The rabbis love exploring special cases that force them to prioritize laws and values. Today’s dilemma: you are holding a two-sided scroll on Shabbat and accidentally drop one end such that it rolls outside into a public area. To retrieve it would require carrying in the public domain on Shabbat. To leave it on the ground would be disrespectful. What should you do?
After walking through several possibilities, we come to a particularly creative solution — tossing the scroll, in order to avoid carrying it. But alas:
Rav Aha bar Ahava said: One does not throw sacred writings.
While the question of possibly throwing a Torah scroll is grounded in the limits of acceptable Shabbat practice, the response is not: it is never acceptable to throw sacred writings, whether it’s Shabbat, a holiday or a regular weekday.
And not only that: the prospect that someone would act in such a disrespectful way is so remote that the rabbis can’t even contemplate it, rendering the topic unworthy of serious discussion from a halakhic perspective.
Later on the page, the rabbis have to finally consider that sometimes retrieval will not be halakhically possible. The underlying mishnah instructs that, if a scroll is irretrievable and must remain where it is for the balance of Shabbat, one should ensure that the parchment is turned so the writing is facing the ground. The Gemara pushes back:
And is it permitted to do so? Wasn’t it taught that with regard to writers of scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot who interrupt their work, the sages did not permit them to turn the sheet of parchment facedown lest it become soiled? Rather, one spreads a cloth over it in a respectful manner.
There, with regard to scribes, it is possible to cover the parchment respectfully; here, it is not possible to do so. And if he does not turn the scroll over, it will be more degrading to the sacred writings. Consequently, although this is not an ideal solution, it is preferable to turn it over rather than leave the scroll exposed.
The rabbis place a premium on observing Shabbat by resting and not carrying objects in the public domain. Although demonstrating respect for sacred objects is also a strong value, it cannot take precedence over violating Shabbat. In such situations, the objects must be respected as best they can be — by covering them (if we are able), or turning them facedown for protection.
Curious to know more? The Shulchan Aruch catalogues a more complete inventory of dos and don’ts for respecting holy texts — not just Torah scrolls, but all of the Jewish objects that carry sacredness.