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Pen Penance

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Topic: Pen Penance

From: L.F.

Dear Rabbi,
About ten years ago, I was given a very nice pen as a gift from my cousin and her husband. Later it came to my attention through the family grapevine that the pen had been stolen off of a delivery truck by my cousin's husband. He was the driver. I would like to know my Torah obligation in this scenario. The pen is valuable, probably at least $100. I do not know the intended owner or destination of the pen. I believe it was going to a store. If I gave the pen back to my cousin (who is now divorced) she would likely be embarrassed. Obviously, that would not be good. Whenever I look at it, I think, what a nice (stolen!) pen this is! Clearly, if it had been a car and I learned of its sketchy provenance I would have returned it, even at the risk of embarrassing the givers. What do you suggest I do? Thanks in advance for your advice.

Dear L.F.,
Are you sure your family grapevine doesn't have a few sour grapes on it? Rumors can be false, especially when a person has enemies, and this rumor too may simply be the fruit of bitterness. It's possible that your cousin's ex-husband bought the pen, or got it as a present.

But even if the rumor is true, it appears that the pen is yours to keep.

A thief must return the object he stole as long as the object is intact; but if he sells it or gives it away, then the recipient is considered the new owner, and the thief must pay back the cost of the item.

This is based on a ruling of the Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 361:1,2 & 5 , which states that if an article changes hands (as in your case where the alleged thief has given you the pen) and the owners have given up all hope of getting it back, they lose ownership of the object and you become the new owner. When an item is stolen, the halacha automatically considers it to be that the owners have given up hope of seeing it again.

So, even if the pen were stolen, it is now yours. It is the thief's obligation to pay the cost of the pen to the original owner.

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