Shimon worked as a cashier in Heimowitz’s grocery store. He was also a coin collector and had a large collection of rare coins and bills. As an avid hobbyist, Shimon had an eye for special bills. He knew that rare bills circulated among people who had no idea that their bill was worth more than its face value as a collector’s item.
One day a person came into the store. The purchase came to $38.99. The person gave Shimon two $20 bills, and Shimon gave him a dollar bill as change.
As Shimon put the $20 bills in their compartment, he noticed that one had a star in the serial number. He recognized it as a 2017 $20 bill Federal Reserve Star Note worth over $30 as a collector’s item! Shimon put the bill at the bottom of the pile so that he would not give it as change to other customers.
When he had a quiet moment, Shimon exchanged the $20 star bill in the cash register with a regular $20 bill from his wallet.
That evening, Shimon shared with his chavrusa what had happened that day.
“I’m shocked!” said his chavrusa. “You stole from Mr. Heimowitz!”
“What do you mean?” asked Shimon.
“You took something worth over $30 and paid only $20,” his chavrusa replied.
“But to Mr. Heimowitz it was only worth $20,” insisted Shimon. “He would have no idea the bill is worth more than its face value.”
The two decided to turn to Rabbi Dayan. Shimon asked, “Was I allowed to exchange the bill?”
“Classically, the value of coins was based on the metal in them,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “Over time, the world moved to coins and bills representative of value, with the metal or paper itself worth far less than it. Nonetheless, poskim consider legal tender as money worth its official value for almost all halachos, including ribbis, kinyanim, pidyon haben, maaser sheni, onaah, etc.
“A rare bill maintains its primary value as legal tender, at face value. However, it has additional value – not as money, but as an object, a collector’s item. When such a bill is used as payment in a store, or returned by a cashier as change, we consider its face value. Its additional value as a collector’s item is like a metziah, a found hefker item.
“Although a person’s property can acquire hefker for him, even without his knowledge, many Rishonim restrict this rule to cases where the owner will likely discover the metziah. The Gemara [Bava Metzia 26] indicates that a person who acquires a house doesn’t acquire a lost treasure hidden in the wall, and a store owner doesn’t acquire money dropped in the public areas of the store [Choshen Mishpat 260:1, 5].
“Based on this passage in the Gemara, the Mordechai [Bava Metzia #258] rules that if someone bought seemingly plain metal and sold it to another and later learned that the metal contained valuable metal inside, he has no claim to the valuable metal since he never intended to acquire it” [Rema, Choshen Mishpat 232:18; Pischei Teshuvah 232:8].
“Here, the store owner will not likely find out about the valuable bill. It will likely be given as change to another customer or deposited in the bank. Although Shimon acquired the bill on behalf of Mr. Heimowitz and was responsible for it as a guardian, he accepted it only as $20” (see C.M. 291:4].
“Therefore,” concluded Rabbi Dayan, “Shimon, who recognized the bill as rare, was allowed to exchange it for a regular bill of the same face value, and to possess its additional value as a collector’s item.”