How to Treat Holy Jewish Books

Jews demonstrate the holiness of biblical and rabbinic texts in several ways.

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Eventually, this hierarchy was extended to non-biblical books as well. The medieval work Sefer Hasidim, says that one should not stack books of Talmud (rabbinic discussions of the Mishnah) on top of books of the Bible, and one person was remembered for having separate cabinets for Bible and for works of the "Oral Torah" (rabbinic writings) so people would not associate the holiness of the Bible with the Rabbinic writings (Sefer Hasidim, #141, #908). Interestingly, the same logic also led to the opposite practice. Sefer Hasidim #909 reports:

One person…put a book of oral Torah on top of a book of written Torah. His friend said to him, "Why are you doing that?" He responded, "In order to preserve the book of written Torah, because by covering it with this, I will save it from the dust and ashes falling upon it, and it is better that I cover it with pamphlets of oral Torah and not with another book of written Torah.

It is not clear how one would relatively rank the various non-biblical books, but the idea of "how one stacks one's books" provides an interesting parallel to the varying levels of authority in a royal aristocracy.

Appropriate Treatment

Parallel to the treatment of holy texts as royalty are other rules dealing with how one treats books. De Vidas said that showing honor to one's library includes placing books in a prominent place in one's home, protecting them with heavy pieces of cloth, and using traps to protect the books from destruction by rodents or cats. If a book is shelved upside down, one is to turn the book right side up and kiss it (Tzvi Hirsch Koidonover, d. 1719, in Sefer Kav haYashar). One should not shame a holy book by placing it on a bench on which one is sitting , exposing one's nakedness to it, or taking it into a bathroom.

What happens if a Sefer Torah falls to the ground? Many people believe that the person responsible should fast, along with any who saw the Torah fall. The origin of this custom, however, is fairly late (17th century), apparently popularized by the Polish authority R. Abraham Gombiner. Other rabbis have suggested alternatives, including giving money to tzedakah (social justice causes), buying a new Torah mantle, reciting psalms, or learning the laws related to the Sefer Torah. Ultimately, most rabbis will follow the practical advice of R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulai, who said that the "local rabbi should rule as he sees fit in order that they should be careful in the future, and everything [should be decided] according to the time and place."

When Books Are Like People

One might argue that the only thing treated with greater sanctity than holy books in general and the Sefer Torah in specific is human life, but in some ways, boStacked booksoks are even given a kind of humanity. It is not uncommon that great rabbinic authors "lose" their personal identity and become known as the authors of their books. For example, Yaakov ben Asher was known as the Ba'al haTurim after his work, the Arba'ah Turim (ba'al means "master of"), and Zerachiah haLevi, the author of Sefer Me'orot, became known as the Ba'al haMaor. In other cases, the authors simply became known by the titles of the books themselves. When one refers to the Hafetz Hayim, one must take care to indicate whether one is referring to the influential book on the ethics of language, or its author, Israel Meir haKohen.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.