Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was known as a very pious man – so pious indeed that miracles were performed on his behalf. He was also quite poor.
One day, his wife, let’s call her Mrs. Ben Dosa, found a a sack of chickens outside the front door of their house. Someone had clearly bought them in the marketplace, and then misplaced them on the way home.
Looking around and seeing that there was nobody nearby, she brought the sackful of chickens inside the house and released them into the yard. The birds started clucking away and pecking at the dirt, as chickens do.
When Rabbi Hanina found out, he instructed his wife, “don’t eat any of the chickens, they do not belong to us. We have to wait for the owner to come back for them.” But the owner did not come.
After a few days, the hens began laying eggs. Mrs. Ben Dosa was overjoyed. They could really use the extra food. But Hanina insisted, “The eggs do not belong to us. We must wait for the owner to return for them.”
Since the Ben Dosa’s could not eat them, the eggs eventually hatched. Time passed, and the chicks grew into hens and roosters. Pretty soon, the Ben Dosa home had become overrun with poultry.
Mrs. Ben Dosa was getting fed up, so she turned to her pious husband and demanded, “My darling husband, I was fine when you told me we couldn’t use the eggs. But this is getting ridiculous. You must do something about all of these chickens!”
So Rabbi Hanina took all of the fowl to the the marketplace, where he sold them. With the proceeds, he bought two baby goats, which he brought back to his house.
The goats grew. The goats begat more goats. Eventually, the Ben Dosa house became even more crowded, smelly, and loud than ever before. But Hanina insisted that they could not slaughter any of the goats, or drink any of the milk.
When she could not take it any more, Mrs. Ben Dosa stamped her foot and ordered her husband to do something about the goats.
So Hanina gathered up all of the animals and led them to the marketplace. He sold them, and with the proceeds, he bought a calf. The calf grew and grew until it had become a cow.
Some time later, there was a knock on the door. A man asked, “Hi. Some time back, I was coming home from the market with a sack of chickens. I set it down somewhere, but I forgot where. As I was passing by your home, it seemed familiar to me. I’m curious. Do you perhaps know what happened to the sack of chickens?”
Rabbi Hanina asked the man to describe the sack, which he did. “Wait here one second,” Rabbi Hanina told the man, and then went inside the house. “Here is your chicken,” Hanina declared, leading a healthy, full grown milk cow, “we tried to take care of it for you.”
“But, this is a cow!” the man declared.
Rabbi Hanina explained what happened, how the chickens became goats, which became a cow.
Overjoyed, the man exclaimed, “Rabbi Hanina, you are so kind. I have never met someone so careful about returning lost things. Thank you.”
When the man left, Hanina ducked his head back inside the house and shouted to his wife, “Honey, the guy came back for his chickens!”
“Thank God,” she declared, “but did he recognize them?” (from BT Taanit 25a and The Family Book of Midrash, by Barbara Diamond Goldin)
This is a story from the Talmud about how far a person might go to fulfill the mitzvah of hashevat aveidah, returning lost objects. The origin of this mitzvah appears in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.
If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. (Deut. 22:1-3)
Jewish law has a lot to say about this mitzvah. If we find a lost object, our tradition teaches us that we are supposed to care for it, that we may not profit from it, and that we owe any earnings that accrue to the owner once it is restored.
As we might imagine, the tradition unpacks the issue, taking into account where an object is found, what constitutes an identifying mark, the reimbursement due to the finder for expenses incurred caring for the lost item, how long the item must be cared for before the finder can claim it, and so on.
On its surface, this mitzvah is about property. But the final phrase that the Torah uses suggests that there is something more at stake. Lo tukhal l’hit’alem. “You may not remain indifferent.” Or perhaps a better translation would be, “You may not hide yourself.”
Why does the Torah, which never uses superfluous language, add this extra phrase?
Bahya ibn Paquda, a medieval Spanish philosopher, suggests that the mitzvah of returning lost objects is related to the principle v’ahavta l’re’ekha kamokha – “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) Property is an extension of the person. So to care for another person’s lost possession is to care for that person.
There is a similar passage in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, but with a notable difference. Instead of instructing us to return our “fellow’s” lost item, we are told we must return even our “enemy’s” lost item.
Perhaps this might help us understand the significant of “You may not hide yourself.” It is so easy, when seeing another person experiencing hardship, to avert our eyes. To not step in to help. Getting involved takes time and effort. It distracts us from our own interests, and keeps us away from taking care of our own needs.
For many people, the natural instinct is to turn away. So the Torah tells us that when we find something that is lost, we can’t ignore it. Even if it belongs to our enemy. Keep in mind that if it is lost, the owner is not around. It is so easy to hide ourselves, or to simply claim the item as our own. Finders Keepers. After all, no one will know. But God will know. And we, ourselves, will know.
Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, the author of Sefer HaChinuch, says that the mitzvah of returning lost objects benefits everyone in society, and indeed the social order itself. After all, we all lose things from time to time. Goats, donkeys, chickens, car keys, cell phones.
Wouldn’t it be great to live in a society in which we knew that our fellows, even those whom we don’t get along so well with, took care of one another’s things, and one another, as an expression of love?