Daniel Feinberg asked:

Today we use a recording system to clarify title and liens to property. Why did Chazal not institute a recording system to clarify title and avoid the issues of purchasing stolen property or property with undisclosed liens?

Daniel Feinberg, New York, NY

The Kollel replies:

My initial reaction to this question was that the answer is the same as to why Moshe Rabeinu did not drive a motor car, namely, that the concept had not yet been invented. Even in England the land registry is a most recent innovation not earlier than the late nineteenth century. Prior to that there was a system of unregistered conveyancing where every owner had to retain the title deeds to his own property to prove his ownership. Scotland does have a deed registry but I do not know how far back this goes. However, such things were unheard of in ancient civilizations, even those as advanced as Egypt or Persia which certainly had libraries.

A similar question can be asked of lost property. In Bava Metzia 2:6 the Mishnah teaches us the rules of Hachrazah - public proclamations on three consecutive Yamim Tovim - and the Gemara ibid. 28b describes the Even ha'To'ein, but nowhere is there any suggestion of establishing a lost property office.

It could be that the machinery of government was simply unable to cope with the vast amount of bureaucracy which would have been required to maintain a centralized system to record and look after the numerous items and the circumstances of where they had been found and the Simanim. It would also probably have derogated from the individual's personal Mitzvah of Hashavas Aveidah.

As to real property, there would be the additional burden of employing professional surveyors to map out all the land and to devise a suitable recording system. There would moreover have been a more fundamental problem. While the record might be valid at the date it was initially recorded, it would have been completely futile to determine subsequent ownership. Any sale, gift, Yerushah, etc. could not have been recorded as it is today by electronic methodology. It would have been virtually impossible for every local farmer to have to take his Shtar for personal registration at the central land registry (even if such a registry could have been established and officially administered).

Thus the owner would have had to keep his Shtar as proof of ownership in any event. And can you imagine what would have happened each Yovel. So even if such a registry could have been conceived, established, and economically run by an efficient body of governmental bureaucrats (which is more than highly dubious), it would not have resolved the issue of ongoing commercial transaction, and hence the Shtaros provisions of Chezkas ha'Batim would still have had to be applied with full rigor and nothing much would have been achieved.

Moreover, in later times, after the collapse of the kingdom and the constant disruption and problems of the Galus, the lack of any really centralized stable independent Jewish government would not have lent itself to the establishment of a mandatory unitary registry of this nature. Hence, preservation of personal title deeds/ Shtaros was in practice the only available option.

As to lost property, the last paragraph is probably equally applicable and indeed the Gemara in Bava Metzia 28b tells us that "originally anyone who found lost property had to announce it for three festivals and after the last one he had to wait seven days to give the person who may have lost it three days to go home and three days to return and one day to announce. But after the Churban the Rabbis enacted that they should announce it in the synagogues and the Batei Medrash, and when the robbers became prevalent they enacted that it was sufficient just to notify one's neighbors and friends." This is codified in the Rambam (Gezeilah v'Aveidah 13:8-9) and Shulchan Aruch CM 267:3.

It is evident that a centralized national lost property office was an impossibility and an open invitation to the Anusim - Robbers who are identified in the Gemara there as government officials - to purloin the items for themselves.

Even today, many people are reluctant to hand over lost property to the official lost property office due to the strong perception, real or imagined, that any item of value will simply disappear into the pockets of the appointed official and have little chance of reaching the original owner. Thus at the disturbed times of Bayis Sheni no centralized real property or lost property registry was feasible.

Kol Tuv,

Joseph Pearlman