The idea that there’s a halacha that we don’t have to return lost money to a non-Jew has always bothered me. Maybe I could see it making sense if we are in a society where non-Jews are anti-Semitic. But does this also apply when non-Jews treat us nicely?
Thanks for your question. There is a concept called reciprocity. What this means is that the parties in question extend equal courtesies to one another. For example, there isn’t one US driver’s license. Rather, all fifty states issue their own licenses based on different criteria. Nevertheless, the fact that I have a New York State driver’s license doesn’t limit me to driving in New York. This is because the states have reciprocity in this matter. People with New York licenses can drive in Seattle, Juneau, Memphis and Tallahassee, while licensed drivers who live in those cities can drive in New York (as well as in one another). Now imagine if New York suddenly announced, “We expect you other states to continue honoring our licenses but we’re not going to honor yours anymore.” I imagine that such an announcement would not go over very well with the other 49 states and they probably wouldn’t agree to it. This is because doing so would make them patsies. [Patsy – a person who is easily taken advantage of.] The same concept applies in mitzvos.
Jew have 613 mitzvos. Non-Jews are subject to the seven universal laws that were commanded to all mankind through Noah after the flood. Now, really, these are seven categories so there are more than seven individual laws; there are more like thirty. But no matter how you slice it, Jews have wayyyyy more mitzvos than non-Jews. This means that a small percentage of mitzvos apply to both Jews and non-Jews while a large percentage apply to Jews alone.
When mitzvos apply to both Jews and non-Jews, the concept of reciprocity applies. Jews are not allowed to kidnap non-Jews and non-Jews are not allowed to kidnap Jews. Non-Jews are not allowed to steal from Jews and Jews are not allowed to steal from non-Jews. It’s a two-way street.
But what about when mitzvos apply to Jews only? Let’s take the prohibition against charging interest as an example. (This is the area where people typically voice objections to what they perceive to be inequity.) The Torah separately prohibits both lending with interest and borrowing with interest. But these mitzvos very clearly apply only to Jews. Regarding loans between Jews, Leviticus 25:36 says, “Take no interest or profit from him; fear God so that your brother may live with you.” The words “your brother” specify that this only applies to Jews. If that weren’t explicit enough, Deuteronomy 23:20-21 says, “You shall not lend with interest to your brother – not money, food or anything else that could be lent with interest. You may lend to an outsider with interest but to your brother you may not lend with interest.”
Some people mistakenly think it’s unfair that Jews can’t lend to other Jews with interest but they can lend to non-Jews with interest but in fact it’s very fair. This is because Jews can neither borrow nor lend to other Jews with interest but they can both borrow from and lend to non-Jews with interest. So if Moishe lends to Patrick, Moishe can charge Patrick interest, and if Patrick lends to Moishe, Patrick can charge Moishe interest. The relationship between Moishe and Patrick is fair and equitable; neither one has the upper hand. What would be unfair is if only one party could charge interest of the other. If Jews didn’t charge interest to non-Jews but were charged interest by them, then we’d be patsies.
Now, when you talk about not returning lost property to non-Jews, that’s an area in which the concept of reciprocity does not apply because non-Jews are not obligated to return lost property that they find. Jews are obligated to return found objects to their owners but, once again, the Torah limits this responsibility to other Jews. Deuteronomy 22:3 says, “so shall you do with every lost item of your brother, which he has lost and you have found.”
This provides the conceptual reason not to return lost property to non-Jews: because they’re not obligated to return it to Jews. If it’s a one-way street, you’re a patsy. But the halacha in actual practice has many more shades of gray than that.
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 266:1) describes this law as follows:
The lost property of an idolator is permitted (to be kept) since the Torah specifies “the lost property of your brother” (Deut. 22:3). One who returns it violates a prohibition because he strengthens the position of sinners. If one returns it in order to make a kiddush Hashem (a sanctification of God’s Name), so that they will glorify Israel and know that they are people of faith, then it is praiseworthy to do so. In a place where (keeping the lost property would be) a chillul Hashem (a desecration of God’s Name), it is forbidden to keep his lost property and he is obligated to return it. And in every situation, one is required to bring in (i.e., safeguard) their property as one does the property of Jews, in order to promote peaceful relations.
Now you will notice that I translated the piece above to say “idolators” rather than “non-Jews.” That’s because (a) it actually says “idolators” and (b) Be’er HaGolah on this halacha says that the piece of Talmud from which it is derived (Sanhedrin 76b) only refers to the non-Jews of the time, who were actual idolators. It does not apply to modern non-Jews, who recognize God (albeit differently than we do) rather than idols of wood and stone. When it comes to modern non-Jews, the Be’er HaGolah says, it is appropriate to return lost property.
So the idea that one shouldn’t return lost property to non-Jews really only applies to idolators because doing so, strengthens their position, which is detrimental to our own. To make a sanctification of God’s Name, returning lost property to non-Jews is praiseworthy and to avoid making a desecration of God’s Name, doing so is mandatory. While one could infer the answer, this doesn’t directly address your question about times and places in which the non-Jews treat the Jews nicely. For this, let us turn to, of all places, the book of Psalms.
Psalms 15:5 says, “He has never lent his money with interest….” The Radak there comments as follows:
… David (the author of Psalms) … only prohibits what the Torah prohibits, and the Torah only prohibits (lending with interest) when it comes to Jews. It is permitted in the case of non-Jews, as it says “You may lend to an outsider with interest” (Deut. 23:21). This is not the case with robbery, theft, causing a loss* and oppressing someone; it is prohibited to oppress, rob or steal even from a non-Jew. Interest, however, which is given with his knowledge and consent, is permitted. A Jew is obligated to show kindness to his fellow Jew, and lending without interest is a form of kindness and a favor. Sometimes this is an even greater favor than a gift because people often hesitate to accept a gift more than they would a loan. This is not the case between Jews and non-Jews. We are not obligated to extend kindness or to lend them money for free because, generally speaking, they hate Jews. But if a non-Jew treats a Jew with kindness and favor, the Jew is obligated to return the kindness and do him favors in return.
So the bar for returning lost objects to non-Jews is incredibly low – the non-Jew not being an idolator is sufficient for that. Living in a time and place where non-Jews get along with Jews and treat them neighborly is sufficient reason even to forgo charging interest. So we’re not required by the Torah to do these things in all times and places because of the lack of reciprocity but when such behavior is appropriate, it is permitted, praiseworthy or even obligatory to go beyond the minimum baseline set by the Torah.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
*The Radak here uses the word aveidah, which could be understood to mean a lost object, but since that does not reflect the basic halacha, I have chosen not to translate it that way.