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The following story took place several years ago, in New Haven, Connecticut.
Rabbi Noah Muroff was in need of a new desk, for his home office. He looked on Craigslist, and was pleased to find a desk that met his criteria, for only $200. As Rabbi Muroff and his wife attempted to move their new purchase into the office, they realized that there was a slight problem. The desk was a fraction of an inch too wide to get through the doorway. They realized that they would have no choice but to take apart the desk, entirely, and reassemble it in the office.
The Muroffs were nearly finished taking the desk apart. Something behind one of the drawers caught Rabbi Muroff’s attention. It was a simple plastic shopping bag, which seemed to have a $100 bill inside. Could it be? Rabbi Muroff carefully pulled the bag out of the desk, only to find that the bill was one of many! He couldn’t believe how much cash he was holding in his hands. He and his wife looked at each other, and agreed immediately that they couldn’t keep the money. They piled the wads of cash onto their table, and began to count. 500, 1000, 2000… 98,000! The Muroffs had found $98,000 worth of cash!
Rabbi Muroff immediately got on the phone with the seller of the desk, and told her about the find. The woman was speechless. She explained that she had received an inheritance, and had stuffed the money in the desk, after which she just couldn’t remember what she had done with the money. She was shocked at the honesty of the Muroffs, and filled with gratitude for their noble act. The heartwarming story gained a lot of publicity, and generated a great sanctification of Hashem’s name.
The story raises a question. Was Rabbi Muroff, in fact, correct, in returning the money? It is generally forbidden to return property non-Jews. (see shulchan aruch, 266,1)
Answer of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, shlita:
The Jerusalem Talmud (Bava Metzia 8) relates the following stories:
There was a man named Rabbi Shmuel bar Sosretai, who went to Rome. At that time, the queen of Rome lost a precious piece of jewelry. She sent out a proclamation, stating that anyone who finds the jewelry, and returns it within thirty days, will receive a sum of money from the queen. If, however, the finder returns the lost item after thirty days, he will be executed. Rabbi Shmuel found the queen’s jewelry, and returned the item to the queen only after thirty days had elapsed. The queen asked Rabbi Shmuel why he didn’t return the item immediately. He responded that he did not want people to say that he returned the item because of fear of the queen’s proclamation. Rather, Rabbi Shmuel wanted people to know that he returned the jewelry because he was commanded to do so by Hashem. The queen stated “blessed is the G-d of Israel…”
Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach bought a donkey from an Arab. Rabbi Shimon’s students found a precious stone hanging from the neck of the donkey. The students were excited at Rabbi Shimon’s unexpected gain, however, Rabbi Shimon stated “I bought a donkey, not a precious stone.” He then returned the stone to the Arab. The seller proclaimed “blessed is the G-d of Shimon ben Shetach!”
We see from the above stories that, when returning a lost object will result in a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of Hashem’s name), there is an obligation to return the object. In the case of Rabbi Muroff, there was definitely a kiddush Hashem that resulted from his returning the money. Additionally, it is not considered that Rabbi Muroff lost money. Rather, Hashem will repay him with double that amount. [i]
(ע"פ הספר 'כל משאלותיך' פרשת משפטים)
[i] The Pitchei Choshen states that, according to the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, the prohibition of returning money to a non jew (shulchan aruch 266,1) is possibly only with regard to non-Jews who worship idols.