Ask the Expert: Burying the Genizah

What should be done with old Torah scrolls and sacred texts?

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Question: What is the protocol for burying damaged Jewish prayer books and shawls? Should they be wrapped? Can they be buried in my yard? Are there special prayers to be recited?
–Linda, Randolph MA

Ask the Expert JewishAnswer: It sounds like you’re talking about burying the contents of a genizah, Linda. Genizah means “reserved” or “hidden” in Hebrew, and is traditionally a place where Jews store sacred documents when they fall out of use.

The Talmud (Shabbat 115a) stipulates that all sacred writings (scrolls of Torah, Prophets, and Writings), should be preserved in a place where they cannot be destroyed. Though this idea was originally closely tied to a prohibition from ever erasing God’s name, Maimonides ruled that holy books, such as the Talmud and midrash, should be retired to the genizah as well, even though they do not contain God’s name. (Mishneh Torah, Hilhot Yesodei HaTorah 6:8)

For a long time, Jewish communities set aside a room in each synagogue exclusively for this purpose, and called that space the genizah. Anything from a worn-out siddur to a contract written in Hebrew would be put in the genizah when it was no longer useful, and often ritual objects, such as a tallit or a lulav, were added as well.

Today, most synagogues have a closet or a box where they collect used papers and ritual objects that are considered sacred. The general rule is that anything dealing with sacred subjects should be placed in a genizah, rather than thrown out. An Israeli newspaper, though written in Hebrew, would not need to go in a genizah, but a megillah that had been damaged would.

Most synagogues clean out their genizot every few years, by burying the contents in a Jewish cemetery as a sign of reverence and respect. Some communities even have cemetery plots that have been donated expressly for the purpose of burying the genizah.  It is considered a great sign of respect to bury a Torah scroll or other sacred work near a prestigious Torah scholar. However, you are welcome to bury your household genizah in your backyard, as long as it is done respectfully.

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