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M4. Returning Lost Items to Their Owners.    [Make a Comment]

We are to return anything we find which was lost by another. If he is not near us or we do not know who he is, we are to keep it safe for him until he claims it.

This precept is derived from His Word (blessed be He):

Key Scriptures

Exodus 23:4 (Maimonides RP204; Chinuch C538)
If you come upon your enemy's ox or donkey straying, you must return it to him.

Leviticus 5:21-24(6:2-5)
If someone sins and acts perversely against ADONAI by dealing falsely with his neighbor in regard to a deposit or security entrusted to him, by stealing from him, by extorting him, or by dealing falsely in regard to a lost object he has found, or by swearing to a lie- if a person commits any of these sins, then, if he sinned and is guilty, he is to restore whatever it was he stole or obtained by extortion, or whatever was deposited with him, or the lost object which he found, or anything about which he has sworn falsely. He is to restore it in full plus an additional one-fifth; he must return it to the person who owns it, on the day when he presents his guilt offering. He is to bring as his guilt offering to ADONAI a ram without defect from the flock, or its equivalent according to your appraisal, to the cohen; it is a guilt offering. Thus the cohen will make atonement for him before ADONAI, and he will be forgiven in regard to whatever it was he did that made him guilty.

Deuteronomy 22:1 (Maimonides RP204; Meir MP69, MN182; Chinuch C538)
You are not to watch your brother's ox or sheep straying and behave as if you hadnt seen it; you must bring them back to your brother.'

Deuteronomy 22:2
If your brother is not close by, or you don't know who the owner is, you are to bring it home to your house; and it will remain with you until your brother asks for it; then you are to give it back to him.

Deuteronomy 22:3 (Maimonides RN269; Meir MN182; Chinuch C539)
You are to do the same with his donkey, his coat or anything else of your brother's that he loses. If you find something he lost, you must not ignore it.

2 Corinthians 8:20-21
Our aim in this is to show that our conduct in dealing with these substantial sums is above reproach; for we take pains to do what is right not only in the sight of God but also in the sight of other people.


The Deuteronomy verses that support this Mitzvah speak of an item lost by a brother. Nevertheless, Exodus 23:4 and general principles of morality strongly suggest that it must apply to a non-brother as well - even an enemy - for otherwise, the finder would be unjustly enriched at the expense of the loser. It is therefore logical that if the finder knows the loser and does not return the article, his omission amounts to constructive theft.

Deuteronomy 22:2 contains a departure from many secular laws today that permit a finder of lost property to take ownership of it if it is not claimed within a specified period of time. Scripture forbids a person from ever claiming title to a lost item, even if the owner is unknown or at a great distance so that return would be impractical. The finder must keep the item safe, and take reasonable steps to discover its owner. It is significant that some state governments today also prohibit the finder of property from keeping it, by providing that certain kinds of unclaimed property escheats to the state if the owner does not come forth to claim it within a prescribed period of time.

There are no New Covenant Scriptures that speak directly of finding and returning lost property, but Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31 should nevertheless apply.

Classical Commentators

Meir and Maimonides differ in their opinion as to whether our obligation related to lost property applies to non-brothers (i.e. Gentiles); Meir restricts his mitzvot to Jews who find the property of other Jews, while Maimonides makes no such distinction. Neither Maimonides, nor Meir, nor Hachinuch include Deuteronomy 22:2 as a reference source for their respective mitzvot. HaChinuch says that we must return property belonging to a brother Jew, but he also quotes Sages who say that found property that has no identifying features need not be returned. Examples of such property are: scattered fruit, scattered money, small bundles of grain in a public area, round packets of pressed figs, strings of fish, pieces of meat, and similar items. The rationale for this is that when one loses these kinds of items, the owner gives up the hope of retrieving them, and thereby loses his right of ownership.


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