The class of unpaid bailee includes somebody who finds a lost object or animal.
The issue of lost property is the same as the issue of stolen property in Exodus 22:8, which you read for last week. The person who says he is the owner has to be able to identify it. Before seeing the stolen or lost property, he has to say how he knows that property from other property. Saying it’s a pregnant red cow doesn’t count because the cow might have given birth before the owner comes to identify it. Saying it’s a red cow with only one horn is better. It would help if it’s the only red cow in the region.
So Mishnah declares the hidden assumption behind this. Some property that you find has no identifying marks. This includes coins lying scattered by the road, shreds of leather or wool, and undyed fabric. These things belong to the finder immediately. A purse with gold coins in it (with the owner’s name on the purse), a dyed garment (garments were usually made to measure), glass vials (a luxury item) do not belong to the finder immediately and he has to store them for up to 14 months to claim them.
Mishnah says the finder has to take appropriate care of finds. He has to prevent mildew of cloth or parchment. He can use iron tools to keep them from rusting. He can plow with an ox to pay back the cost of feeding it.
But he can’t make use of the money in the purse because the precious metal will rub away slightly or he might lose it in a bad deal, or the glass vials because they might break.
And he doesn’t have to keep and feed a sheep; he can sell it in the market, and store the money up for the owner.
The 14 month requirement results from Jewish culture. There were three festivals in the year when men were supposed to go to Jerusalem. There was a special rock in Jerusalem. The owner of lost property would go there to see if anybody was declaring finding property. They would get together to see if the owner could give the identifying marks. After the third festival, the finder had to wait one more month. In a leap year, there were 13 months between one Passover and the next. If the find occurred just after Sukkot, there were 7 months, not 6, until Passover, and then six months until Sukkot, plus one month for a total of 14.
Since the pilgrimage requirement applied only to men, women and minor children had to give found objects to the man of the house, who would know if he had to declare them and had the job of going to Jerusalem where he would declare them.
Most comments on this last commandment miss this point. They aren’t immersed in the culture and they don’t know Jewish law. The urban legend that this promotes peace in the house ignores fundamental issues in Jewish cultural practice.
For next time, read Exodus 23:13. Memorize it. Then we’ll get into the area of freedom of speech in Jewish law.© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved