Our Geniza Burial
Posted on November 1, 2015
How wonderful it was to spend this morning at the Natick/Framingham Hebrew Cemetery burying books and papers with God’s name.
I loved watching the kids handle the old books – looking at them, studying the year the were published, wondering about the inscriptions and what type of book it was, and trying to read some of the Hebrew.
The items were buried are called shemot. (Literally, that words means “names”.) [It’s also similar to the Hebrew title for the 2nd book of the Torah. Exodus, in Hebrew is called Shemot. Shemot book opens with the words “Eleh shemot…” or “These are the names of the House of Jacob….”.) We buried the books this morning that we no longer use – the pages are disintegrating or because they are outdated/newer additions are available – or simply because we don’t have room to store them. Haggaddahs for the Passover Seder, siddurim/prayerbooks, humashim/the Five Books of Moses, tallitot/prayershawls, and tefilin were all laid to rest this morning with care and respect. I want to especially thank our kids for helping us complete this most important mitzvah. We always talk about not throwing away books and papers with God’s name, many of us have now had a hand’s on experience and know what we do with those papers. – See you soon, Robin
1. The source for why we bury books as it is written in the Talmud. There is a lengthier discussion that I am uploading with this blog for those of you interested.
2. Some of the readings from our ceremony at the cemetery. Here for your to reflect on as you wish.
3. A skit that was read in the classrooms this morning. It was edited in many of the younger classrooms so the version your child heard in class might not be what’s below.
1. Talmud Megillah 26b
Our Rabbis taught: objects for religious observances [when they can no longer be used] are to be thrown away; BUT objects for holiness are to be stored away [meaning buried].
The following are objects for religious observances: a sukkah, a lulav, a shofar, tzitzit.
The following are objects for holiness: large sacks for keeping scrolls of the Scripture in, tefillin and mezuzot, a mantle for a Torah, and a tefillin container [likely meaning the box that holds the tefilin] and tefillin straps’.
2. Burial Ceremony for Holy Books & Holy Ritual Objects
קוֹדשׁ כְּלֵי & קוֹדשׁ סִפְרֵי
We are Am Ha-Sefer, the people of the Book. It is a title we have worn with pride. In the Middle Ages, when most of Europe was illiterate, most Jewish men — and many Jewish women as well — could read. To us, books are almost living beings. They should be treated with honor and with love, just as we would treat a friend, a teacher, or someone in our family. Many of our books and ritual items contain God’s name, and we use them to worship God; so we show them special respect, like the respect we show to God.
We don’t place them on the floor.
When we drop a book with God’s name in it,
or a tallis,or a set of tefillin, or a mezuzah parchment,
we kiss it.
And we continue to show them respect
even when they are old and worn and no longer of any use,
just as we would a friend, a teacher, or a family member.
The Torah says about human beings, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) From this our tradition learns that when we die, our bodies are to be buried respectfully in the ground, to return in the most natural way to the earth and continue as part of the chain of life. And we do the same with our books.
The Romans, the medieval church, and Hitler, among others, burned our books and Sifre Torah inan attempt to destroy us, but we wrote them again and made them live. This is another reason why we do not burn our sacred items and texts when they become unusable. We bury them with loving care and respect, as we would bury the body of a friend or relative whom we loved.
We commit these boxes to the earth, where they will return to the earth, to enrich the soil, in which we grow trees, from which we create more books! We are participating in an endless chain of life. These old books and ritual items have served us faithfully; it is time for them to rest in peace.
We remember their teachings and the guidance they have given us. And as we study new books, we will bring with us the knowledge and inspiration that the old books have given us.
El Malei Rahamim
O God, full of compassion, Dweller on high, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, in holiness and purity, to all the holy books, siddurim, humashim, tefillin, mezuzot, and tallitot, which have become worn out and torn; may they find use in the Garden of Eden. Master of mercy, help us to dedicate for ourselves new items of holiness in their place, so that we may be bound in the chain of the living Torah. Adonaiis our portion, and let us say, Amen.
Yellow pages, bindings strong
Crumbling covers sang their song.
Laid to rest, your duty done.
To teach and mold our minds to one.
In honored grave we place with care
The old, worn books we held so dear.
Though read no more, your words remain
You helped all humans wisdom gain.
Pages crumble and bindings tear
But words endure — Am Ha-Sefer!
Etz chayim hi la-macha-zikim bah, v’tom-chehah m’ushar.
D’ra-chehah darchey no-am, v’chol n’tivo-teha shalom.
Hashi-veynu Adonai ey-lecha v’na-shuva,
chadesh ya-meynu k’ke-dem.
עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ, וְתֹמְכֶֽיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר.
דְּרָכֶֽיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹֽעַם, וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶֽיהָ שָׁלוֹם.
הֲשִׁיבֵֽנוּ יְיָ אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנָשֽׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵֽינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם.
The Torah is a tree of life for all who grasp it, and all who uphold it are blessed.
Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peaceful.
Help us turn to you, Adonai, and we shall return; renew our lives as in days of old.
3. What Do I Do With My Old Books?
Child: Which book is best? Gosh, I don’t know… maybe I should throw out those old, worn out books and only keep the new ones. They’re prettier.
Teacher: Why throw them out? It’s only the paper that’s worn out. The ideas and teachings are still true and valuable. Besides, Jews don’t throw out anything with God’s name on it. We treat Jewish books in a similar manner to the way we treat people. You don’t throw out a servant when he can’t work anymore and you don’t throw out a holy book.
Child: Wait, explain to me more about how books are like people?
Adult: A book is like a person who gives advice. If we seek advice, we can always turn to a book. A book can help us remember what has happened before, help us understand what is happening now, and help us predict what will happen in the future. Within its covers the whole world lies.
Adult: A book is a true friend. In the whole world there is no friend more faithful, no companion more bending, no teacher more instructive than a book. As a friend, a book will cause us no harm. When days are bad, its words of wisdom will gladden us. A book can be a friend in our loneliness, a companion in our exile, a light in our darkness, and good cheer in our sorrow. And as much as it bestows, it asks no favor in return. It gives all; it takes nothing. What truer friend can there be?
Adult: A book is a superb teacher. It instructs but never finds need to punish. It never taunts or displays anger. Never will a book deride us when we are mistaken or laugh at us when we display ignorance. And it is never too late at night or too early in the morning to learn from this teacher, for it never sleeps. It stands alert and prepared whenever we seek it. Finally, a book can teach us not only about the world around us but about ourselves as well. Our scholars tell us, “A good book is one in which you lose yourself. But even better, it is one in which you can find yourself.
Rabbi: The manner in which books are handled in the synagogue shows the respect Jews hold for the written word.
Child: Like when a siddur falls to the floor, the person who picks it up kisses it as a sign of respect.
Rabbi: Yes, and the Torah rests majestically in the ark. In ancient times, the ark was covered with gold inside and out! Today when the Torah is carried down the aisles of the synagogue, we rise to show respect. When a person is called to the Torah for an aliyah, he or she kisses it to show his or her love for it before pronouncing the blessing.
Child: So anyway, what do we do with old Jewish books?
Rabbi: We bury them with loving care and with respect, just as we do with humans.
Child: What a great idea… to put away a worn out book and let it rest in God’s earth! It’s like the leaves that drop from the trees when their time has come to fall. They enrich the earth in an endless circle of growth.
Teacher: That’s right! Books are made of paper, which comes from wood, which comes from trees, which come from nature, which is the symbol of God. It’s like a chain that never ends! Each book is a link in the endless chain of life.
Child: I like the idea of putting old books to rest. Somehow I’m not sad, even in this cemetery where the dead sleep. Old books, you’ve served us faithfully. It’s time to rest now in peace.
Child: Where did the our teachers and rabbis get the idea to burying books?
גנזה = storage