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. 

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