- Jewish Laws and Thoughts
One of the shul's baalei batim calls the rav with the following concern:
"The shul's sheimos collection is a fire hazard – a catastrophe waiting to happen. Can we just burn everything before a dangerous fire breaks out?"
I receive the following question from Cheryl:
"Rabbi, this has got to be the most interesting e-mail question you receive today. I am on a cruise in the Mediterranean, courtesy of, and with, my not-yet-observant parents, and today I spent the day looking at Jewish sites and other tourist attractions at our port-of-call. At one of the places, an elderly gentile lady gave me a large bag of old, tattered siddurim – no value. I have no idea what to do with them, and they are with me now in my cabin on the ship. May I bury them at sea?"
Answering the above questions provides an excellent opportunity to understand the topic called either genizah or sheimos. The particular emphasis in this article will be: what is the proper way to dispose of worn-out sefarim.
Should it be called sheimos or genizah?
Which is the "correct" term? The word used in Modern Hebrew for a religious item whose discarding must be handled in a special way is genizah, which literally means that they must be hidden. Indeed, this is the term used by the Gemara for the process of disposing of these items, and it is easy to understand how the term came to refer to items that require genizah, although technically genizah refers to the place where the item is placed.
The Yiddish word for these items is sheimos, whose source is the term sheimos she’einam nimchakim, meaning the names of G-d that the Torah prohibits erasing. In Parshas Re’eih, the Torah commands: Destroy all the places where the gentiles that you are driving out worshipped their gods, whether they are on high mountains, on hills, or beneath foliate trees. Raze their altars, smash their pillars, burn their worshipped trees, and demolish the images of their gods. Obliterate the names (of their deities) from that place (Devarim 12:2-4).
The Torah then closes this passage: Do not do this to Hashem your G-d!
When the Torah states: Obliterate the names from that place. Do not do this to Hashem your G-d, it is prohibiting obliterating Hashem’s Name (Shabbos 120b; Rambam, Hil. Yesodei HaTorah 6:1). The Gemara (Shavuos 35a) calls the names of Hashem that we may not erase sheimos she’einam nimchakim, which later became the origin of the term sheimos as a generic term to describe religious items whose discarding must be handled in a special way. Thus, either word, genizah or sheimos, may be used.
That which we call Hashem…
Although there are many expressions, such as the All-merciful One and the Creator, which refer to Hashem, halachah recognizes a major distinction between erasing the actual holy names of Hashem, and between erasing terms that describe Hashem, but are not actual names. Erasing the actual "names" of Hashem, the sheimos she’einam nimchakim, violates a lo saaseh of the Torah, one of the 613 mitzvos, and qualifies as a prohibition as serious as desecrating Yom Tov or eating non-kosher (see Makkos 22a). The names of Hashem, of which there are about 10, include, among others, Elokim, Elokeinu, Keil, Shakai, Tzevakos, Eloak , and,of course, the names I will call havayah and adnus. (Following the usual practice, I have substituted the "k" sound somewhere in the above names, so that readers do not err and recite these holy names in vain.) Erasing any of these names is prohibited min haTorah.
On the other hand, expressions that describe attributes of Hashem -- such as Rachum, All-merciful one; Chanun, He Who bestows kindness -- may be erased, even when they refer to Hashem (Shavuos 35a; Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 6:5). The Torah's prohibition, do not do this to Hashem your G-d, applies only to a name of Hashem, not to an attribute that describes Hashem.
Similarly, there is no prohibition to erase His names written in other languages, such as G-d, even when spelled with the "o" in the middle (Shach, Yoreh Deah 179:11), although one must exercise care that these names do not become treated disgracefully (Urim, 27:2, quoted also by Nesivos HaMishpat and Aruch HaShulchan ad loc.). The reason we are accustomed to spelling the name G-d, rather than with the added "o," is because of concern that the paper it is written on might end up in the garbage or treated in some other disgraceful way.
Does the prohibition include commentaries, Gemaros, et cetera?
Although the Torah violation, do not do this to Hashem your G-d, applies only to actual names of Hashem, Chazal prohibited destroying other holy writings, including commentaries, works of Mishnah, Gemara or halachah, and other Torah works (see Rambam, Hil. Yesodei HaTorah 6:8; Shu’t Tashbeitz 1:2).
What happens when they wear out?
Granted that the Torah prohibited destroying works that include Hashem's Name, eventually a sefer Torah becomes worn out and unusable. What does one do with it, then, if it is prohibited to destroy it? The precise details of how to dispose of these items is exactly the topic for today's article.
Buried in earthenware
The Gemara teaches that worn out sifrei Torah should be placed in earthenware vessels and then buried next to a talmid chacham, or, minimally, next to someone who learned halachah, meaning someone who learned at least Mishnayos (Megillah 26b). Placing them inside these vessels forestalls the decomposition of the sifrei Torah for a very long time (Ran), and placing them together with someone who studied Torah is a more respectful way of treating sifrei Torah that can no longer be used. It is very unfortunate that Hashem’s Name becomes obliterated, even in an indirect way, and we must delay the decomposition for as long as possible.
Genizah of printed sefarim
From after the time of the Gemara until the invention of the printing press in the 1400's, we find little discussion about how to dispose of holy works. Since everything was handwritten and presumably scarce and very expensive, we can presume that there were not a lot of worn out sifrei kodesh, and there was no difficulty in following the Gemara's description for their retirement. However, after the invention of the printing press, the sheer volume of printed material increased geometrically, and we find halachic discussion concerning whether wornout printed sefarim must be disposed of in the same manner as the Gemara describes for sifrei Torah.
The teshuvah of the Be'er Sheva
The earliest responsum I have seen on the subject is printed in the sefer Be'er Sheva, authored by one of the great Torah leaders of the early seventeenth century, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Eilenburg. He was a talmid of the Levush, and his sefer includes a haskamah from the Maharal of Prague! The Be'er Sheva reports that in his day, it was not uncommon for people to burn the worn-out printed editions of sifrei kodesh. Those who burned the sifrei kodesh claimed that this was more respectful than burying them, because burial often resulted in the sifrei kodesh being unearthed and therefore becoming treated disgracefully.
The Be'er Sheva takes strong issue with this approach, noting that it is prohibited to destroy any type of kisvei hakodesh, and that burning them certainly violates halachah. The claim that burying the sefarim leads to their desecration is unfounded, he states, because the desecration is a result of not burying the genizah correctly. As we mentioned above, the Gemara describes burying in earthenware vessels. If, indeed, all genizah were to be buried this way, argues the Be'er Sheva, then the kisvei hakodesh would never be strewn about after their burial. He concludes that worn-out, printed Torah material must be buried in earthenware vessels, just as one is required to bury sifrei Torah this way. This responsum of the Be'er Sheva is subsequently cited authoritatively by the Magen Avraham (154:9).
Not enough earthenware to go around
Notwithstanding the rulings of the Be'er Sheva and the Magen Avraham prohibiting the burning of wornout kisvei hakodesh, we find the issue of burning sheimos resurfacing a century later. It appears that burying the massive amounts of sheimos in earthenware vessels was not practical, presumably because appropriate earthenware vessels were not easily available in the quantities required. Since no other practical solution was acceptable to the Be'er Sheva and the Magen Avraham, accumulations of sheimos were doing just that -- accumulating. Thus we read:
The shul's sheimos collection is a fire hazard – a catastrophe waiting to happen. Can we just burn everything, before a dangerous fire breaks out?"
This is the exact question asked three hundred years ago by members of the Jewish community in Metz, Alsace-Lorraine, from their rav, Rav Yaakov Reischer, one of the great halachic authorities of his era, famed for his many classic Torah works, including Minchas Yaakov (on the laws of kashrus), Chok Yaakov (on Hilchos Pesach), Toras Hashelamim (on Hilchos Niddah), Iyun Yaakov (on Agadah of Shas), and his responsa, Shevus Yaakov.
In a responsum published in Shevus Yaakov, Rav Reischer reports that previous attempts to bury the amassed sheimos had resulted in gentiles unearthing the kisvei hakodesh and using them in a highly degrading way. For lack of any solution, the sheimos were accumulating and indeed were a fire hazard. Because of the life-threatening emergency that now resulted, the Shevus Yaakov ruled that it was preferable to burn the sheimos, which he felt was the most viable resolution of the problem, since burial in earthenware vessels could not be performed .
In Nissan 5483 (1723), Rav Reischer sent his teshuvah permitting, under these circumstances, the burning of genizah, to his mechutan, Rav Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen, the rav of Hamburg, for review, presumably hoping that Rav Katzenellenbogen would agree. The correspondence between these gedolei Torah was subsequently published in two different places – in Rav Reischer's Shu’t Shevus Yaakov, as Yoreh Deah, Volume 1, #10-12, and in Rav Katzenellenbogen's Shu’t Keneses Yechezkel as responsum #37. The two versions of the correspondence are not absolutely identical, but comparing the two versions broadens one's understanding of the dispute. In general, the Keneses Yechezkel account is somewhat truncated in places, but includes the dates of the letters. Apparently, when Rav Katzenellenbogen decided to print this correspondence, he abbreviated his own letters, although he published his mechutan's letters in full.
A more important fact is that the account published in Keneses Yechezkel includes a final letter from Rav Katzenellenbogen that does not appear in Shevus Yaakov.
Although both gedolim correspond to one another with great respect, they dispute strongly regarding what one should do with the accumulated sheimos material, when burial in earthenware vessels is not a practical solution. In his response dated 17 Kislev, the Keneses Yechezkel rejects fully his mechutan's proposal that the circumstances permit burning the sheimos, but instead rules that one should construct wooden boxes around the genizah, find an abandoned lot, and bury the wooden-entombed sheimos with three tefachim (about 9-11 inches) of earth above them.
The second volley
On the 23 of Teiveis, the Shevus Yaakov penned his retort to his mechutan, rejecting the idea that wooden boxes are as good as earthenware, and insisting that if all kisvei hakodesh must be buried in earthenware, burying in wood, which decays much more quickly, will not suffice. He contends that burying in wood is equal to burying directly in the earth, which he prohibits as a tremendous bizayon to the kisvei hakodesh. He feels that burying in earth, either with or without a wooded protection, is a far greater bizayon to the kisvei hakodesh than burning them. Thus, unswayed by his mechutan's rejection of his proposal, he remains with his original suggestion – that since burying all the genizah in earthenware containers is not practical, and burying them in wooden containers is not acceptable, the remaining option is to burn the sheimos.
The response from the Keneses Yechezkel was not long in coming. On the 17 th of Shvat, the Keneses Yechezkel penned his retort, again reiterating his position that it is absolutely forbidden to burn sheimos, and that it is perfectly acceptable, and therefore required, to bury them in wooden boxes. (This last letter is the part of the correspondence that does not appear in Shu’t Shevus Yaakov, but only in Keneses Yechezkel.)
Packing the printed material
It is noteworthy that both of these authorities rule that printed sefarim must be packed properly before burial, which was also the position of the Be'er Sheva and the Magen Avraham that I quoted above. On the other hand, the Pri Megadim (commenting on the above-quoted Magen Avraham), who was born shortly before the passing of the Keneses Yechezkel and the Shevus Yaakov, notes that the custom is to bury worn-out printed sefarim without placing them inside vessels, and to require burial in earthenware vessels only when burying worn-out, hand-written nevi’im and kesuvim that are written on parchment. (The nevi'im he is describing are used contemporarily by many shullen for reading the haftaros.) The custom mentioned by the Pri Megadim disputes the above quoted authorities, the Be'er Sheva, the Magen Avraham, the Keneses Yechezkel, and the Shevus Yaakov, all of whom held that printed sefarim must be packed in earthenware or other similarly protective ways before burial.
What is the accepted halachic practice?
The prevalent accepted practice follows the Pri Megadim's observation -- that is, although we insist that worn-out printed sefarim must be buried, they are not packed in either earthenware or even wood boxes before burial. The Mishnah Berurah (154:22, 24), when discussing this issue, quotes only the Pri Megadim; he does not even mention the disputing earlier opinions.
How can we permit this?
Granted that the minhag follows the Pri Megadim, but what is the halachic basis to permit this? Neither the Pri Megadim nor the Mishnah Berurah explains the rationale to permit burying these items, without properly packing them. However, an authority contemporary to the Pri Megadim, the Zera Emes (Volume II #133), does discuss this issue.
The Zera Emes was asked the same question that was asked of the Be'er Sheva, the Keneses Yechezkel and the Shevus Yaakov -- whether there is any basis to permit the burning of printed sheimos. In response, the Zera Emes first cites many early authorities who held that all printed sefarim require burial in earthenware vessels. However, although he concludes that all genizah items require burial, he analyzes whether all genizah items require to be first packed in earthenware vessels. He notes that the Gemara, itself, implies that there are different levels of kedushah when burying holy items. Although the Gemara mentions several items that require genizah, such as the coverings of the sefer Torah (often called mantelach), mezuzos, tefillin, tefillin bags and straps, it requires only that these items have genizah and does not mention that they be first placed in earthenware. The requirements of placing the genizah item in an earthenware vessel and burying it near a talmid chacham are mentioned only regarding a sefer Torah. Other holy writings do not require this, and it is sufficient to provide them with what the Zera Emes calls "a minimal burial" -- meaning burial in earth. Burial is a respectful way to allow for the decay of holy works, both because burial is halachically a respected way of disposal, and because the deterioration is caused indirectly.
The Zera Emes adds one more requirement – that the sheimos must be placed into some type of bag or covering before it is buried. This covering is necessary, in his opinion, because placing directly into the ground is not considered a respectable way to treat kisvei hakodesh. We should note that, according to the contemporary sefer Ginzei HaKodesh, Rav Elyashiv holds that in a situation where it is difficult to wrap the genizah, one may bury it without wrapping. This means that he feels that placing the kisvei hakodesh directly in the ground is not disrespectful.
Burial at sea
At this point, we can answer Cheryl's question:
I am on a cruise in the Mediterranean. At one port-of-call, a gentile lady gave me a large bag of old, tattered siddurim, which are now in my cabin on the ship. May I bury them at sea?
As you can by now imagine, I answered Cheryl that she is not permitted to bury the genizah at sea. According to all opinions quoted above, disposing worn-out kisvei hakodesh in water is considered destroying them directly. According to the Be'er Sheva and the Keneses Yechezkel, all kisvei hakodesh require burial in the earth, and in earthenware. According to the Pri Megadim and the Zera Emes, although burial is permitted in earth, this is only in earth, where the deterioration takes time, but "burial at sea" is a bizayon to the holy works. Even the Shevus Yaakov, who permitted burning kisvei hakodesh when one cannot bury them in earthenware vessels, expressly forbade burial in earth without packing them first, because the moisture of the earth is considered directly destroying them and forbidden, and certainly, disposal directly in water is forbidden.
Conclusion -- contemporary practice
Common practice of most of those who bury genizah today is to pack all hand-written kisvei hakodesh, including sifrei Torah, mezuzos, and tefillin parshiyos, in earthenware or glass containers before burial; whereas worn-out, printed sefarim are simply placed in bags or cardboard boxes and buried. Thus, it appears that although we are following the distinction between sifrei Torah and other holy writings as explained by the Zera Emes, contemporary practice is to be slightly stricter than his ruling regarding how we wrap mezuzos and tefillin parshiyos prior to burial.
Thousands of pages of Torah rattle off presses and home and business printers every day, spreading Torah to every corner of the globe. By disposing of this material appropriately, we help ensure that this glory of Torah does not lead to its desecration.