Disposing of Holy Scriptures


In last week’s article we learned that the prohibition to destroy items of sanctity and the name of God extends to holy scriptures that do not necessarily contain the name of God.  While there is a question whether this extension is part of the biblical prohibition of “Lo taasun ken lahashem elokechem” or just a rabbinic broadening of the prohibition, it is clear there is a prohibition to destroy all holy scriptures.  Ideally such scriptures require ‘genizah’, being stored away or buried in a respectable manner. This halacha poses over time more and more of a challenge and in particular today we are faced with a great challenge of what can be done with the mass amount of Torah literature printed and then discarded for new Torah literature.

We should note that three events have made the problem of proper storing of Torah literature the problem it is today. The first event was a halachik decree that allowed the writing of oral Torah. Ideally only that which is part of the written Bible can be written and all the laws and ideas orally conveyed must be passed on from generation to generation orally. Due to a sense that preventing the writing would cause much of it to be forgotten, Chazal permitted the writing of the oral laws.  Stating: “eit laasot lahashem heferu toratecha”, it is a time to do for the greater preservation of God’s commandments let us undo one law for the preservation of many others.

The second event was the invention of the printing press that multiplied many times over the number of books produced which eventually required ‘genizah’.  And finally, the technological advances in recent years which allow almost anyone to print and publish Torah literature exacerbated the issue. This in turn has led to a massive rainfall of Torah Journals and publications. The question asked over and over in recent generations and especially in the last fifty years is: can holy scriptures be disposed of in some way?

The earliest responses on the issue coincide with the introduction of the printing press. The primary issue at the time was whether proof sheets could be disposed of or used for the support in the binding of other books. In later Responsa literature we find a question of burning Torah scriptures. Clearly burning holy scriptures is prohibited as stated explicitly in the Rambam: “It is prohibited to burn or actively destroy any holy scripture or their commentaries” (Yesodei Hatorah ch 6 halacha 8). Yet, when faced with a situation that proper storage of holy scriptures was not possible and books were consequently desecrated, in many ways, the question became what is the least of evils?  Is the active burning of scriptures in a respectable manner, possibly, preferable to greater passive disgrace caused by inappropriate storage of those scriptures?    

In recent years two other ideas have been discussed. The first being, whether certain Torah literature could be properly bagged in strong bags and then put in the garbage? This is the commonly suggest approach for the disposing of fruit that has sanctity but cannot be eaten. It is particularly relevant where is used for landfills so that the bag separates the scriptures from the dirt of the rest of the garbage, preventing disgrace, and is then buried as in proper genizah.

The other suggestion was to recycle the paper of discarded Torah literature. Some suggested an elaboration on this idea, to create a recycling system where the recycled paper is used for new Torah books.

In our next article we will try to understand what the halachik considerations that apply to these questions are.