Question: [Wednesday, 29th Adar 1, 5782]
Yesterday, when I was walking into shul I found a folded $100 bill on the floor by the entrance area of the Shul. I of course wanted to return it to whoever lost it and did some investigation and returned it to a member of the shul who I know well, and said to me that indeed he had a $100 bill in his pocket and could no longer find it. [I told him that I found money but did not say how much.] I have however two questions that I was wondering regarding this. Number one, was I truly obligated to search for the person who lost it and return the money to him, and if not, then my next question is as to whether this found money is considered like income from which I must remove Maaser from.
From the letter of the law, the money belongs to you, and you certainly do not have any obligation to search for the owner to return it to him. Furthermore, from the letter of the law, you are not even required to return it to an individual who claims that he lost it even if he presents some kind of evidence. Nonetheless, one can argue that there is a voluntary Mitzvah to return it to an individual who is not known to be a liar and is/was in the area and claims to have lost an amount of money that is equal to the amount that you found. Obviously, you should not announce the amount of money that you found and perhaps also not the location that you found it in and simply say that you found money and see if the person can say the amount, and the area is that he passed through, to see if it truly belongs to him. Accordingly, your returning of the money to the acclaimed owner was not a requirement, but was certainly an act of kindness and love of a fellow Jew. Seemingly, you are not required to separate Maaser from the money that you found, even though it technically belonged to you, and your giving it back to back to the acclaimed owner was simply a good gesture on your part. To note, that in any case that you are in doubt of the claim of the acclaimed owner or You have simply not found anyone who claims to have lost it, then you make keep it for yourself without any worry or conscious, although you would have to separate 10% from Maaser from this found income.
It is a clear ruling in the Talmud and Poskim, that one who finds money [not within or near a wallet] on a public floor is allowed to keep the money, unless it contains a very unique sign which the owner made on it, and it is not common that such a sign would be found on any of the other money’s of the owner. This applies whether it was found on the street, or inside of a Shul. This applies irrelevant of the amount of money found, and applies even if the money was found in a majority Jewish area, and certainly if found in a majority gentile area. One is not even required to try to search for the owner and may automatically keep it. The reason for this is because people are accustomed to check their pockets or wallets for their money all the time, and thus, we can assume that the owner who lost the money already discovered that it was missing and gave up hopes of finding it, prior to it being found, being that it has no returnable sign. Accordingly, by the time the money was found it was already Hefker, and the finder may keep it just as he may keep anything from Hefker.
Based on this, in your case above that you found a folded $100 bill, you were allowed to keep the money for yourself, even though it is almost certain that someone who entered the Shul had lost it not too long earlier, seemingly, when taking something out of his pocket. The fact that the bill was found folded is not considered a unique sign, as many people fold bills. In addition, it is possible that the owner folds all of his bills this way, and hence due to both of these reasons, it is considered to be without any sign.
Now, regarding if there is at least a Mitzvah Min Hamuvchar, or act of piety involved in trying to return it to the rightful owner regardless of the letter of the law. Seemingly, from the sources it is apparent that there is not, as such a concept of returning a last object despite the lack of obligation, is only recorded regarding one who found a lost object in a majority gentile area, in which case we rule that although one is not required to return it, it is an act of piety to do so. Furthermore, even then it only applies if the item has some kind of a sign which the owner can give [or does not have a sign but one knows for certain as to whom it belongs to]. Furthermore, even if it has a sign, one is not required to search for the owner even from the aspect of piety, and it is only that if the owner comes forward and claims to have lost it and gives the right signs [or you know for certain whom it belongs to] that we say that it is an act of piety to return it, even though you’re not obligated to. Accordingly, it seems that there is not even an act of piety involved in trying to search for the person who lost the money, or even in returning it to him if he comes forward and gives a non-unique sign, so long as one does not know for certain whom it fell from. Nonetheless, in my opinion, [even though at the moment I have not found this explicitly stated] trying to return it to a person who you have no reason not to believe to be the rightful owner who lost it, as you did in your case, is an exemplary action, and I don’t see how this would not fulfill the Biblical Mitzvah of Ahavas Yisrael, even if it does not fulfill the Mitzvah of Hashavas Aveida being that it was not required to be returned. Furthermore, perhaps returning it in such a case would be similar to one who returns an item whom one knows for certain whom it belongs to, even if it does not have a sign and was found in a gentile area, in which case we say its an act of piety to return it. Vetzaruch Iyun. The counter mystical argument that if G-d made you find something without a sign, then it must be a sign from heaven that he wants you to have this money and therefore you should not return it even as an act of piety [as some claim to have been said by the Chazon Ish] in my opinion does not have strong enough basis to be followed, and indeed has been rejected by Gedolei Haposkim of today [i.e. Rav Chaim Kanievsky] as being unreliable.
Sources: See regarding that one who finds money in a public area may keep the money for himself: Admur Hilchos Metzia Upikadon 8 [that money which is found may be kept] and 9 [that this applies even in a Beis Midrash and certainly in a shul]; Michaber C.M. 262:3, 6, 9 and 11; Mishneh Bava Metzia 21a; Rebbe Yitzchak in Bava Metzia 21b; Braisa Bava Metzia 25b; Smeh 262:13, 19 and 28; Tur 262; Ramban 25b; See regarding that if the money has a unique sign that is not common to be found on any other moneys of the owner, then one must return it: Admur Hilchos Metzia Upikadon 8; Rama 262:13; Smeh 262:28; Ramban Bava Metzia ibid; Nimukei Yosef Bava Metzia ibid; See regarding if a bill is considered to have a sign: Teshuvah of Igros Moshe printed in Hashavas Aveida Kehilchaso p. 54; Toras Haveida p. 9; See regarding the act of piety in returning even if is not required: Admur Hilchos Metzia Upikadon 18-19; Michaber and Tur 259:5; Rama 259:6; Bava Metzia 24b; Pischeiy Chosehn 2 footnote 7; Toras Haveida p. 11 footnote 14 in great length regarding if this applies by items that have no siman and he concludes based on Shita Mekubetzes in name of Ritva that it does; See regarding that one is not required to separate Maaser if return as act of piety [but must if keeps for himself]: Mishpat Haveida [Gross] 259 Shaar Tizyon 125 in name of Gedolei Haposkim; Pesakim Veteshuvos 249:24; Marbeh Torah 161 regarding Avak Ribis; However, See Derech Emuna 7 Biur Halacha Viechad that seemingly one must remove Maaser in such a case, although he concludes with Tzaruch Iyun.