Photo Credit: Courtesy of JCAM
Unloading boxes of sheimos into a freshly dug trench for burial by the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts (JCAM) at its headquarters in Needham.

When Yitzchak Friedman, a sofer in Manhattan, informs a client that the tefillin or mezuzah he brought for examination is beyond repair, he adds them to his collection of shaimos.

Across the country in Chicago, the rabbi overseeing Agudath Israel of Illinois’s shaimos collection and disposal operations finds tickets from sporting events and family photos mixed into boxes of old seforim and Jewish CDs.

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Around the world, Jews stockpile dog-eared siddurim, broken chanukiahs, and seas of children’s Judaic studies homework in closets, attics, and kitchen drawers, often until pre-Pesach cleaning commences – but sometimes for years at a time. There can be an out-of-sight-out-of-mind sense of relief once these boxes and bags are handed off at the next depot on their journey to their final resting place… but where is that exactly?

People want to trust that these items are disposed of in accordance with halacha, but what does that even look like? Furthermore, are all of the items mentioned above in need of the same type of disposal?

The word shaimos is a small bit of jargon with a lot packed into it – like an overstuffed parcel that miraculously manages to stay closed until reaching its destination, it will be unpacked below shortly. Genizah (literally, putting or hiding away) is the word used for the long-term storage and/or burial of shaimos. “Historically, there were communities that had a room in a beis haknesses dedicated for genizah, most famously in Cairo,” Rabbi Mordechai Frankel, director of the Institute of Halacha at the Star-K, wrote via email. “But most communities buried their shaimos.”

Genizah is not overseen by any national rabbinic authority in the United States, and it is a tradition practiced not only in the Orthodox world but by other streams of Judaism as well. Given the diversity of American Jewish communities in terms of size, resources, and religious makeup, it is hard to make blanket statements about genizah standards and practices in the United States; but in looking at a sample of institutions and individuals at the hubs of a couple of genizah pipelines, one gains an appreciation for those who do their best to balance the ritual imperatives, civil regulations, and practical logistics involved.

Before exploring that, however, one needs to know: What exactly is shaimos?

 

Shaimos 101

Shaimos is short for “shaimos sh’einam nimchakim,” referring to the names of G-d that the Torah prohibits erasing (see Devarim 12:2-4 and the Talmud in Shavuos 35a). Today, shaimos is a generic term for both items whose disposal must be handled in a special way as well as a stockpile of such items (see Shabbat 115a and Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 6:8).

Shaimos objects can be divided into a few classes. First, there are devarim sh’bekedusha, things innately invested with kedusha because they bear a name of Hashem or words of Torah.

Next are tashmishei kedusha, which “serve” (mishamesh) or beautify objects from the previous group – an aron kodesh or crown for a Torah scroll, for example. Tashmishei d’tashmishei kedusha are items that serve or protect tashmishei kedushah, like the plastic outer bag enveloping a velvet tefillin pouch.

Finally, tashmishei mitzvah are items which have no innate kedusha but gain kedusha when they are used for a mitzvah. These include a lulav, an etrog, a shofar, or the material used to make a sukkah.

Halachic discussions abound on the details of these classes, which can be divided even further, and any specific questions should be directed to a trusted local authority. For the purposes of this article, however, it suffices to say that objects from all of the classes listed above should be disposed of respectfully, but tashmishei d’tashmishei kedusha and tashmishei mitzvah are subject to lesser requirements for disposal than the others.

For these, respectful disposal can simply mean enclosing the items in their own single or double-layered garbage bag, depending on whom you ask, and then putting that bag into a regular garbage can. Disposal of devarim shebekedusha and tashmishei kedusha, however, require burial.

Not only that, but Torah scrolls, megillah scrolls, and the klaf of tefillin and mezuzahs must be placed into klei cheres beforehand (there are differing opinions regarding the two outer casings (batim) of the tefillin ; again, one should consult his/her halachic authority). While literally – and traditionally – a kli cheres is an earthenware container, multiple halachic authorities and genizah operators consulted for this article said that a garbage bag can be an approved container as well. These items should also be buried with or in the vicinity of a talmid chacham if possible.

Why do other devarim sh’bekedusha require burial but not in klei cheres? “I don’t know if I have the perfect answer for you, but the bottom line is that the closer the association is with the kedusha of [Hashem]– such as a shem Hashem [the name of G-d], or a sefer Torah, which was given by HaKodesh Baruch Hu to Moshe Rabbeinu – that represents the kedusha of HaKadosh Baruch Hu,” said Rabbi Yona Reis, av beit din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC). “So, a sefer Torah or anything like a sefer Torah – like a mezuzah, tefillin, a klaf – is going to be the highest epitome of kedusha.”

“Anything which simply has shem Hashem but is not quite on the same level of a sefer Torah is going to be also a high level of kedusha but maybe a little attenuated – it doesn’t have to be put in a kli cheres,” he explained. “But if it has a shem Hashem, it is connected to HaKodesh Baruch Hu, it is connected to the Torah of HaKodesh Baruch Hu – that is the highest level of kedusha.”

In burial, old seforim that are falling apart can be mixed in with a rabbi’s drafts of divrei Torah without concern of discrepancies in status, according to Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University in New York City and a noted scholar and posek. “They should dispose of it instead of leaving it around the house… by burying it, just like you bury a Jewish body,” he said, adding that a Jewish body is considered tashmish kedusha because a malach teaches each Jewish baby the entire Torah before birth.

Multiple rabbis consulted for this article expressed the view that storing devarim sh’bekedusha is preferable to burying them, even if they can no longer be used, because it is more respectful. If burying, they also advised wrapping said items in plastic to prevent them from deteriorating for as long as possible. Rabbi Schachter did not see this as a mainstream view, however. “You put it in a plastic bag so it won’t get destroyed right away, but you don’t have to preserve it as long as possible,” he said. “We know it’s going to be eaten up; the worms are going to eat it up, or it’s going to just decay. I don’t think you have to preserve it as long as possible. You just shouldn’t put it in [in a manner] where it would get ruined right away.”

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“What upsets me is people keep [shaimos] in the back trunk of their car, and I get it in very poor condition,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Bider, who oversees shaimos operations for Agudath Israel of Illinois as the organization’s executive director. “I say if it requires genizah because it has Hashem’s name or other aspects that require genizah, it has to be treated properly not only when it’s buried but [also] up to that point.”

“I beg people to go through the boxes. We get everything. Nothing surprises me,” he said, laughing. Photos of gedolim or tapes and CDs with Torah content are not shaimos, and people are often surprised to hear yarmulkes aren’t shaimos either. “If it’s something that’s true shaimos, the halacha is it has to be buried. You have gray areas of certain things that people assume are holy and in need of genizah but they can be double-wrapped and put in the garbage, or if that makes a person uncomfortable then put them on top of the garbage wrapped in a plastic bag.”

Rabbi Bider’s operation follows the guidance of Rabbi Shmuel Feurst, a dayan of Agudath Israel. The organization’s guidelines for shaimos disposal are published in their annual Pesach guide and “covers a lot of bases,” Rabbi Bider said.

Whether a text is in Hebrew or another language has no impact on something’s shaimos status, but the intent of the text does matter, said Rabbi Schachter. “Missionaries used to print the Tanach with the Gospels at the end, and the Gospels used to have nekudos and trop as if it is part of the Tanach, so the rabbonim in Europe said you should burn [the Gospels] with the Tanach because … [this] Tanach was printed for the purpose of missionary activities,” he said.

 

Follow the Shaimos: A Tri-State Area Case Study

“Back in the day, shuls would collect shaimos and wait for somebody in the congregation to pass away and bury it with the person,” said Yitzchak Friedman, 32, a Washington Heights resident who is a software engineer by profession but does safrus as a side business. “Now, some people get paid to take the shaimos, sell what’s still usable, and literally buy grave sites and cemeteries for [the rest].”

Friedman keeps two shopping bags for shaimos next to his desk. He plans to head to Brooklyn before Pesach and give them to “one of the large shaimos collectors” and pay for them to bury it, he said. It will likely be either Ben Judaica, because it’s closer to his parents’ place, or Pinters Hebrew Book Store, a Boro Park establishment whose owner has worked with him on shaimos disposal in the past.

In 2019, Friedman helped dispose of five pasul Torah scrolls and 50 boxes of waterlogged siddurim and chumashim from an abandoned synagogue. The organization he was working with took care of burying the Torah scrolls themselves, but “farmed out” the task of disposing of the 50 boxes of books to Rabbi Pinter of Pinter’s Hebrew Book Store, he said. Friedman added that he knows definitively that Rabbi Pinter buries the shaimos he receives.

When reached by phone, Rabbi Pinter noted that he does not dispose of the shaimos he receives himself (at least not these days). He charges people anywhere from $5 to $25 per bag to drop off their shaimos at his store; then, after sifting out whatever items he wants to resell in his shop, the remaining shaimos passes to another Judaica store, this time a large local chain: Capitol Seforim.

Indeed, if word of mouth is any indication, it sounds like most roads lead to Capitol Seforim when it comes to bulk shaimos disposal in the tri-state area. And that’s how owner Aaron Taplin likes it, for reasons financial, social, and spiritual.

“We definitely deal with a tremendous amount,” said the Lakewood native, 51. “The simple answer as to why that is, is that, bli ayin harah, over the last 28 years we’ve been able to put together a system that works both halachically and legally. That is not an easy feat. It’s something that took a lot of work and a lot of siyata dishmaya, and it’s something we’re protective of because we have our contacts out of state.”

Taplin declined to share in which state or states he buries shaimos; but a representative from the Satmar Beit Din in Williamsburg, which provides its hashgacha to Capitol Seforim’s shaimos disposal business, confirmed that Taplin does not dispose of shaimos in New Jersey or New York and that he does so, legally, in whatever states will accept a bulk genizah at any given time.

“I can tell you that from day one, before we ever collected even one bag of shaimos, we were under hashgacha,” said Taplin, “and that was because the environment in terms of this business was always scandal-laden.”

“You have people that have these trucks all over in the Jewish neighborhoods, and people give them shaimos and then that shaimos has been found on the street,” said Rabbi Moshe Elephant of the Orthodox Union (OU). “You have to make sure that it’s being done with reliable supervision. It’s no different than when you buy food.”

An image from one of at least three Judaica websites selling “The Shaimos Box,” though it is currently listed as out of stock on all of them. Shaimos.org is no longer in business, nor certified by the OU, and boxes should not be sent to the address printed on them but rather disposed locally in a halachically appropriate manner.

The OU does not presently certify any shaimos disposal businesses, but it used to. Until this week, in fact, Camp Stone Director Yakov Fleishmann wondered for years why green boxes with the OU symbol and a big Shaimos.org printed on them sporadically arrived at the camp’s address in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania. When Fleishmann became director in 2016, apparently no one filled him in on the former director’s arrangement with the owner of the now-defunct Shaimos.org to use the camp for genizah, its address conveniently listed as the shipping destination on the box. Fleishmann’s practice has been to ship these boxes back to their senders or bury them with the camp’s shaimos, and now that he knows the original story of these shipments, he is extra glad that he treated the boxes responsibly – and requests that people please stop sending them to Camp Stone.

Capitol Seforim, on the other hand, has storefronts in Lakewood and Passaic in New Jersey and in Monsey, Woodmere, and Monroe in New York. Taplin’s shaimos disposal service operates year-round, generally processing a trailer-load every two weeks – about 70 trailers per year, according to the beit din representative.

In addition to the shaimos flowing through the genizah pipeline, Taplin accumulates overstock from book distributors and items from members of the community who pass away and need their possessions cleared out of their homes. “The basis of my business is getting out the usable material,” he said. “I’m not saying we don’t make money on shaimos, but the main thing that we do is that we save whatever is possible to be saved. That is our main function. We’re saving anything people would be interested in purchasing and charging less than people would in a regular store.”

When it comes to sorting the items that are not headed for the store shelves but going on to genizah, things that are obvious garbage are removed. Otherwise, Taplin’s philosophy is that people are not paying him to decide whether to treat their items strictly or leniently. Rather, he figures that people are deliberately choosing to give him certain things for genizah and paying him for that service, not to second-guess their halachic positions.

Taplin’s proficiency in navigating the political and legal landscape around shaimos disposal did not happen without a learning curve. He is adamant that the cost of transporting the shaimos out of state is outweighed by the comparative ease of arranging disposal where political sensibilities are more conservative.

Tom Farrell, chief of the Bureau for Solid Waste Compliance & Enforcement at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, is familiar with shaimos collection and disposal as a Jewish practice. In a phone interview last week, he expressed interest in working with the Jewish community to formulate and publicize genizah guidelines that would work with rather than clash with the community’s needs while remaining in compliance with environmental regulations.

From Taplin’s perspective, however, even a sympathetic official is just one individual in a matrix of entities one needs to deal with to get anything approved. “There is local, there is county, there is state, and each one has what to say on the matter,” he said.

About five or six years ago, Taplin shifted his business model from running 30 collection trucks before Pesach to basically ceding that market to smaller operators. They continue charging retail prices for shaimos collection, while Taplin in turn collects it from them at wholesale prices. “What we realized is that if we don’t overcharge these people and they can make a decent living doing their retail, and we’re going to take it for a low rate wholesale, that it just made things a lot easier. Our ability to stabilize the whole entire [system] is because of this arrangement where we’re not really going head to head with other people and we’re giving them the ability to get it done both halachically and legally.”

 

Challenges Ahead

There is concern about the future of shaimos burial due to the volume of shaimos being produced.

“[The schools] make so many worksheets and so much homework for the children and everything, and everyone that gives a lecture distributes sheets of mekoros, and what do you do with that? So it all gets thrown in the garbage?” Rabbi Schachter asked rhetorically. “Sure, it’s a big problem. It’s not right. They’re just creating tons of shaimos.

“That’s why many came up with this idea that [if] it’s intended to be used once, it’s no longer going to be used for learning from it, so then you should just respectfully put it in a plastic bag and throw it in the regular garbage,” he continues. “That’s why there were so many who were lenient on that. But maybe we should cut back on how many sheets we publish.”

“The volume of shaimos being produced is a concern, but the general trend in society towards electronic documents and away from paper somewhat alleviates the concern,” wrote Rabbi Frankel from the Star-K via email. “Much of the shaimos is produced by schools and yeshivos, and these organizations should be cognizant of the issue.”

The office of Agudath Israel of Illinois in Chicago has received and disposed of shaimos items for the local Jewish community for over two decades. Branded boxes are available for $15 on site and at a couple of local Judaica stores; alternatively, a person can use their own box of the same dimensions (15” x 12” x 10”) and pay a service fee of $15 per box. Due to the volume of shaimos the community produces, today the organization only accepts deliveries during a two-hour window on the first and last Sunday of each month, at a warehouse where the boxes are stored until burial. The exception is before Pesach, when the scheduled communitywide drop-off can bring in more than 750 boxes in one fell swoop.

The shaimos disposal operation started off small. “I was given four gravesites for the genizah,” said Rabbi Bider. That only worked for a couple of years before the need outstripped the space. Burial at Camp Agudah Midwest in Southaven, Michigan, was a solution for a time, but with only 40 acres of campground the Agudah’s genizah operations had to move to yet another site. An average of 40 pallets of boxes per year (that’s approximately 2,000 boxes) now make their way from Chicago to their allotted space on the 550-acres of Camp Bnos Maarava in Marshal, Indiana. When that location runs out of available space – and it isn’t a question of if for Rabbi Bider, but when – if the Agudah has to buy a plot of land to bury shaimos, that too will need to be reflected in the cost of the boxes.

“There’s been such a proliferation of shaimos in the last decade or two. It comes from shuls replacing their chumashim and siddurim; it comes from schools, that have more students, and their teachers who – although we try to educate them to make it so it’s not shaimos, more often than not it is shaimos; it comes from all the publications that come into the shuls now every week [that] are really problematic for us shaimos-wise, because the number of publications that come in isn’t stopping … and the shuls have to get rid of it because people leave it there in the shul.”

On top of this, the cost of transporting the shaimos, which now fill one or two 18-wheelers, has risen by 50%, Rabbi Bider said. The rental equipment necessary for digging cost more as well. “It’s an unavoidable fact that the cost has become a touchy issue.”

Rabbi Bider used to have a crew of boys rifle through each box to ensure everything inside was shaimos, but he said he was pleased to discover that it wasn’t worth the effort. “Most of it was true shaimos,” he said. “There is a decent percentage of things that are not shaimos, but for us to go through every single box, which we might have in the thousands – it’s just too difficult.”

Instead, said Rabbi Bider, “we just keep imploring people to treat shaimos properly and follow the guidelines we’re happy to provide them with. It’s a benefit to them – they don’t need a second box or a third box – [and] it’s a benefit to us so we can try to minimize what’s shaimos. The law is if you’re putting things which aren’t shaimos into shaimos, it’s an embarrassment for the real shaimos; so you’re really causing a halachic problem that people, if they realize it, would not want to be part of.”

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Rachel Kohn is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelKTweets and see more of her work at authory.com/rachelkohn.