Question: May an owner offer a reward to anyone who finds his lost object? May the finder keep the reward?
Short Answer: Yes, according to many contemporary poskim, a finder may accept a reward, but some add that it is preferable for the finder to donate the reward to tz’dakah.
I. Poel Bateil
The Tur and the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 265:1), based on the Gemara (Bava M’tzia 30b-31b), rule that an owner must reimburse a finder who misses work to search for the owner’s lost object. However, the owner need not reimburse the finder the full amount of his lost wages, but rather like a “poel bateil.” The simple explanation of “poel bateil” is the amount of money that the average person would want to earn to spend his time searching for the lost object instead of performing his normal job. See Shulchan Aruch (ibid). [A full discussion of “poel bateil” is outside the scope of this article].
Notably, the entire discussion about “poel bateil” and reimbursement only applies where the finder misses work to perform the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah. Where the finder misses no work when finding and returning a lost object, he does the mitzvah “b’chinam” – for “free” – according to the Shulchan Aruch (ibid).
But may the owner advertise “Reward” to potential finders? May the finder accept a reward for finding an expensive item?
II. No Reward
The Mishnah (Bava M’tzia 32a) states that if a person sees his friend unloading or loading his donkey, the person must help his friend, as this is the mitzvah of p’rikah. If the friend, however, walks off and tells the person that the person should do the loading and unloading himself – based on the mitzvah of p’rikah – the person obviously need not listen.
The Gemara (Bava M’tzia 32b) debates how this mishnah fits with the prohibition of “tzaar baalei chayim” – hurting an animal (i.e., the donkey suffering under the load). In other words, if tzaar baalei chayim is a Biblical prohibition, perhaps the person has an obligation to help his friend unload his donkey, regardless of whether the friend partakes in the unloading, as doing so will lessen the donkey’s suffering.
The Rosh (Bava M’tzia 2:30) explains an important distinction between whether the person is obligated to help because of tzaar baalei chayim or because of p’rikah. If the person helps unload because of tzaar baalei chayim, he is permitted to accept payment for his help, as opposed to if he helps unload because of p’rikah, he is forbidden to accept any payment. This Rosh is codified in the Rama (Choshen Mishpat 272:9) and the Sm”a (17). Importantly, the Rama (Choshen Mishpat 272:6) previously equated the laws of payment for p’rikah with the laws of payment for hashavas aveidah.
Indeed, the Rosh in a different place (Bava M’tzia 2:24) also says this expressly: that it is forbidden to accept money for the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah unless the person misses work.
The Machanei Efraim (S’chirus, 15) extrapolates from this Rosh that it is forbidden for a finder to accept payment from an owner as a reward for finding the owner’s lost object. In other words, it is forbidden to receive this “s’char mitzvah.”
III. Yes Reward
There is another mishnah relevant to this discussion. The Mishnah (N’darim 33a) rules that a finder may perform hashavas aveidah even where his possessions are forbidden (because of a neder) on the owner. [For full context, the Gemara debates whether the Mishnah is also discussing where the owner’s possessions are forbidden on the finder]. The Mishnah concludes that any payment by the owner to the finder must be given to hekdeish (i.e., the Beis HaMikdash).
The Ran (ibid) understands this last line of the mishnah as referring to a case where the finder missed work to return the lost item and now the owner must pay the finder “poel bateil” (as discussed above) wages. If the finder refuses the payment, the owner may not keep the payment for himself, as doing so would essentially mean that he is “benefiting” from the possessions of the finder. Instead, the money must be given to hekdeish.
The Rambam (Peirush HaMishnayos, ibid and in the Mishnah Torah, N’darim 7:1) understands the mishnah completely differently. The Rambam understands the case as occurring in a place where the minhag was to pay a reward to any finder who returns a lost object, even where he did not need to miss any work to return the object. If the finder refuses the reward, the owner may not keep the payment for himself, as doing so would essentially mean that he is “benefiting” from the possessions of the finder. Instead, the money must be given to hekdeish.
From the simple understanding of the Rambam, it appears that he holds that, in general (where there are no n’darim involved), a finder may receive a reward from the owner and, in fact, this was the minhag in certain places. Indeed, the Tosafos Yom Tov (N’darim ibid) understands the Rambam in this manner and thus rejects the Rambam’s interpretation because of this problem. The Tiferes Yisrael (ibid) defends the Rambam that the Chachamim made a g’zeirah when they saw that no one was returning lost objects and thus allowed the owner to pay a reward to the finder (similar to a prozbul by Sh’mitah).
It thus appears that it is a machlokes between the Rosh and the Rambam whether an owner may pay a reward (and whether the finder may keep it).
IV. Practically Speaking
The T’shuvos V’Hanhagos (3:463) cites a “chacham” who was puzzled at the common contemporary “custom” of rewarding a finder for returning a lost object, as it violates the ruling of the Rosh, as cited in the Rama. In response, the T’shuvos V’Hanhagos suggests that perhaps the reward is for the finder “returning” the lost object, and not only “finding it and informing the owner,” which is the strict requirement of the halachah. But, the T’shuvos V’Hanhagos challenges this suggestion, as if correct: A finder who merely “informs” the owner of the lost object would be barred from taking a reward.
Instead, the T’shuvos V’Hanhagos posits that these “rewards” are not “payment” for performing the mitzvah but mere expressions of goodwill that encourage finders to go out of their way to perform this great mitzvah. Additionally, the T’shuvos V’Hanhagos wonders whether the “reward” is payment for the finder returning the item immediately because perhaps there is no such requirement.
In conclusion, the T’shuvos V’Hanhagos permits owners of lost objects to publicize “rewards” to potential finders but advises finders that they should refuse such reward or at the very least, give it to tz’dakah. If not, the reward may very well decrease the finder’s reward from Shamayim. Interestingly, the sefer Hashavas Aveidah K’Halachah (10:2) and Halachos of Other People’s Money (Rav Bodner, p. 182) adopt the ruling of the T’shuvos V’Hanhagos that a finder may accept a reward but omit any mention of this last advice to give it to tz’dakah.
Similarly, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein (Chashukei Chemed, Bava M’tzia 31b) rules that if a finder returns a large amount of money and the government wants to make a public showing of such a righteous act and give him a reward, the finder may accept, as the reward is to encourage others to return objects, and not as payment for this finder returning this amount of money.
On the other hand, the Pischei Choshen (Aveidah 8:1) leaves unanswered the question of whether the finder may accept a reward.
Next Week’s Topic: May a homeowner keep a valuable object that he finds buried in his yard?