Hashavat Aveida: Finding Money on Shabbat

A person is required to return lost objects to their owner, a mitzva known as “hashavat aveida.”[1] Doing so, however, may sometimes be in conflict with a different mitzva, obligation, or even prohibition. For example, what is one to do on Shabbat if one finds money that was clearly lost by someone? On the one hand, money is muktza and may not be handled on Shabbat. On the other hand, one is obligated by the Torah to return lost objects.

What is one to do in such a situation?

Most authorities seem to rule that one may not transgress the rabbinical prohibition of muktza in order to fulfill the biblical mitzva of hashavat aveida.[2] Indeed, there are a number of situations where one is permitted, and is even required to forgo the mitzva of hashavat aveida due to a different or concurrent mitzva or prohibition. For example, if a person of stature, such as a talmid chacham or elderly person, finds a lost object that would be beneath his dignity to pick up and tend to, he would not be obligated to do so.[3] So too, a Kohen who sees a lost object in a cemetery is not permitted to enter the cemetery –-and thereby defile himself-- in order to retrieve it.[4]

Other authorities disagree and rule that one may indeed transgress the prohibition of muktza in order to fulfill the mitzva of hashavat aveida.[5] The Biur Halacha leaves the question of returning a lost object that is muktza unanswered.[6] The Vilna Gaon, however, seems to assert that the prohibition against moving muktza items is suspended in order to fulfill the mitzva of hashavat aveida.[7]

In more recent times, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled that one should forgo the mitzva of hashavat aveida rather than transgress the prohibition against muktza on Shabbat.[8] The Chatam Sofer also forbids moving a muktza object for the purpose of hashavat aveida.[9] One of the reasons he rules this way is based on a halacha related to Pesach. One who finds chametz on Yom Tov is required to cover the chametz with a utensil rather than remove it by hand. This is because chametz is muktza on Yom Tov.[10] We see from here that one may not violate the rabbinical prohibition of muktza in order to save oneself from violating the biblical prohibition of owning chametz on Pesach.

The halacha is in accordance with this view, and one may not pick up a muktza object on Shabbat in order to fulfill the mitzva of hashavat aveida. On a related note, it is generally not permitted to violate a rabbinical prohibition in order to fulfill a biblical mitzva. For example, one may not take a shofar out of the techum in order to blow it for those who would otherwise not be able to fulfill the mitzva of shofar on Rosh Hashana.

Nevertheless, one should kick the muktza item to a secure place, if it possible to do so, in order to easily be able to retrieve it after Shabbat and return it to its owner.[11] Some authorities allow one to ask a non-Jew to pick up and tend to the lost object until Shabbat is over.[12] One is allowed to announce a find on Shabbat even if the item is muktza.[13] It is permitted to search for a lost object on Shabbat that is muktza[14]though others disagree.[15] It goes without saying that even one who finds a lost object that is not muktza may not pick it up if there is no Eruv in the neighborhood.

It is interesting to note that lost money (currency as well as coins) is generally considered to be unidentifiable from the perspective of Jewish law, and hence, there may be no obligation to return it.[16] This is true even if the original owner has memorized the serial numbers of his paper currency. As such, one might only be required to return lost money if it is clearly identifiable, such as in an envelope, in a distinct location, or folded in a very irregular manner. Nevertheless, returning something, even when it is not explicitly required, is strongly recommended and is a tremendous mitzva.

[1] Devarim 22:1.

[2] OC 266:13. See Mishna Berura ad loc; Shulchan Aruch Harav, Hilchot Metzia U’pikadon 40. See also Minchat Yitzchak 5:42; Shemirat Shabbat K'hilchata 20 note 28.

[3] Bava Metzia 29b, 30a; CM 263:1.

[4] YD 371:5.

[5] Meishiv Davar 153.

[6] Biur Halacha 266.

[7] OC 586:22.

[8] Shemirat Shabbat K'hilchata 20 note 28.

[9] Chatam Sofer, OC 82.

[10] OC 446:1.

[11] OC 266:13; Mishna Berura 308:13.

[12] Mishna Berura 266:38.

[13] OC 306:12; Shemirat Shabbat K'hilchata 29:32.

[14] Rashi, Eruvin 39a s.v. chamra. See also Derech Sicha p. 280.

[15] Megillat Sefer (Eisental), Shabbat 78:1.

[16] CM 262:13.