Since the beginning of Massekhet Bava Metzia we have been discussing fulfillment of the positive commandment to return lost objects. What if the finder did not return the object? What commandments has he transgressed?
Rava teaches that if someone sees another person drop a coin, and he picks it up before the owner despaired of recovering it and intended to keep it for himself, he has transgressed three separate commandments:
- Lo tigzol – do not steal (see Vayikra 19:13)
- Hashev teshivem – return the lost object (see 22:2)
- Lo tukhal lehitalem – you may not disregard the lost object ( 22:4)
Furthermore, according to the reading in our Gemara, even if the finder then changed his mind after ye’ush – after the owner despaired of recovering the coin – and returned it to its owner, he is simply giving a present to the individual who lost the coin; he cannot erase his transgressions.
Although this last sentence appears in most versions of the Gemara, many of the rishonim claim that it is a later addition that was included in the Gemara, and was inserted as an explanatory comment by Rav Yehudai Gaon. The problem that is raised with this ruling is that we ordinarily see gezel – stealing – as a lav ha-nitak la’aseh – a negative commandment that is offset by a positive commandment. Since the Torah (Vayikra 5:20-23) juxtaposes stealing with returning, it is understood that the sin of stealing can be removed by fulfilling the mitzva of returning the stolen object. This problem was so vexing to many of the rishonim that the Ra’avad and others erased this line from their Gemarot.
There are explanations offered to explain why even returning the stolen object would not remove the transgression in this case. The Radbaz, for example suggests that in the case of a stolen object, the mitzva of returning it – and erasing the sin of stealing – remains forever. The commandment to return a lost object, however, remains in force only until the original owner despairs of getting it back. Once the original owner despairs, there is no longer any mitzva of returning the object, and the opportunity to remove the transgression disappears with it.