Shabbat Ki Teytsey: Lost chickens

August 19, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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“If you see your brother’s ox or sheep wandering and you are tempted to ignore it, you must return it to him. And if your brother does not live nearby, you should bring the animal home and keep it until he comes to claim it, and then you must return it.

And the same goes for a garment or any other object that you might find. You should not ignore it. And similarly,  if you see your brother’s ass or donkey struggling under its load fallen by the wayside you should not ignore it but help him raise the animal” (Deut. 22 1-4).

A similar law appears in Exodus 23.4 except that there it talks about what to do if you see your enemy’s animal lost, you must return, return it to him. These two statements complement each other, as is common in the Biblical style where different words are used in repeating a law to add an extra dimension and to clarify in the light of experience and circumstances.

Note two differences. In the Exodus case, it is your enemy and in Deuteronomy, it is your brother. You might think that the law only applies to people who are close to you, but no it also applies to people you do not know and even to people you do not like. In Exodus,  the word return is repeated to make the point that you should make a real effort to return the lost property, not a perfunctory one.  And in the later Deuteronomy case, it repeats the phrase do not ignore to emphasize that even if it is a lot of trouble you must persevere. It is a moral obligation.

The Talmud illustrates the importance of returning property which given the turbulent times of those days was particularly important.

“A passer-by left some eggs and chickens outside R.Hanina Ben Dosa’s house. He wanted to eat the eggs, but his wife told him not to, so they hatched them to produce more chickens. When the chickens grew too numerous, he sold them and bought goats. One day he overheard a man say that he had to leave some eggs and chickens nearby. R. Hanina asked him if he could give a sign to prove that they were his and he gave him proof, and he handed the goats over to him.”

The Talmud discusses whether a person has the right to make use of the lost animals while they were in his custody. But the beauty of the story lies both in the way R. Dosa treated lost property, and that the rabbis took the bare bones of a simple Biblical law and expanded it to reinforce it and underline the need to respect other people’s private and lost property.

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