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Honor Thy Sefarim!

Can one sit on the same bench as sefarim? What can be placed on sefarim? Rules of honoring our holy printed books.


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

A reader sent me the following series of questions.

Question #1:

"My teachers taught in Day School that one may not sit on a bench while a sefer rests on it. An elderly man with whom I share a bench in shul often puts his siddur down on the bench on which we are sitting. Do I need to pop out of my seat every time he does this?"

Question #2:

"I also learned that one does not place anything on top of sefarim. Yet, even in the frummest of shuls, I see people placing their tefillin bags, watches, and eyeglasses on top of sefarim. Am I mistaken?"

Question #3:

"Similarly, I recall being taught that one may not place any other sefarim on top of a Chumash. Next in importance comes a Navi, then other sefarim. Yet I see people piling sefarim in shul rather indiscriminately. Who is wrong? I or they?"

Question #4:

"I also remember once seeing that when stacking sefarim, a Chumash may be placed on a siddur and a siddur on other sefarim, but have subsequently been unable to find this halacha in a reputable source. Is this accurate?"

Question #5:

"When I notice sefarim placed upside down on the shul’s bookcases, am I obligated to stand them upright?"

Question #6:

"We are moving. May I place boxes of sefarim on the ground?"

Yerachmiel Simons (name changed upon request)

Indeed, as our friend Yerachmiel points out, the halachos governing the proper respect due to sefarim are not as well known as one would hope. In fact, it appears that while his education in this regard was excellent, others seem to have received less instruction than he did, or have forgotten what they learned. Let us explain the sources for each of Yerachmiel’s cases:

"My teachers taught in Day School that one may not sit on a bench while a sefer rests on it."

The halacha is that one may not sit on a bed that has a Sefer Torah on it (see Menachos 32b; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 282:7), nor may one place a Sefer Torah onto a bench upon which someone is sitting. To permit sitting on a bed or bench on which a Sefer Torah rests, the Sefer Torah should be placed on a box or some other secure object on the bed that is at least ten tefachim (about forty inches) tall. If such a box is unavailable, the sefer Torah should be placed on a secure item at least three tefachim tall (Beis Yosef). The Shach (282:8) contends that even one tefach high is sufficient. Therefore, it seems that if the elderly gentleman wants to place his siddur on the bench, he should first fold his talis bag until it is at least one tefach tall, place the bag on the bench, and then place the siddur atop the talis bag.

However, before we decide that Mr. Elderly Gentleman’s practice is, indeed, incorrect, let us see whether we can justify his practice.


One could argue that the Gemara’s prohibition applies only to cases where a hand-written sefer Torah is lying on a bench, but not printed sefarim. However, the vast majority of early authorities reject this approach: the Rama (Shu't #34) proves that this law indeed does apply to our printed sifrei kodesh, and both the Taz (Yoreh Deah 271:8) and the Magen Avraham (45:2) contend that we should treat printed sefarim with the same respect that the Gemara requires for a sefer Torah. Similarly, the Aruch Hashulchan 282:22 explicitly rules that all printed sefarim have the same kedushah. Although some suggest that a sefer printed by a gentile does not have kedushah, few authorities rely on this, even under extenuating circumstances, and certainly not in our non-extenuating situation (Shu't Chavos Yair #184).


One early source contends that this halacha applies only to sefarim printed in the same Hebrew alphabet as a sefer Torah, known as ksav ashuris (Shu't Rama #34). For reasons beyond the scope of this article, this source contends that one may sit on a bench that has English language sefarim, or sefarim printed entirely in a Rashi-type font. Since I found no later authorities quoting this approach, I am hesitant to rely on it, but I would not correct someone who placed such a sefer on his bench. However, this approach does not help Yerachmiel’s predicament, since siddurim are normally printed in a standard type face that mimics the accepted Sefardic version of ksav ashuris.


I have seen many people place a sefer standing upright on the bench. I presume that they think that the prohibition of sitting on the bench applies only if the sefer is lying on the bench. However, this is clearly erroneous since the sefer is still resting on the bench. It is presumably worse to have the sefer stand on the bench, because the sefer is more likely to fall, which is certainly a denigration of its honor.

Does the prohibition to put a sefer down on a place where someone is sitting apply only to the person placing books on a surface that someone is sitting on, or does it apply equally to the person already sitting there, requiring him to stand up? In other words, may I remain seated if someone placed sefarim on the bench upon which I was sitting?

Presuming that it is disrespectful to sit on the same surface as a holy work, the prohibition applies not only to the person who placed the book there, but also to the person who was sitting there beforehand. Therefore, one must either remove the book, or rise from his seat.


In certain situations, it is permitted to place holy works on the bench where one is sitting. When a beis hamedrash is crowded and there is insufficient room for everyone to sit, many authorities permit placing printed sefarim on benches where people are sitting, due to the extenuating circumstances (Beis Yosef and Shach, Yoreh Deah 282:9, quoting Rabbeinu Manoach). Others disagree, contending that the situation does not create a reason to permit that which is otherwise forbidden (Beis Yosef). Notwithstanding the Beis Yosef‘s disagreement, the first approach is cited authoritatively by several prominent later authorities (Shu't Be’er Sheva #38; Aruch HaShulchan 282:12). Thus, if Yerachmiel’s shul is crowded on Shabbos and Yom Tov, he may ignore the sefarim on the benches, and may even place his own siddur there. When it is less crowded, however, one should not sit on a bench upon which a siddur is resting.

Let us now proceed to another of Yerachmiel’s questions:

"I also learned that one does not place anything on top of sefarim. Yet, even in the frummest of shuls, I see people placing their tefillin bags, watches, and eyeglasses on top of sefarim. Am I mistaken?"

Indeed, it appears that you learned these halachos very well, as I will explain:

The Gemara rules that one may place Chumashim on top of Neviim (works of the prophets) or Kesuvim (other Biblical works), but that Neviim or Kesuvim should not be placed on top of Chumashim (Megillah 27a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 282:19). If holy writings may not rest on top of a Chumash, obviously, the same applies to mundane items, such as eyeglasses.


Could one argue that one may rest mundane items on top of other sefarim, and that the prohibition applies only to placing items on Chumashim? We can prove that this suggestion is inaccurate. In his discussion of these halachos, the Rama adds that one may place Kesuvim atop Neviim and vice versa (Rama 282:19). Clearly, the reason the Rama permits this is because Kesuvim and Neviim are considered of equal sanctity. This indicates that one may not place a holy item of lesser sanctity atop Neviim and Kesuvim, and certainly not mundane items.


Is there any halacha governing whether Kesuvim have greater sanctity than Gemaras, or vice versa?

The Aruch Hashulchan 282:22 explicitly paskens that all printed sefarim have the same kedushah, although the lack of discussion among the earlier halachic commentaries concerning this shaylah implies that Kesuvim should be placed on top of Gemaras and not vice versa. Let me explain:

Even though written Mishnayos and works on Aggadah already existed in the time of the Gemara, the Gemara states that one is permitted to place Kesuvim atop Neviim, but does not mention placing Mishnayos on top of either of them. One can infer that although one may place Kesuvim atop Neviim, this does not apply to writings of Chazal.


Are there any exceptional situations when one may place something on top of a sefer? Let us examine some of these possibilities and see when they apply.

Some authorities contend that only hand-written Chumashim have greater sanctity than Neviim, but not printed editions (Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh Deah 282:22). Others assume that since the Shulchan Aruch, the Rama, and the other major commentaries all lived after printed seforim were very common, that when they cite the halachos not to place Neviim or Kesuvim atop Chumashim, they presumably were also including printed Chumashim, Neviim and Kesuvim. We would thus conclude that one may not place printed Neviim atop printed Chumashim. If one may not place a printed sefer with kedushah atop another printed sefer with greater kedushah, one may certainly not place a mundane item on top of a printed sefer.


Some people think that one may place an item on top of a sefer to assist one’s davening, such as to prevent the page from turning. Unfortunately, this approach is also not borne out by the sources. The halacha is that one may not place one sefer atop another in order to elevate it to a comfortable level, although one may place a sefer beneath the first sefer so that it is available for later use (see Taz, Yoreh Deah 282:13). Thus, although one cannot place the siddur under the Chumash in order to make the Chumash easier to read, one may place it there in order to have it available for musaf.

At this point, we can address Yerachmiel’s next question.

"I also remember once seeing that when stacking sefarim, a Chumash may be placed on a siddur and a siddur on other sefarim, but have subsequently been unable to find this halacha in a reputable source. Is this accurate?"

Although I have never come across this ruling, there seems to halachic basis for it. We have established that there is a hierarchy of holy writings of
(1) Torah (Chumash)
(2) Neviim and Kesuvim
(3) Writings of Chazal

When placing holy works in a pile, one should stack them with the holier items on top. The question is: a siddur contains prayers written by Chazal, pesukim of Torah, Neviim, and Kesuvim, and certain chapters of Mishnah. Where do we place a siddur in our hierarchy? Can we find any sources for this question?

I believe that we can. The Rama rules that if the Torah, Neviim and Kesuvim are bound together in a Tanach, we are not concerned which is on top (Rama, Yoreh Deah 282:19). This implies that we treat a bound sefer as one entity, and that the entire sefer is elevated to the level of the highest form of holiness contained therein. If our assumption is correct, one would conclude that it is perfectly alright to place a Tanach on a Chumash, or a Chumash on a Tanach, as, in fact, I was told by my eighth grade rebbe.

Based on this analysis, one might conclude that a siddur, which contains pesukim of Chumash, can be treated on the same level as a Chumash. However, I think that since the primary use of a siddur is for its prayers, it should not be treated on the same level as a Chumash, but close to it. I would therefore prioritize as follows: Chumash, Neviim and Kesuvim, siddur, and then writings of Chazal including Mishnah and Gemara. I subsequently discovered that some contemporary poskim feel that a siddur should be treated like Neviim, whereas others rule that it should be treated like the writings of Chazal (Ginzei Hakodesh page 56).

Let us now examine Yerachmiel’s next question:

"When I notice sefarim placed upside down on the shul’s bookcases, am I obligated to stand them upright?"

The Gemara prohibits leaving a written page of a sefer Torah upside down to dry, even though one’s purpose is for its benefit (see Eruvin 98a). Based on this idea, the Rama prohibits leaving a sefer turned upside down (Darchei Moshe, Yoreh Deah 282:1 quoting Maharil; and in Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 282:5). Therefore, one is, indeed, obligated to straighten out any sefer that one sees.

I also find, often, that people place an open siddur upside down to keep their place. This is prohibited. Instead, find a slip of paper or a tissue to mark the place and then place the sefer right side up. However, even if one does not find a suitable marker, one may not leave a sefer upside down.

Question #5:

"We are moving. May I place boxes of sefarim on the ground?"

Anyone visiting a sefarim store witnesses piles of bagged or boxed sefarim lying on the floor. Are these stores violating the halacha that states "One may not place Sifrei Torah or other sefarim on the ground" (Rama 282:7)?

It seems that this is permitted, for two different reasons:

1. Most authorities permit placing printed sefarim on the benches where people are sitting in a crowded Beis Medrash. This is because when there is no place to put the sefarim, and people want to learn Torah, it is not a violation of the sefarim’s honor. One could argue, similarly, that it is difficult, if not impossible, for a sefarim store to transport sefarim without placing the boxes or bags of sefarim on the floor, at least temporarily. Similarly, one can contend that while packing and moving, the most secure place to store the boxes of sefarim is on the floor.

2. One can argue that the Rama prohibited placing sifrei Torah or other sefarim on the ground only when they are not appropriately bagged or boxed. Once the sefarim are packed in a respectful manner, it does not show disdain to place the boxes or bags on the floor.

The Jewish people are often called the am hasefer, the People of the Book, because of the profound respect we place on learning and education. Included in this idea is that we observe the honor that halacha instructs is due to holy works.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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