There is a little known halacha that one is not permitted to leave a sefer open when one is not using it. This is based on a ruling in the Shulchan Aruch1 that after a sofer writes a column of a Torah scroll, he may not place the column face down for it to dry. This is true even if the sofer’s intention is simply to protect the parchment, such as to ensure that no dust will settle upon it or to otherwise ensure that it will not get ruined. Placing the scroll face down is considered to be unbecoming, regardless of one’s intention. Instead, the sofer must leave the parchment face up and spread a cloth of some sort over it to protect it, should he feel the need to do so.
Based on the above, the Bach, along with a number of other Acharonim, rules that one may not leave a sefer lying open. This is true even when leaving a sefer for only a few moments, such as to take a call or use the washroom. We can also derive from here that one should not place a sefer face down even if one does so with the intention of saving one’s place. Indeed, one should turn over any sefarim that one finds face down.2 One should use a slip of paper, or a tissue, to bookmark one’s place instead.
It is explained that the reason one may not leave a sefer lying open is that there is an angel whose name is Sheid – an abbreviation for “shomer dapim” (guardian of [book] pages) – who causes anyone who leaves a sefer open to forget what he has learned.3 One who takes leave of a sefer and, for whatever reason, prefers not to close it is required to cover the open pages with a cloth or the like, as in the case of a Torah scroll. Other authorities rule that it is permitted to leave a sefer open for a short period of time, such as to use the washroom, or even for an extended period of time, as long as one remains nearby and intends to continue using the sefer.4
Some authorities require the pages of an open sefer to be completely covered, in accordance with the literal reading of the Shulchan Aruch. Others rule that it is sufficient to partially cover the open pages. These authorities maintain that a covering of any sort will adequately serve to convey to passersby that the sefer has not been abandoned.5 Some authorities rule that if someone else remains in the vicinity of the sefer during one’s absence, then there is no need to cover it.6 One may use another sefer to cover the pages of an open sefer.7
Rav Ephraim Greenblatt discusses the practice in many yeshivot where one who wishes to secure a chair or shtender for himself places an open sefer upon it in order to convey to others that the place or item has been “taken.” This is often done hours before a study session is set to begin. Rav Greenblatt suggests that perhaps this conduct can be justified, as it saves precious study time from having to look for a chair, shtender, or place at a table when the study session starts. He qualifies this ruling, however, and says that one should only use a sefer that one intends to learn from when the study session starts. He also cites others who disagree with this ruling. Alternatively, in such a situation, one may open the sefer to its daf hasha’ar (title page). Indeed, leaving a sefer open at its title page is not considered to be leaving a sefer open.8
On a related note, one should be sure that sefarim are always placed right side up. Some authorities question the need for this, considering that sefarim are printed on both sides of the paper and, therefore, half the sefer will always be facing down. Nevertheless, common custom is to ensure that sefarim are kept right side up, since we are to show honor for sefarim in every way possible, and an upside-down sefer appears unbecoming.9 One who sees a sefer lying face down should turn it right side up and kiss it.10 So too, a sefer standing upside down should be placed right side up. It goes without saying that one should not place foreign objects on top of sefarim. One should always pass and receive sefarim with one’s right hand in order to recall that G-d gave the Torah with His right hand.11
- YD 277:1. See also Shabbat 5b with Ran; Eruvin 98a.
- Rema, YD 282:5.
- Shach, YD 277:1.
- Aruch Hashulchan, YD 277:2; Avnei Yashfei 1:202. But see Kaf Hachaim (Palagi) 20:11.
- Salmat Chaim 377.
- Kol Yaakov (Sofer) 277:3.
- Sefer Chassidim 909. See also Magen Avraham 154:14; Mishna Berura 154:31; Tzedaka U’mishpat (Balvia) 16:27.
- Rivevot Ephraim 4:213.
- See Bnei Banim, p. 209. With thanks to Amiel Naiman for showing me this source and encouraging me to write this paragraph. Ephraim Naiman has also pointed this out in the past.
- Darkei Moshe, YD 282; Beit Lechem Yehuda, YD 282:7; Aruch Hashulchan, YD 282:11. Elya Zuta, YD 240:7.
- Sefer Chassidim 109; Mishna Berura 206:18; Kaf Hachaim, OC 134:23, 206:30. Regarding how lefties should conduct themselves, see Mishna Berura 282:1; Be’er Moshe 2:3:18.