Although it was already fall, the weather remained warm. “It’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow,” Mr. Bentzion Gluck said on Motzei Shabbos. “Let’s have a family outing to the bay and ride in the motorboat.”
In the morning, the family headed to the bay. “Make sure to put on life vests,” Mrs. Gluck instructed them.
The waves were somewhat higher than usual. “There’s going to be a lot of spray,” Mr. Gluck warned his family. “Put all your valuables in this waterproof bag, so that they won’t get wet.” He passed the bag around and they put in their wallets, cell phones, cameras, and Mrs. Gluck’s pocketbook.
Mr. Gluck revved the engine and set out into the bay. After 20 minutes of straight runs, one of the children asked, “How about making figure eights?”
“Sure!” said Mr. Gluck. “Hang on!” he yelled as he made sharper and sharper turns, and the boat began to tilt heavily.
A powerful wave hit the boat broadside just as it heaved into the turn. The combined effect of the sharp turn and the wave capsized the boat, tossing the occupants and their belongings into the water.
One by one, the family spluttered up to the surface and grasped the emergency oars that were floating nearby. The boat slowly began filling with water, while the waterproof bag slid below the surface and disappeared.
Nearby boaters approached them. Someone tossed a bucket to Mr. Gluck, who was still in the boat, and he managed to bail out enough water to keep it afloat.
“I’ll take the rest of the family back,” offered another.
“At least we’re all OK,” said Mr. Gluck in a subdued voice when they returned to the dock. “Maybe someone will even find the bag.”
“I certainly hope so,” said Mrs. Gluck. “My diamond earrings were in there and it will be a big loss.”
“I’ll put up a sign in the marina,” said Mr. Gluck. “Perhaps the bag will wash ashore.”
Months later, Mr. Feiner was walking along the shore when he spotted a black bag. It had clearly been in the water for a long time.
Mr. Feiner examined the contents. Water had seeped into the bag and had already faded the money and ruined the electronics. However, the plastic driver’s license clearly displayed the name and photo of Bentzion Gluck. The earrings were tarnished, but the diamonds sparkled as before.
Mr. Feiner picked up the bag and headed home. As he walked, he wondered whether he was obligated to return the bag that had washed ashore. He emailed Rabbi Dayan and asked for guidance.
Rabbi Dayan responded: “You are not absolutely required to return the lost bag with its contents, unless there is a local law to that effect. However, it is usually proper to return it anyway.”
Rabbi Dayan then explained: “The mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, returning lost items, applies when the item is lost from the owner, but is expected to be found by someone. However, when the item is completely lost – not only from the owner, but from everyone – you are not absolutely required to return it. Some explain that this is because the owner certainly loses hope of reclaiming it. Even if he declared that he did not abandon hope, his declaration is viewed as a futile statement (Rambam Hil. Aveidah 11:10; C.M. 259:7).
“Despite this, it is proper lifnim mishuras hadin (beyond the letter of the law) to return the lost item to its original owner. This is because a Jew is expected to do not only what is absolutely required, but also what is fair and proper. The beis din can even apply persuasive measures to encourage the finder to act this way. (Pischei Teshuva 12:6) Furthermore, if the local law (dina d’malchusa) requires the finder to return the item, then halacha also obligates the finder to do so (Rama 259:7).
“However, since the reason for returning an item that is completely lost is based on doing what is fair and proper, and not on the letter of the law, it is somewhat subjective. Therefore, if the original owner is wealthy and the finder poor, he is not necessarily expected to return the item” (259:5).
Verdict: There is no absolute requirement to return an item completely lost, unless there is a local law requiring so, but it is usually proper to do so anyway.