The yeshiva high school was hosting a father-son learning night. Yaakov and his father arrived early, so they stopped off at Yaakov’s dormitory room. Just outside the room, Yaakov noticed a quarter lying on the floor.
“Can I take the quarter?” Yaakov asked his father.
“There is no requirement of hashavas aveidah on loose coins,” said his father. “Loose coins probably fell inadvertently along the way and the owner has no way of identifying them. He’ll presumably notice the loss shortly afterward and abandon hope of reclaiming them.” (C.M. 262:11)
Yaakov then showed his father his shiur room, where they saw another quarter. “Seems like someone has a hole in his pocket,” Yaakov joked.
In the corner of the room they saw another three quarters in a triangular arrangement. “What about this?” Yaakov asked his father. “Do you think these also dropped out inadvertently?”
“What else could it be?” asked his father.
“Maybe some of the fellows were playing a game and forget the coins there,” Yaakov said. “What are the odds that they landed inadvertently in such a triangular formation?”
“I don’t know,” said his father. “Aren’t you learning Bava Metzia this year?”
“We’re still learning the first perek (chapter),” said Yaakov. “The laws of hashavas aveidah are in the second perek.”
“I’m not sure of the halacha in this case,” said his father. “One of the rebbeim should know, though.”
“Rabbi Dayan might be in the beis medrash when the learning begins,” said Yaakov. “He also has a son in the yeshiva. We can ask him.”
“Good idea,” said his father.
Yaakov and his father went to the beis medrash. Rabbi Dayan arrived shortly afterward with his son.
Yaakov and his father walked over. “We’re sorry to interrupt, but can we ask a quick halacha question?” Yaakov said.
“Go ahead,” said Rabbi Dayan.
“I found three coins in a triangular formation in one of the rooms,” said Yaakov. “Can I keep them or must I publicize them?”
“This arrangement of coins may be considered a siman, so you may not take them for yourself,” said Rabbi Dayan. “Rather, you should publicize them.”
“What do you mean, may be considered?” asked Yaakov.
“The Gemara [B.M. 25a] questions whether coins arranged in such a fashion serve as a siman – indicating intentional arrangement – or not,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “The question is whether they could have fallen unintentionally in this way. This question remains unresolved in the Gemara.”
“What happens, then?” asked Yaakov.
“The Rosh [B.M. 2:8] writes that because this issue remains unresolved we must be stringent, since hashavas aveidah entails a potential prohibition. Therefore, the finder must publicize the coins. Later in the same piece he writes that whenever there is doubt whether something was placed intentionally or not (safek hinuach), if the area is not secure, the item should be taken and publicized if there is a siman.”
“The Rosh [2:1] rules similarly in an earlier case, where a person left a certain small quantity of grain on his threshing floor. The question is whether he intends to return and collect it or he abandoned it for the taking. The Gemara concludes, teiko [unresolved]. Since the issue is unresolved, we apply safek d’oraysa l’chumra, and the finder must publicize the grain.”
“The Rambam [Hil. Aveidah 16:2], however, does not require publicizing the coins,” continued Rabbi Dayan. “He simply writes that, on account of doubt, one should not take the coins. This is his position (15:1) whenever one is unsure whether an item was left intentionally; even if it has a siman you should not take it. In the case of the threshing floor, he also writes that one should not take the grain, but if he did – he does not have to publicize it.”