For many years the Schreibers maintained a subscription to Jewish Interest magazine. Recently, they added subscriptions to two other Jewish magazines they found more relevant to them.
A month before their yearly subscription to Jewish Interest expired, the Schreibers received a notice for subscription renewal.
“Our subscription to Jewish Interest is expiring next month,” Mrs. Schreiber said to her husband. “Should we renew?”
“I don’t think we need three magazines,” he said. “I find the other two magazines more interesting, so unless you want to continue, drop it.” Mrs. Schreiber decided not to renew, and threw the notice away.
The final issue came with a large red notice: “This is your final issue! Subscribe now for a 33% discount!” Mrs. Schreiber reconsidered for a moment, but decided not to renew.
The following month, Mrs. Schreiber was surprised to find the new issue of Jewish Interest magazine in their mailbox, despite the fact that their subscription had expired.
“Look what came in the mail,” Mrs. Schreiber said to her husband. ” I thought our subscription expired. What should I do with it?”
“Must have been a mistake,” said Mr. Schreiber. “It’s not ours; we shouldn’t take it. Send it back to them.”
The following month, Mrs. Schreiber was shocked to see Jewish Interest once again in their mailbox. The cover story looked extremely interesting. There was also a pullout section of summer activities for children.
“What should I do now?” asked Mrs. Schreiber. “It’s the second time they’re sending it! The cover article looks interesting and there’s a special section about summer activities for the children. What’s the point of sending the magazine back? There’s nothing for them to do with it.”
“I thought we can’t keep it, but I’m not sure,” said Mr. Schreiber. “I’ll check with Rabbi Dayan.”
Mr. Schreiber called Rabbi Dayan. “Our subscription to Jewish Interest magazine expired, but they continue to send additional issues,” he said. “What should we do with the magazine? If we want to read it, do we have to pay for it?”
“If the subscription terms call for automatic renewal, you are obligated until you cancel in the required manner,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “However, if there is no automatic renewal, you may read the additional issues they send and have no financial liability to them.”
“Why are we allowed to read the magazine without paying for it?” asked Mr. Schreiber. “Shouldn’t there be at least a mitzvah of hashavat aveidah?”
“The magazine was aware that your subscription expired, yet they knowingly sent additional issues,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “The Gemara [B.M. 23b, 25b, 31a] teaches that there is no obligation of hashavas aveidah when someone is reckless with his property (aveidah midaas). We do not have to take responsibility for his property more than he does.”
“Still, does that allow me to take it for myself?!” asked Mr. Schreiber.
“There is a dispute whether someone who is reckless with his property in this manner abandons ownership,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “For example, one who knowingly throws his wallet into the street and leaves it there. The Rambam maintains that though we have no responsibility to return it to the owner, it is not hefker (ownerless) and you may not take the wallet. However, the Tur understands that anyone can take the wallet. Effectively, the owner renounced ownership of the wallet when he threw it in the street and it becomes ownerless.” (C.M. 261:4)
“Our case would seem similar, then?” asked Mr. Schreiber. “According to the Rambam, at least, I wouldn’t be able to keep the magazine for myself!”
“Here, presumably even the Rambam would agree,” said Rabbi Dayan. “The company clearly has no interest in retrieving the magazine that was distributed. This is similar to a farmer who moved his grain and left some stalks behind, where everyone agrees that he forgoes them. He knowingly left the stalks there and he abandons them for takers, since it’s not worth his while to collect them.” (C.M. 260:7; Bach C.M. 273)
“Furthermore, concluded Rabbi Dayan, “companies often willingly continue to send the magazine to the subscriber with the hope that he will decide to renew the subscription or in order to maintain circulation numbers for advertisers. Thus, you are allowed to read the magazine and are not under any financial obligation to them. Nonetheless, if the company is Jewish-owned, you should notify them that your subscription expired, in case there is an unintended error in their distribution list.”
About the Author: Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, a noted dayan. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e-mail to email@example.com. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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