. Giving It to the Lost and Found Department
But may the finder absolve himself of his responsibility by giving the item to the building’s or store’s lost and found department? What about the community or shul’s lost and found committee?
The sefer Hashavas Aveidah K’Halachah (3:4-5) has an interesting chidush on this issue. He rules that one may only report and hand off the lost object to the police where the police will follow the rules of simanim before returning the lost object, as otherwise the finder is negligent in his obligation to ensure that the proper owner retrieves his object. However, the finder may hand off the item that he found in a business or taxicab to the company’s lost and found department even if they will not follow all the laws of simanim when trying to locate the owner. Hashavas Aveidah K’Halachah cites Rav M. M. Karp and Rav M. Gross, who explain the reason why we are more lenient with respect to a business. Since a person (such as the owner) enters a business or other public place (such as a park or amusement park) with the knowledge that if his items get lost the finder will return them to the lost and found department, the owner accepts this method as the method of finding the item. Moreover, since the owner brought his item into this place to begin with, he obviously is comfortable with this business watching his item. See also Toras HaAveidah (5:3) who agrees with this ruling.
This leniency, however, does not appear to be accepted by everyone. The sefer Y’dei Kohen (B’Chol D’rachecha, p. 69) cites this leniency of the sefer Hashavas Aveidah K’Halachah and notes that Rav Sroya Deblitzky agrees, because presumably the first place that an owner would turn after he realizes he lost his object is the lost and found department of the business. On the other hand, the Y’dei Kohen also cites Rav Yaakov Tupik, of Beitar, who disagrees and rules that a finder may only return the item to a company’s lost and found department where they will observe all the rules of simanim when locating the owner.
Next Week’s Topic: If a finder finds a lost object with an identifiable feature but then loses the item himself, must he pay the value of the lost object to the original owner?