Yosef, Gad and Benjy headed down to the dining hall in their high school. As they walked along the corridor they noticed a new vending machine had been installed. The three admired the machine, and eyed its beckoning display of treats.
“I wonder whom the machine belongs to?” asked Yosef. “Do you think it belongs to the school?”
“I doubt it,” said Gad. “Look, the name of the company that owns the machine is on a label. Let’s return after lunch and get a snack for desert.”
After they finished eating, the three boys returned to the vending machine. They browsed the selections: candies, chocolates, cookies, gum, potato chips, and other nosh.
“I’m going to get a large chocolate bar,” declared Yosef. “We can all share it.”
Yosef inserted two dollar-coins in the machine and made his selection. The chocolate bar fell to the bottom, and he heard two quarters drop into the change compartment, “Clink, clink.” He reached in to take out his two quarters and was surprised to find two additional quarters there.
“Wow! There’s extra change,” he exclaimed. “That saved me fifty cents!”
“Who says you can keep it?” asked Gad. “You need to place a sign for hashavas aveidah.”
“What’s the point of hashavas aveidah?” asked Benjy. “There’s no identification on the money, anyway.”
Other students joined in the discussion, debating whether Yosef could keep the money.
“Maybe you should give the money back to the vending operator,” added Benjy. “Someone said he comes on Tuesday mornings to restock the machine.”
A bit of a commotion began.
While they were arguing, Rabbi Dayan walked by. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Sounds like an earnest debate!”
“I found extra change in the vending machine,” said Yosef. “We were arguing what to do with the money?”
“It is usually permissible to take the change for yourself,” replied Rabbi Dayan, “but in some limited cases, it is proper to contact the vending operator.”
“Why can I keep it?” asked Yosef.
“At first glance, this seems to be a case of hashavas aveidah (returning lost property) to the previous customer, who lost his change,” explained Rabbi Dayan. “Since we presume the customer already became aware that he left his money, and likely does not know the exact permutation of the change or abandoned hope of retrieving it (yei’ush) – the finder is permitted to keep it.” (See Hashavas Aveidah K’halacha 12:8)
“Wouldn’t the vending operator automatically acquire the lost money that sits in his machine?” asked Benjy.
“A person’s property can acquire a lost item on his behalf, even without his knowledge,” said Rabbi Dayan. “However, this is only if the property is secure and the owner is likely to find the item left in his property. [C.M. 268:3] Here, the change compartment is not secure, nor is the operator likely to find the money, since it will probably be taken by someone else first.”
“Why did you say, ‘At first glance?…’ asked Gad. “Is this not a typical case of lost money?”
“Actually, though the change was dispensed for the previous customer, he never acquired it, since he did not take possession of it,” explained Rabbi Dayan. (C.M. 203:7) “Therefore, upon further reflection, this case is similar to a borrower who placed the money he is returning before the lender, with his permission, but the lender did not take the money. While the lender has no further claim on the borrower, what is the status of the money? R. Akiva Eiger [C.M. 120:1] writes that the money becomes hefker, since the borrower relinquished his claim to the money and the lender did not take it. Here, too, the untaken change becomes hefker.”
“In truth, the Nesivos [123:1] disagrees with R. Akiva Eiger and maintains that the money does not become hefker, but remains owned by the borrower,” continued Rabbi Dayan, “but even he would likely agree here. Since the vending operator expects the machine to dispense the change to an unsecure place, where it can be taken by anybody, he effectively renders it hefker or expresses yei’ush [C.M. 260:6, 261:4; Shach 261:3]. Thus, it is permissible to take the extra change.”
“Either way, I can take the money,” said Yosef. “What’s the difference whether it’s lost by the customer or became hefker from the vendor?”
“In most cases there isn’t much difference,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “However, in a small, observant office, shul or yeshiva, the vending operator does not necessarily consider the untaken change as ‘gone,’ so it’s proper to contact him. Even there, if you already took the money with intention to claim it, you may keep it.”
(For a more detailed treatment of this topic, see article by Rabbi Tzvi Price, “What to do when you Find Money in a Vending Machine,” at the BHI website, www.businesshalacha.com.)
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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