A Historical Look at LIFE in ALEPPO

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By: Rabbi Max Sutton


David, a resident of an Israeli town bordering on the Gaza strip, was driving home one night after midnight. While driving, he detected in his rear-view mirror a fire kite sent from Gaza over the border to Israel. For nearly the past six months Hamas and their affiliates have sent over 700 fire kites and balloons burning with chemicals and explosives, damaging over 2,500 acres of Israeli fields, private property, and wildlife. David pulled his car to the side of the road and ran in the direction of the kite blowing in the wind. Before he arrived, the kite landed on a horse stable and a blazing fire on its roof top was already underway. Risking his life, David opened the stable and released the horses. The stable then completely burnt down and the adjacent field was badly scorched until firefighters finally put out the flames. In the interim, David strangely took possession of one of the horses he set free, claiming that it was the least he is entitled to for his heroic act. The homeowner thanked David, though he was unwilling to part with his very valuable horse. In Bet Din, David further explained his position by claiming that at the time of the fire he was entitled to take any and all of the horses, since the dangerous blazing fire rendered them halachically ownerless. The homeowner dismissed David’s claim, and rebuked him for his unlawful conduct. Although the homeowner was once willing to reward David with a nominal fee for saving his horses, he is presently pulling back because of David’s actions.

Is the homeowner obligated to reward David with his valuable horse or not? How should the Bet Din rule and why?


According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, just as one is required by law to return a lost object, he is required to intervene and prevent another from sustaining a loss. Additionally, by law, both one who returns a lost object and one who toils to prevent another from sustaining a loss, are restricted from charging a fee for their service. A Jew is obligated to perform a mitzvah free of charge, even if a substantial effort is involved.

Nevertheless, one is not required to bear any expense or loss while retrieving a lost object. Rather, he is entitled to collect any out of pocket expense incurred while retrieving a lost object, providing that the cost of retrieving the lost object does not exceed the cost of the object itself. He is additionally entitled to collect lost hourly wages for the duration of time spent to retrieve the lost object. If, however, the finder toiled to save or return the item during off hours, he is not entitled to any compensation. Naturally, reimbursement is subject to the above-mentioned rule that the total cost of wages does not exceed the value of the lost object. The exact configuration of the amount of compensation for lost salary is a complex matter, which is beyond the scope of this article.

By rule of the Shulhan Aruch an item that is on the verge of loss beyond the point of retrieval is considered abandoned property. The underlying logic behind this ruling is that in such extreme circumstances we assume that the owner clearly forfeited all possession and claim of ownership due to the imminent loss.  Leading halachic authorities further rule that it is irrelevant whether the owner of the item is unaware of its status or he is present at the scene, hopelessly attempting to save it, the item is, nevertheless, viewed as abandoned. Although the owner may physically seek the item’s retrieval, he is nevertheless aware that it is beyond his reach, and thus subconsciously forfeits ownership. Hence, if by chance the item is spared from destruction and somehow is possessed by another, the finder is the new rightful owner. A primary example of such an occurrence is valuable property swept up at sea only to be found by another. Regardless of whether the identity of the original owner is known or not, the finder is the new rightful owner of the lost valuable property.

In short, one is only responsible to return or save another’s lost item if the item is potentially retrievable. Once the item is subject to extreme circumstances and is beyond the point of retrieval, a finder is not required to return the item and is entitled to assume ownership.

While the above ruling represents strict law, it is not the common law practiced by a Bet Din in our times. Early halachic authorities modified the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch for multiple reasons, and instituted a restriction on possessing property on the verge of destruction. Therefore, nowadays, one is required to return salvaged property to the identified owner. While this instituted law is in place in order to promote righteous behavior, it also complies with civil law and state regulations. Thus, it is our responsibility to comply with the law of the land and to return property found or saved from a disaster or fire or the like.

VERDICT The Buck Stops Here

Our Bet Din ruled in favor of the homeowner and instructed David to return the horse without any monetary compensation for his heroic act. As mentioned in Torah law, a Jew is not only responsible to return a lost object, he is required to intervene and prevent another from sustaining a loss.  Aside from being a mitzvah of the Torah, it is also mandatory that this action be done free of charge. Nevertheless, had David sustained a monetary loss to save the horses, he could have been entitled to reimbursement. However, as mentioned, this specific occurrence took place past midnight, a time when David did not sustain a loss as he did not forfeit an employment opportunity.

Since the horses were on the verge of loss beyond the point of retrieval, according to strict law they are viewed as abandoned property. Nevertheless, our Sages imposed a restriction on keeping property found on the verge of loss. Furthermore, according to civil law and state regulation one is required to return salvaged property to the identified owner.