The Carpenter’s Folly
‘All Holy Writings…Require Geniza’
As we know, it is forbidden to simply discard worn-out Torah scrolls or other holy books. When sifrei Torah or other sefarim are no longer useable, we are supposed to bury them with the utmost respect. The halacha which forbids us to destroy documents that contain Hashem’s name is based on Devarim (chapter 12) which states, “You shall destroy their name from that place [a reference to avodah zarah]; you shall not do this to Hashem your G-d.” Destroying Hashem’s name is punishable by flogging (Makkos 22a, Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 6:1).
Even Torah writings without Hashem’s Name may not be destroyed. The Magen Avraham (O.C. 154:9) rules that the above-mentioned Torah prohibition covers these writings as well. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, zt”l, however, rules that destroying Torah writings without Hashem’s name is only rabbinically prohibited (Teshuvos Achiezer 2:48:3). According to both opinions, the punishment of flogging for destroying them is only m’derabanan, as the Rambam writes explicitly (Yesodei HaTorah 6:8).
Our sugya states that not only is it forbidden to destroy Torah writings, but we are obligated to protect them from destruction or disgrace. The Gemara rules that even those Torah writings that may not be saved from a fire on Shabbos still require geniza when disposed of on a weekday.
The Moroccan Funeral Procession
In Morocco, old Torah writings were buried amidst a funeral procession that took place each year on the day following Shavuos. Special piyutim were sung for the occasion, such as “It is a merit for Israel, on the conclusion of the festival of the Torah. Just as we protect the holy names of Hashem and show them great respect, so may Hashem protect His nation…” (Nesivos Hamaarav, p. 111).
On many occasions, burial places later became invaluable treasure houses of rare documents. One of the most famous examples is the Cairo Geniza, a precious collection of old writings found 110 years ago in the hidden attic of an ancient shul in Postat, Egypt. The dry desert conditions helped preserve approximately 200,000 pages of Torah writings.
The Vandalized Geniza
In the community where the Shvus Yaakov presided as rav, the attic where old Torah writings were discarded filled up and couldn’t hold any more material. To fix this problem, the caretakers of the shul gathered all the writings into barrels and brought them to a graveyard for burial. Gentile neighbors, however, discovered the buried writings and began using them for personal hygienic purposes – an unspeakable disgrace to the Torah.
Left with no other alternative, the Shvus Yaakov (3:10) ruled that the writings should be burned discretely and respectfully – not all at once in a giant bonfire, but little by little in earthenware vessels. The ashes, he directed, should be put in storage until the passing of a Torah scholar, upon which they should be buried with him in his grave. In the course of a lengthy responsa, he explains his reasoning in reaching this conclusion but argues that this leniency should not be applied to sifrei Torah. Since there aren’t so many old sifrei Torah, other alternatives can be found.
The Shvus Yaakov’s ruling was challenged by other poskim, who reasoned that we may not destroy Torah writings in order to prevent others from profaning them (Knesses Yechezkel 37; Sho’el U’meishiv 2:15; Chasam Sofer’s commentary to O.C. 154; Kaf Hachaim ibid, s.k. 37).
Contemporary poskim discuss whether the laws of respecting Torah writings also apply to printed sefarim. Some hold that the holiness which rests upon Torah letters depends upon the intent of the person who writes them. Since a machine has no intent whatsoever, the letters contain no holiness and therefore sefarim shouldn’t need to be buried. Other poskim, however, reject this reasoning and rule that even if a sefer is published by a non-Jewish printing press, it still possesses holiness (Tzitz Eliezer 3:11; Minchas Yitzchak 1:17; 8:12).
One of the most common mishaps vis-à-vis disposing Torah writings occurs when these writings are hidden in an otherwise mundane text. People don’t realize that the text contains kedushah and disgrace or even destroy it (Ginzei Hakodesh, chapters 9 and 14). This happened in 2004 when a carpenter who specializes in shul furniture submitted an ad to the Jerusalem Chareidi phone book with a photograph of his handiwork – a beautiful amud tefillah with Hashem’s name in the picture. According to what we have discussed above, it is a Torah prohibition to throw away such a picture. The Geniza Society of Israel posted signs across the city warning people to tear out this page and put it in geniza before discarding the book.