Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Lost property in the Talmud

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Lost and Found. In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ how the Talmud transforms absolute Torah commandments into contingent human laws, prizing practicality over literalism.
Chapter Two of Tractate Bava Metzia offers a good example of how the Talmud transforms an absolute Torah commandment into a contingent human law. Deuteronomy 22 instructs Jews that it is their duty to return lost property to its original owner: “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep wandering and disregard them; you shall return them to your brother.” If a Jew finds lost property and can’t locate or doesn’t know the rightful owner, the finder is obligated to keep it until the owner comes to claim it: “You shall bring it home to your house, and it shall be with you until your brother requires it, and you shall restore it to him.” There are no limitations on this duty; it seems to apply to all kinds of property, and for an indefinite period of time.

But you don’t have to think about this law for very long for its inadequacy to become apparent. What happens to a found item if the owner never comes to claim it? And how do you know if the person who does claim it really is the rightful owner? It is these kinds of questions the rabbis seek to answer, and they begin from the assumption that the right of an owner to reclaim lost property is not unlimited. Here we meet again a concept that has come up often in the Talmud: ye’ush or “despair.” Once a person has despaired of regaining his lost property, it becomes ownerless, and anyone who finds it can claim it.
Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.