(JNS) On Feb. 2, John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, shared a joke on his magazine’s podcast riffing on Hunter Biden’s laptop—what Miranda Devine has called the “Laptop from Hell.”
So, have you heard the one about the Jew who returns 40 years later to pick up a pair of shoes from the cobbler?
“The shoe store owner says, ‘Was they wing tips?’ ‘Yes. They were wing tips.’ ‘Were they black with a brown trim?’ ‘Yeah. You have them?’” Podhoretz said, exaggerating the cobbler’s accent. “‘They’ll be ready Tuesday.’”
Clearly, the original owner loses his claim somewhere in those decades to the cobbler. “They’re his shoes after a while,” said Podhoretz.
Having reportedly dropped his laptop off at a Delaware repair store in 2019, Hunter Biden’s claim to his property is somewhat more in question four years later. The status of the computer, and the degree to which there may have been impropriety in its handling, may be headed to the courts. But Jewish law also sheds light on the situation, several rabbis told JNS.
The second chapter of the Talmudic tractate of Bava Metzia (the middle gate), which begins on page 21a, is titled Elu metzios and relates to lost items, including those upon which the original owner may have given up hope (yeush).
The rabbis provide extensive guidance on the principles of what must be returned, but those laws apply only to Jews, Eliezer Zalmanov, a rabbi and co-director of Chabad of Northwest Indiana, told JNS.
“They are not binding for non-Jews, and they are also not applicable in the regular sense for Jews finding something belonging to a non-Jew,” he said.
If one sets that caveat aside, the chapter also addresses found objects, when there is no obvious way to locate the original owner, Zalmanov cautioned. (The laptop reportedly bore a Beau Biden Foundation sticker.) In that instance, the finder publicizes the find in general terms, and the owner must demonstrate original possession by providing a sign that clearly indicates knowledge of the object.
“In the case of the laptop, it was very obviously Hunter’s, so if it was an issue of finding a lost item, the finder would clearly know whom to return it to,” Zalmanov said.
This being Talmudic law, however, the plot always thickens. One is bound to return a lost object only when it was lost unintentionally. “Not when the owner discarded it, even if it had all the signs in the world indicating whom it belonged to,” Zalmanov said. “That may be the case with the laptop.”
Even if one did not have to return an abandoned laptop, Zalmanov added, that still would not offer the new owner full license to use the computer to harm the previous owner, nor his reputation.
JNS probed with the rabbi just what it means that a Jew need not return an object, which a non-Jew lost. Would that not presume that the finder, who can make a determination that the loser is not Jewish, knows who lost the object? Zalmanov explained that one need not return an object lost in a city, in which the overwhelming majority of residents are not Jewish.
There would still be a kiddush hashem aspect in returning an object and displaying care for neighbors in an unnecessary manner, which would reflect well on the faith, according to Zalmanov.
“There is no Torah obligation to return an unmarked lost object in most cities in the world today,” he said. “Interestingly though, the Rambam says that when a non-Jewish vendor mistakenly undercharges you, you need to attempt to correct them, because it may be a test to see if Jews are honest.”
Zalmanov added several other factors to the mix. The concept of yeush, giving up hope, would only apply for unintentionally lost objects. If an owner discards or abandons something, yeush would not be relevant. “He could still be thinking about it all the time, and there would still be no obligation to return it,” he said.
And jobs would be different, as with Moses protecting his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep. “You have an obligation to your employer,” Zalmanov said. He allowed that there is “little said in the way of halacha regarding a Jew’s business relationship with a non-Jew, short of it always being better to be honest and avoid a chilul hashem.”