In every legal system a gap exists between the law as it is actually enforced by the courts and the ethical categorical imperative. Although it was rejected by Justice Holmes in his “bad man rule,” a strong claim can be made that the measure of an enlightened and advanced legal system and society is its success in bridging this gap. Within a religious legal system which rejects the clear separation of law and ethics, the severity of this problem is ameliorated. As illustrated by Jewish law, even such a system's purely civil law must be influenced by ethical duties to a far greater degree than in secular legal systems.
This article compares the legal rules and jurisprudence of the American common law and Jewish law in the area of finding and returning lost or abandoned property, illustrating the interplay between the purely legal and ethical components of the respective legal systems. Surprisingly enough, the differences between the two systems are not usually significant; they follow the same basic legal principles, and typically lead to the same results. There are, however, two major exceptions: Jewish law imposes a duty to rescue the lost property of one's neighbor, while the common law does not require that one initiate the process by retrieving the article. Thus according to Jewish law, when one happens to stumble across lost property, one must intervene to retrieve it; according to the common law one need not. Second, Jewish law imposes ethical duties as part of its legal mandate, a practice the common law does not follow.