- Question: [Wednesday, 26th Iyar 5783]
My children found a small adult bike in good condition lingering in the bushes in a park in the local neighborhood. At first they just left it there but after coming back to the park three days later, the bike was still there, so they took it home in order to try to find the owner. We live in a large Jewish community and put up signs locally relating that we found a bike. Three young Jewish teenage kids called us separately claiming it to be theirs, with each of them giving the same correct signs, including the colors of the bike. Certainly, it at most only belongs to one of them, and I am beginning to suspect that it may not belong to any of them and that they may have stolen the bike together and thrown it behind the bushes, as unfortunately is not uncommon in our neighborhood for bikes to be stolen. I don’t have any solid evidence for this, but their stories just didn’t match up regarding why they left their bike there and as to how it got there. They also were not that adamant of getting it back, and when I asked each of them individually to arrange for me to speak with their parents, they were not fond of the idea and gave excuses for why I shouldn’t speak to their parents. What am I to do with the bike? May my kids keep it?
You are not to return the bike to the above individuals of whom you have a circumstantial case of suspicion that they are lying about owning it or even worse have stolen it. You should hold onto the bike until you are able to verify the owner through both the signs of the bike as well as testimony of ownership, such as by speaking to the boy’s parents and verifying his claims. I would suggest publicizing the lost and found notice in surrounding neighborhoods, as it is possible that it was stolen from there and then left in your neighborhood park for later retrieval by the robbers. If after some time nobody claims the bike as theirs, you may keep it for yourself, although being aware that if the owner ever does show up and according to Halacha it must be returned to him [i.e. No Yiush etc], then you are to return the bike to him, and reimburse him for any loss that was caused due to your use of the bike.
Explanation: The law is that when an object is lost then the owner must provide certain details regarding the lost object in order to prove his ownership and have it returned to him. There are various types of details of a lost object that a person may describe, and not all are considered valid to prove ownership. The detail must be distinct and something that would only usually be known by the owner. Furthermore, if the individual giving the signs is suspected of being a scammer and liar than simply giving signs does not suffice even if he gives detailed signs, and he must bring witnesses to testify that the item is his, or to testify that he is not a scammer or liar. This especially applies in light of the fact that even in Talmud times there were many scammers due to which the Talmud and Poskim rule that one should not return a lost object to its owner even if he gives signs until people testify as to his honesty. Now, although there is a discussion in Poskim regarding if one must return a lost object to a suspected scammer if he gives very detailed signs of ownership, practically, aside for the fact that in this case no very detailed signs were given, the main ruling of the Michaber and Admur is that a suspected scammer is not to be given the object even if he gives very detailed signs. Accordingly, you may not return the bike to any of the above said individuals until their parents or other adults testify to their ownership. Rather, you are to hold onto it for some time to allow the owner to show up, and if he doesn’t show up after some time then the custom today is to do with it as you wish, accepting the fact that if the owner ever shows up that you will reimburse him for his bike.
Now, regarding if the true owner shows up with testimony of his ownership, and he claims that it was stolen from him, then the question is raised regarding if you need to return it, as if they gave up hope of finding the bike prior to you finding it and taking it, then ideally it belongs to you, just as is the law if one found a lost object of which the owner already gave up hope in finding. However, in truth, in this case since the item was stolen, giving up hope alone does not suffice and it must also be willingly given from the thief to you in order for you not to be required to return it, which does not seem to be the case here in which the above suspected teens may have stolen the bike and are still asking for it back. The practical ramification would be in a case that you do not find the owner for some time and in the meantime use the bike and have damage caused to it, then whether you need to reimburse the owner for the damage would be dependent on the above.
Sources: See regarding the need to give signs for a lost object: Admur Hilchos Metziah Upikadon Halachas 21; Shut Rabbeinu 28; Michaber 267:4-7; Rambam Hilchos Gezeila Veaveida 13:5; Mishneh Bava Metzia 28b; See regarding that we do not trust a Ramaiy even if he give signs until he brings witnesses: Admur Hilchos Metziah Upikadon Halachas 21; Michaber C.M. 267:5-6 and 28; Rama 267:6; Shach 267:2-4; Smeh 267:7 and 9; Rambam Hilchos Gezeila Veaveida 13:3; Bava Metzia 28b See regarding Yiush for a lost object: Admur Hilchos Metzia Upikadon Halacha Halacha 2 [regarding object without Siman, which is a dispute and we are Machmir] and Halacha 3 [regarding object with Siman in which all agree] Halacha 8 and 15 [regarding if there is doubt if owner knew of its falling before it was found]; Raavad and Tur, brought in Shach 260:26; Shach 260:26 [regarding if has Simanim] and 267:13; Michaber 262:5 that if person claimed that Nisyaesh then they may keep it; See regarding Yiush for a stolen object: Admur Hilchos Gezeila Vegeniva Halacha 10-11 and 20; See regarding holding onto A lost object until the coming of Eliyahu: Admur Hilchos Metzia Upikadon Halacha 22 [regarding all lost objects that must be returned that it is forbidden to make any use of the object, or sell it, until the owner is found] Halacha 2 [regarding object without Siman, which is a dispute and we are Machmir] and Halacha 3 [regarding object with Siman in which all agree] Halacha 8 and 15 [regarding if there is doubt if owner knew of its falling before it was found]; Michaber 267:15; Rambam Gezeila Veaveida 13:10; Mishneh Bava Metzia 29b; Toras Haveida 6 p. 143; See regarding taking item for oneself if one cannot find the owner, and later reimbursing when one does: Pischei Choshen 7 footnote 10 based on Nesivos Hamishpat 256 and Chasam Sofer C.M. 122; Igros Moshe Choshen Mishpat 2:45; Toras Haveida 6 p. 143;