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Lost Without You

This week we enter the realm of the lost: chapter two of Bava Metzia is all about lost objects: what needs to be returned and how owners can claim their property. The law is based on the verses in the Torah that talk about returning lost items to their owner:

鈥淚f you see your fellow Israelite鈥檚 ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back (讛指砖讈值芝讘 转旨职砖讈执讬讘值謻诐) to your peer. . .You shall do the same with that person鈥檚 ass; you shall do the same with that person鈥檚 garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow Israelite loses (诇职讻讎诇志讗植讘值讚址芝转 讗指讞执譀讬讱指 讗植砖讈侄专志转旨止讗讘址芝讚 ) and you find: you must not remain indifferent.鈥 (Devarim 22:1, 3)

The highlighted Hebrew words, hashev and aveida, return and lost item, are the source for the term commonly used in halacha, hashavat aveida, returning lost objects. Interestingly, most of the instances of the root 讗讘讚 in Tanakh are about destruction, i.e., permanent loss and not about temporarily misplacing something. For example, the Israelites are commanded 讗讘讚 转讗讘讚讜谉, destroy completely the sites of the Canaanite idol worshippers (Devarim 12:2). A powerful personal example is Esther鈥檚 resolve to go before Achashverosh no matter what the consequences:

诇值讱职蜘 讻旨职谞吱讜止住 讗侄转志讻旨讎诇志讛址讬旨职讛讜旨讚执譁讬诐 讛址纸谞旨执诪职爪职讗执郑讬诐 讘旨职砖讈讜旨砖讈指謼谉 讜职爪郑讜旨诪讜旨 注指譅诇址譅讬 讜职讗址诇志转旨止讗讻职诇吱讜旨 讜职讗址诇志转旨执砖讈职转旨譁讜旨 砖讈职诇止证砖讈侄转 讬指诪执讬诐謾 诇址郑讬职诇指讛 讜指讬謹讜止诐 讙旨址诐志讗植谞执芝讬 讜职谞址注植专止转址謻讬 讗指爪郑讜旨诐 讻旨值謶谉 讜旨讘职讻值譃谉 讗指讘证讜止讗 讗侄诇志讛址诪旨侄謾诇侄讱职謾 讗植砖讈侄郑专 诇止纸讗志讻址讚旨指謹转 讜职讻址讗植砖讈侄芝专 讗指讘址謻讚职转旨执讬 讗指讘指纸讚职转旨执讬變

鈥淕o, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!鈥 (Esther 4:16)

The Torah law is meant to ensure that lost objects are not 讗讘讚, lost forever, but returned to their owners. As Professor Zeev Safrai points out in his Mishnah commentary, this is part of monetary law, not merely a nice thing to do. The law of the State of Israel also incorporates many (although not all) of the laws of hashavat aveida, requiring finders to seek out losers.

Andy F聽/聽TfL lost property office on Baker Street

Besides personal property, many things have famously been lost in Jewish history. The Ark of the Covenant disappeared at the end of First Temple times聽 ( and ten of the twelve Israelite tribes even earlier than that ( We are still hoping to find the lost Temple vessels, taken as spoils to Rome two millennia ago:

Paolo Villa, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

With the advent of archaeology, some lost items have famously been found. Some are small but wonderful examples of a life lived, like the lost earring found in City of David excavations:

Michelle Levitz

Another example is the seal of Nahmanides found on the road to Akko (, giving us a physical relic of someone who otherwise is known only through his writings.聽 There are also much more monumental finds: whole cities that we knew about from literature but needed to unearth from the dust. A great example is Zippori (

Outside of Israel, one of the most prominent 鈥渇ound cities鈥 is Nineveh, in the empire of Assyria. Although Nineveh features prominently in the Biblical narrative, its site was unknown for centuries. The first to understand that Mosul, on the banks of the Tigris River, contained the remains of ancient Nineveh was that peripatetic Jew, Benjamin of Tudela, in the 12th century. But no one followed up on his suggestion and only in the mid-19th century was Nineveh 鈥渄iscovered.鈥 A British adventurer and treasure hunter named Austen Henry Layard began to dig up the site in the 1840s with the assistance of local Christian Arab Hormuzd Rassam. The two uncovered amazing treasures, most of which they shipped back to London where today they are displayed in splendor in the British Museum.

Nineveh was the royal city of Assyrian kings like Tiglat Pileser, Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal. Each built a palace and decorated it lavishly, primarily with enormous reliefs of battle scenes. These served a dual purpose: they were decorative and they ensured that any foreign dignitary who might be considering rebelling against Assyria understood quite clearly what lay in store for him. For Bible scholars the most important relief is the one Sennacherib made after he conquered the Judean town of Lachish. It clearly depicts the Assyrian siege ramp, the Judean counter-ramp and the arrows and catapult stones, all of which were found when Lachish itself was excavated in the 1930s.

Part of Lachish relief

Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Sennacherib did not only destroy, he also upgraded the city of Nineveh, creating broad streets, canals and building an aqueduct from a site sixty-five kilometers away to bring more water to the city. But it was his grandson Ashurbanipal who left the most lasting legacy. He was a powerful king as well as a cultured scholar. As a book collector he assembled a library of over thirty thousand cuneiform tablets. Among the laws, letters, medical advice, and religious texts are tablets with ancient stories that were seen for the first time here. The stories of the great flood in the Tale of Gilgamesh and the creation of the world in Enuma Elish were mainstays of Mesopotamian culture and the Bible is aware of them and plays off of them. Today they are an inextricable piece of Biblical scholarship yet they were unknown until the late nineteenth century.

Ashurbanipal library tablets, as displayed in the British Museum

Gary Todd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nineveh was destroyed and sacked in 612 and the mighty Assyrian empire disappeared, swallowed up by its successor Babylonia. For millennia, the city, and the library, were 鈥渓ost,鈥 only to be returned to the world by nineteenth century adventurers.

Besides objects and sites, there are lost people as well. Jacob is described as a lost or wandering Aramean 讗专诪讬 讗讜讘讚 讗讘讬 (Devarim 26:5). The Gemara deduces from the verses in Devarim that a lost person must be helped to find his way:

鈥淔rom where is it derived that the requirement applies even to returning his body, [i.e., helping a lost person find his way]? The verse states: 鈥淎nd you shall restore it to him鈥 (Deuteronomy 22:2), [which can also be translated as: And you shall restore himself to him]鈥 (Bava Kamma 81b).

Today we still have many 鈥渓ost,鈥 captured by an evil enemy who refuses to return them to their homes and families. We pray for the immediate and safe return of all our hostages to their borders!

Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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