In last week’s article we discussed the problems in implementing the prohibition of not destroying holy scriptures. We also saw that certain suggestions were raised how to deal with this problem. In this article, we will try to understand the halachik rationale behind these suggestions.
The first point to consider is whether the prohibition is biblical or rabbinic in origin. As we have seen (see Desecrating Objects of Sanctity – Parshat Re’a), erasing the name of God is a biblical prohibition. Destroying holy scriptures, in particular those that do not contain the name of God, is an issue of debate amongst the commentaries.
Another issue of consideration is what can be included under the title of “Holy Scriptures”? Are all works of Torah included or are only those that were originally meant to be written, namely those that constitute the twenty four books of the bible. Clearly the Rambam, who includes with Holy Scriptures their commentaries, does not make such a distinction. Yet, in an analytical assessment of the issue, this consideration may be used in finer distinctions. These may include levels and forms of Kedusha. One can speak of a practical kedusha, sanctity, versus an inherent kedusha. Holy Scriptures may contain an inherent kedusha while oral Torah may have only a practical sanctity. The significance of this distinction could determine the status of books that have become worn and unusable. Books with an inherent kedusha need to be treated as if they were not worn out and must be saved from fires even on Shabat and must be put into proper geniza. Those books whose kedusha is practical when becoming unusable lose much of their sanctity and need not be saved in the event of a fire. Though these books should not be treated with disgrace they may require only “geniza kala”, storage that prevents direct disgrace.
One could discuss the difference between written and printed books. Here too, there may be a place to distinguish between inherent kedusha and practical kedusha. One could argue that only books that are written by human hand with intent to create a work of kedusha can receive an inherent Kedusha. Books that are printed contain a practical kedusha as a source for Torah study. There is also place to discuss whether the prohibition in reference to printed books is biblical or rabbinic. Namely, even if we were to take the position that holy scriptures are included in the biblical prohibition one can argue that this applies only to written books while printed books are only considered sanctified on a rabbinic level. This distinction is of importance since rabbinic prohibitions can be disregarded where there are halachik questions (a safek) as to the applicability of the prohibition. Consequently, where several considerations may accumulate, even if none of them are decisive on their own, a more lenient ruling may be reached.
The question of how the destruction comes about is of significance as well. The pasuk that prohibits demolishing objects of sanctity states “lo ta’asun ken lahashem”, you shall not do so to God. The word “ta’asun” indicates taking action proactively. It could therefore be argued that only an action intended to cause destruction is prohibited. Any passive situation where a person does not actively bring about the destruction but rather allows it to occur on its own is not prohibited. This sort of situation is called in halachik terms “grama”, to indirectly cause something to occur. This, in turn, raises the question what constitutes a direct action and what should be viewed as grama. Is putting a book in water a direct or indirect action? Does a truly indirect action when the results are pre-known constitute halachikly an act of grama or not?
As in most halachik issues one can find a range of views on each of these issues and on what may or may not be done in practice. Yet, many authorities seem to be of the opinion that books (even printed) that contain the name of God should be put into proper geniza. Other books and pamphlets containing words and ideas of Torah but not the name of God can be disposed of respectfully especially in recycling bins.