All streams of Judaism are churning out new versions of prayer books faster than they can find homes for old ones, leaving burial as the only solution. Jewish law forbids throwing out books containing the name of God.
Prayer books are becoming outdated so quickly that there is a glut on the market, and there often are no takers even when they are offered for free.
More than 700 congregations have bought copies of the Reform movement’s new Mishkan T’Filah, and hundreds more are expected to buy. The Conservative movement’s new High Holy Days prayer book, the Lev Shalem Mahzor, has sold nearly 260,000 copies to some 500 congregations since its 2010 release. And over 200,000 copies of the Koren siddur released in 2009 have been purchased by more than 300 Orthodox synagogues.
The Reform movement is working on a new High Holy Days prayer book, or machzor, that it expects to release in 2015.
“This problem is just rampant because now is the greatest time for creativity in writing new prayers and liturgy, and it’s going to get worse when the new machzor comes out,” said Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Boston, who is leading a committee working on the new Reform movement prayer book. “But our solution to bury them shouldn’t be looked at negatively. This is an intentional disposal, not a mindless disposal.”
Some synagogues have sought alternatives to the burial option. Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego takes its old books and those of several nearby congregations, and mails them to Jewish Prisoner Services International in Seattle. Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., sent their old prayer books to Hillel chapters throughout the state two years ago when it bought new machzors.
However, some of the older books are unwanted. “Our machzorim we’re looking to get rid of now are usable, but they are from the 1940s version,” said Rabbi Philip Scheim of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am in Toronto, which is planning to upgrade to the new Lev Shalem machzor this year. “The English translation is incredibly hard for people to get through.”
At Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, the congregation gathers each year before Passover to collectively bury unused books. A communal prayer is recited, as is the Mourner’s Kaddish, and there’s a moment of reflection.