Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Word of the Day: Hefker

Hefker is a "term of art" in the Talmud, as we say in the legal world. That means it's a word with a very precise meaning that may not line up exactly with how it's used colloquially; not a word to throw around lightly. You mean exactly what it says. For instance, trespassing has a very precise definition under state laws, as does contract, fee simple, and adverse possession. (But we don't always use it that carefully.) 

For a dry legal term, you'd be surprised how often the word "hefker" comes up in everyday conversation. Really.

Thankfully, hefker is an easy word to pick up. It just means something is ownerless and thus is open to being owned by whoever claims it first. Finders keepers. Whether something is actually "ownerless" is where things get more complicated (but not usually too complicated). 

Just finding something on the ground may not be enough to call something ownerless. You need to consider whether you can find the original owner and how practicable that is. If you find a dollar bill on the ground at the Fourth of July Parade, you can usually assume that dollar is hefker. You don't have an obligation to ask everyone on the street if it's their dollar (but that doesn't mean you can't ask if you have the time and inclination - you just have no obligation to). But if it's $100, maybe you need to make an effort. On the other hand, if you find it on the floor in another person's home, that item is not hefker until proven otherwise. What if you were back at the Fourth of July Parade, and you found an item with a name written on it? Or something unique or nearly-unique?

As you may guess, this is highly fact specific. You have to approach each situation independently. In other words, use your common sense, and if the situation is complicated, ask your local rabbi for guidance. (Of course, time is sometimes of the essence, and you do the best you can with the information you have.)  Once you determine that you can't assume the item is hefker, knowing how much effort and what kinds of effort you need to make to find the owner is a totally different hill of beans. 

Even if you're newer to orthodox speech, you may find this an easy and useful word to add to your vocabulary. Listen closely and see how long it takes for you to hear the word hefker in conversation! 

What's the strangest hefker item you know of? Here, the biggest hefker thing to enter my life would probably be my cat, who was abandoned and came to me as a foster kitten 15 years ago. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kochava (this is unrelated to your post, sorry), I just stumbled upon your blog and I must say, I am utterly addicted! This is such a great blog and I have been reading as many of your posts as I can all day. :)

    I was wondering if you could offer a word of advice with regard to my situation. My journey with judaism is a bit strange, I was raised in Singapore by catholic parents. I came to London at 19 to attend law school and met my British jewish husband who was my law school classmate at 21. We married in Germany while he was doing his masters degree and we decided to make London our long term home. This meant that because we wanted to save for a housing deposit, we moved in with his mother who converted to orthodox judaism 30 years ago and keeps shomer shabbat and kosher, the works. Halakchically, I would classify her as hippie modern orthodox -happy to attend partnerships minyans but very strict about tearing toilet paper on shabbat. So I learned how to live like a modern orthodox jew (i automatically scan labels for non kosher ingredients out of habit as an example) and decided it didn't suit me. Of course,I was still deeply attracted to Judaism and I started attending erev shabbat and shabbat services at a liberal synagogue about 10 months ago (its similar to American reform). I even started singing in the choir and started paying synagogue fees. I fasted on tisha b av. I plan to start the conversion process soon. So far, sounds good right?

    The only problem is my husband. He is extremely hostile to all things jewish, despite being raised in an observant household and having 12 years of jewish day school education. This was probably caused by the traumatic time that he had at his chabad primary school. My husband is a staunch atheist and he hates the idea of me or our child being jewish, he even suggests he would convert to Catholicism if I become jewish (i can't tell if its a joke or not). Part of me thinks he is being pretty unreasonable, liberal judaism is pretty 'light touch' and is not even remotely like chabad,for example, kashrut and abstaining from work on shabbat in the orthodox sense is not obligatory but up to the individual to decide what is best. As I can take public transport to shul, we can live anywhere within a reasonable commute (a town outside london with a train connection is fine). We can send our child to any school of our choosing. So my decision would never affect his life that much.On the other hand, I can see his dilemma, he married a chinese girl who was easy with her Catholicism, but he has now ended up with a woman who is more interested in judaism and goes to synagogue more often than any jewish girl he would have dated.

    Sorry for the long post, I feel like I had to get this off my chest somehow. Thanks for reading.