If you discover a valuable sunken treasure, and you can identify living relatives of the treasure's original owners, must you give them what you find or keep it for yourself?

  • Did they give up hope of finding it? How recently did they lose it? – Double AA Jan 11 '16 at 19:46
  • Did you spend money to retrieve it? Does the government have laws that grab any of it? Was the treasure originally stolen (which would connect with the yiush issue) – sabbahillel Jan 11 '16 at 19:57
  • Is there a reason why you would expect the fact that it was underwater to be any different from if the treasure was found on the road? – Daniel Jan 11 '16 at 19:57

You may keep it for yourself. The Braita states (for example, here) that a lost item which is unobtainable to the owner - such as a sunken treasure - is automatically subject to ye'ush (see below) and is free to take. There is no legal obligation to return it to its former owner.

Ye'ush means the owner gave up hope of ever getting it back and thereby loses his ownership of the item. If the item is lost in such a manner, such as being sunk at sea, even if he says "I don't give up hope of recovery", the Halacha simply considers him to be in denial, "Like one who cries out over his item that was burned." As soon as the item is lost in such a manner, ye'ush takes place and the item may be kept by the finder.

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    Nonetheless, at least in the case of returning directly to the original owner, it is appropriate to act lifnim mishurat hadin (beyond the letter of the law) and return the lost object anyway (according to e.g. the Maharal). Though in the OP's case of relatives, this may well be more controversial, especially since they may not be the actual inheritors of his estate. – Loewian Jan 11 '16 at 21:06
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    Nowadays things can actually be recovered from the ocean floor, so the examples of the Beraita do not necessarily hold. – Double AA Jan 11 '16 at 21:13
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    @DoubleAA Even today the exemption holds. ע"ש. – LN6595 Jan 11 '16 at 23:57
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    Ln6595 You are correct. The gemara discussed divers by a mazik who throws items into the ocean. It didn't change anything here. – user6591 Jan 14 '16 at 13:33

Dvarim 22:1-4 is very clear that if you know who the owner is (assuming he is from your brothers) then you must return it to him or keep it until he asks for it.

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    We do not learn halacha from the Torah without the Oral Law, in this case the gmara puts a number of restrictions on exactly what objects are to be returned under what conditions. An object which was "given up" (yeush) but its owner doesn't have to be returned as explained by the answer above – mbloch Jan 14 '16 at 9:37
  • @mbloch On what basis in the Written Torah do you say that? The "given up " part I mean... As far as I can tell the text does not have any time limit set and even requires you to keep it until your brother is identified. Its plain meaning of the text. What does Oral Law have to do with this? – Aleksandr Sigalov Jan 14 '16 at 9:48
  • The Oral Law is there to explain the Written Torah which cannot be applied practically otherwise. Both were given at Mount Sinai and the role of the Oral Torah is to help us apply the Written Torah properly. The second chapter of Baba Metsia is dedicated to extract the proper way to return objects from the very same verses of the Torah you quoted – mbloch Jan 14 '16 at 9:52
  • @mbloch How Oral Law arrived to such conclusion from the Written Torah? I would like to see the logic behind the explanation. I do not understand. – Aleksandr Sigalov Jan 14 '16 at 9:55
  • The logic is you are only obligated to return an object which the owner wants to recuperate. If he has abandoned the idea of finding it you are not obliged to return it (BM 21a). Later the gmara (24b) teaches it is not an obligation but considered virtuous and proper to go beyond the letter of the law and return it anyway. This is the background to the answers given above as to why you don't need to return a sunken treasure which the owner has given up on – mbloch Jan 14 '16 at 10:05

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