The Carpenter’s Folly
‘All [Worn-Out] Holy Writings…’
As we know, simply discarding worn-out Torah scrolls or other holy books is forbidden. When Sifrei Torah or other sefarim are no longer useable, they must be buried with the utmost respect. This rule is based on Devarim 12:4: “You shall destroy their name [that of avodah zarah] from that place. You shall not do this to Hashem, your G-d.” Destroying Hashem’s name is punishable by flogging (Makkos 22a, Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 6:1).
Torah writings that don’t contain Hashem’s name may also not be destroyed. The Magen Avraham (Orach Chayim 154:9) maintains that this prohibition is biblical, but Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky (Teshuvos Achiezer 2:48:3) disagrees, maintaining that this rule is rabbinic. According to both, the flogging one receives for destroying Torah writings without Hashem’s name is a rabbinic punishment, as per the Rambam’s explicit ruling (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 6:8).
In our sugya, we learn that not only is it forbidden to destroy Torah writings; we have an obligation to protect them from destruction or disgrace. The Gemara rules that even Torah writings that may not be saved from a fire on Shabbos must be disposed of on a weekday.
The Moroccan Funeral Procession
In Morocco, worn Torah writings were buried in a geniza with a funeral procession that took place each year on the day following Shavuos. Special piyutim were sung at this time, 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 Hama’arav, p. 111).
A geniza often is an invaluable treasure of rare documents. The Cairo Geniza, for example, was located in an attic of an ancient shul in Egypt. Around 100 years ago, European Jewish visitors found approximately 200,000 pages of Torah writings in the attic that had accumulated there over 1,000 years.
The Vandalized Geniza
In the community where the Shevus Yaakov presided as rav, worn-out sefarim were also stored in the attic of a shul. Eventually, the attic became full, so the shul’s caretakers gathered all the Torah writings into barrels and brought them to a graveyard for burial. Gentile neighbors, however, discovered the buried writings and used them for their personal hygiene, utterly disgracing them. The Shevus Yaakov (3:10) then ruled that it is better to burn these writings than to let them be so heinously defiled.
He ruled, though, that they must be burned in the most discrete and respectful way possible. They should not all be burned at once in a giant bonfire, but little by little in earthenware vessels. The ashes should be put in storage until the passing of a Torah scholar, and then buried together with him in his grave.
In a lengthy responsum, he explains the reasons behind this ruling, and states that this leniency should not be applied to Sifrei Torah. Since there are not so many worn-out Sifrei Torah to be buried, other alternatives can be found.
The Shevus Yaakov’s ruling was challenged by other poskim, who argued that we may not destroy Torah writings to prevent others from profaning them (Knesses Yechezkel 37; Sho’el U’meishiv 2:15; Chasam Sofer’s commentary to Orach Chayim 154; Kaf Hachaim ibid, s.k. 37).
Contemporary poskim discuss whether the laws of respecting Torah writings also apply to printed sefarim. Perhaps the holiness that rests on letters in sefarim depends on the intent of the person who wrote them. And since a machine has no intent whatsoever, the letters wouldn’t be holy and the normal sheimos restrictions wouldn’t apply. Poskim reject this reasoning, however, and rule that even sefarim printed by a non-Jew are holy (Tzitz Eliezer 3:11; Minchas Yitzchak 1:17; 8:12).
Often people accidentally include Hashem’s name in an otherwise mundane text. Not realizing that Hashem’s name is present and that the item therefore contains kedushah, they accidentally disgrace or even destroy it (Ginzei Hakodesh, chapters 9 and 14). In 2004, for example, a Jerusalem charedi phone book had an ad from a carpenter with a photograph of his handiwork: a beautiful amud tefillah with Hashem’s name clearly visible in the picture. The Geniza Society of Israel posted signs across Jerusalem, warning people to tear out this page and put it in sheimos before discarding the book.