Finders, Keepers, Losers, Weepers

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Can you keep a found object? “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” right? Not according to the Talmud. It all depends on the degree of hope involved. That’s why a small section of the Talmud called Bava Metzia deals with the maintenance or loss of hope when inanimate things, like the loss of property, are concerned. The Talmud teaches that someone who finds a lost object can keep it only when the owner has given up all hope of recovery, when the owner has abandoned hope and made it ownerless. This is called ye’ush shelo medat.[1]

Then the Talmud raises another question: In what circumstances and at what point, does one abandon hope? At what point does one despair of retrieving lost property? And a further question is raised: Can one abandon hope without knowing it? Or can the finder act as if this has occurred and thus treat the object as ownerless?

And even further, can ye’ush be retroactive? What? In other words, even if we were unaware of the loss of property at the time it happened– if we had known facts that were revealed only later – could it be treated as if we would have given up hope at the time the property was lost. Finally, after much discussion, the rabbis of old decided that retroactive ye’ush did not exist! Of course, it wouldn’t be the Talmud if everyone agreed!

Let me share with you a true story, about something that happened to me, personal property that was lost. Like some rabbinic aggadot (non-halakhic narratives) that may go back two millennia, my story below,  makes its point in a rambling, round-about, humorous way. You won’t know where the story is going until it gets there!


It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. After I finished stuffing a turkey for a holiday celebration and, with a sigh of satisfaction, had put it in the oven for about twenty minutes per pound at 400 degrees Farenheit, and with a nicely folded foil tent over it, I began to tidy up the kitchen. That was when I noticed that my beautiful, emerald-cut diamond was missing from the ring that had marked my engagement, a ring, that, together with my matching wedding band, I never, ever took off. I had been wearing it for many years. The engagement ring was still on my finger all right, but there was a big, gaping hole in the center, where four prongs had formerly held the lovely gem.

My diamond was lost! No, I did not enter into a state of ye’ush  (resigned loss of hope), not at the beginning. I still hoped; no way would I abandon hope. I searched all over the kitchen, in every nook and cranny of the floor, the counters, for my diamond. Not too easy to find a clear diamond on a white tile floor or white counters (white, European kitchens were in vogue then), but … no diamond! I searched and washed all the dishes in the sink. Nothing had been put in the dishwasher yet, so maybe …  no, no diamond. “Oh no,” I cried. “The turkey!”

Releasing a keening sound of something that was not yet resignation, that still had a note of hope in it, I removed the turkey from the oven, and, bit by bit, removed what would have been a delicious stuffing from the turkey, examined it with a magnifying glass, kneaded each morsel carefully between my fingers. No diamond was to be found. Next, as I peered into the now empty cavity of that turkey and poked and prodded its insides (fortunately it had been deceased for some time), the sinews glistened back at me as if they were laughing. After all, the turkey had been cooking in a pre-heated oven for twenty minutes. It dripped a little here and there.

It was at this point that I began to cry. I entered a state of resignation, a state of ye’ush, but I did have the presence of mind to report the loss to the insurance company. “My diamond is gone,” I sobbed. At least some of the economic value, if not the sentimental value, was recoverable. And it did not take too much effort to report an insured loss. Now, if I had known at the time the loss occurred that the diamond could not be found, that the loss was irrevocable despite all my effort, would I have entered a state of retroactive ye’ush immediately – that is ye’ush without knowing it, ye’ush shelo medat? It would have saved me a lot of searching time!

However, my story is not finished. When I finally served the turkey to my guests at a beautifully laid table that night, there it was, my diamond, floating in the gravy, as several of my guests pointed to it with astonishment. Thank goodness nobody had swallowed it! And yes, the diamond was undamaged. Diamonds, as you probably know, can survive high heat.

Yes, I had abandoned hope prematurely when I called the insurance company! Can we ever know, I reflect now, the precise time at which hope should be abandoned? Is there a time when we should give up hope and say, “Move on now! Collect the insurance money! Forget the sentimental value! Replace the diamond!”

But that is not the end of the story. Some years later, my diamond ring, this same diamond ring was stolen. A thief, a ganaf, broke into my house by stealth and stole all my jewelry, including this ring. And, oy vay, this time I no longer had jewelry insurance. It was too expensive! Since I was living in a large, metropolitan center where one diamond is like another diamond, I realized that I probably would not recover it. Even before the police advised me that it was unlikely I would recover the ring, that the thief would have fenced it or shipped it to another country before I had even discovered the loss. There were no identifying marks because the ring was not engraved with an inscription or initials, and, in any case, the thief would likely have taken the diamond out of the ring for resale. So this time, my ye’ush was not in vain. I had to abandon hope for real.

But since, as the police said, it was already too late to retrieve my loss before I even discovered it was missing, was this not also ye’ush shelo medat—ye’ush without knowing it? In other words, if I had known, would I have given up hope of recovering it from the moment it was stolen, even before I actually knew it was stolen?

But that is not the end of the story. After I set this seemingly cyclical tale of loss and recovery and loss down on paper, I had a sudden urge to put “recovery” – hope — back into the picture when a recurring advertisement in a very reputable magazine caught my attention. National Geographic, no less, in which a company reachable on the Internet was advertising gem-quality diamonds that looked very much like the one I had lost and found and lost again. Only these diamonds were not extracted from deep in the ground through the grime and sweat of miners working in unspeakably treacherous conditions that have been the subject matter of recent movies. These advertised diamonds were cooked in a scientific lab, and, yes, they had all the properties of natural diamonds found in the ground – but with one very important difference: They were flawless, a quality almost impossible for natural diamonds to attain. And, yes, these synthetic diamonds had another favorable attribute: The price was miniscule in comparison to what a “real” diamond would cost.

The temptation was too great to resist. I selected my ring (platinum-fused silver), with the large emerald-cut center stone surrounded by smaller baguettes on the side, just like the ones my long lost ring (solid platinum) had possessed. Again, there was a difference. This time the emerald-cut stone I chose was not a diamond; it was a synthetic emerald, proudly reflecting four karats of polished green, chemical properties in the sunlight.

It is very beautiful ring but somewhat ostentatious, so I haven’t worn it yet. Maybe I never will. If I should, however, it is unlikely that anyone would realize that this artful replacement for my lost jewel is synthetic. But if an unknowing thief should attempt to steal it from my jewelry box at any time in the future, that ganaf will have gained only an object of no significant value, not compared to the multiple lives that have been lost in mines over the centuries trying to recover that sparkling “real thing” – like the one I formerly owned — from the ground.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2015, 2017. All rights reserved.