Should you bury this article - or recyle it?

There are differences among rabbis over how far you should go in the disposal of sacred texts

By Rabbi Natan Levy, February 10, 2011
Orthodox boys in Beitar Illit outside Jerusalem play on a genizah, where religious documents are deposited after use

Orthodox boys in Beitar Illit outside Jerusalem play on a genizah, where religious documents are deposited after use

In a landfill near Stansted, Yankel Mayer Rosenfeld is dumping God's name. A huge yellow skip pours black bin-bags into a hole in the ground. This is the end for discarded siddurim, and Hamodia paper clippings, for extra Cheder hand-outs and any scrap of paper that can be categorised under the label of sheimot - literally Hebrew for names, but here referring to the singular name of God.

Jewish law prohibits the destruction of any piece of writing which contains Torah concepts. Even this article (the Torah quotes are coming) would be labelled by the majority of British dayanim as sheimot, and now you, gentle reader, have a problem in your hands.  What  should  you do? Visit your local synagogue and ask for the genizah (Hebrew for "storage"), toss in this article and your worries are over.  And when the genizah becomes full, more often than not they call in Yankel Mayer Rosenfeld.

Rosenfeld and his team are the UK's premier disposal experts of sheimot. "We get about 3,000 full bags a year of sheimot," he tells me, "and each bag is roughly 18 kilos." I quickly do the maths: Rosenfeld's team put 54,000 kilos of paper into the landfill every year. ("And it's better if the bags are non-degradable," he notes, "so the sheimot never comes in contact with the other rubbish that gets dumped here.")

To understand the dumping in Stansted, we  must begin with the Bible.  Moses enjoins the Children of Israel at the cusp of encountering the Canaanite nations:  "You shall obliterate their names from that place. You shall not do this to the Lord, your God" (Deuteronomy 12: 3-4). This last line provides demarcation between names we ought to destroy, and names we must preserve. The name of God, therefore, cannot be rubbished.

The expansion of the prohibition beyond destroying God's name to include preservation of all Torah texts is first mentioned by the sages of the Talmud. (Shabbat 116a). However,  the foundation for the halachah (Jewish law), as we know it, was written by Moses Maimonides by 1180.  "All holy writings, and their commentaries, and their explanations, it is forbidden to either burn or destroy them" (Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Torah 6:8). By the late 18th century, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan concluded that there is no distinction between handwritten and printed material, or between Hebrew and translation; all was classified as sheimot. Rabbi Kagan's ruling is the accepted stance of the dayanim in this country, which keeps Rosenfeld's disposal team in a full-time job.

It is a touch ironic, that until the invention of the printing press, and then the Xerox machine, the laws of sheimot may have encouraged the medieval world's closest  approximation to recycling.  In  ancient Jewish parchments, re-use is  normative. Peruse any manuscript  from the Cairo Genizah (a treasure trove of discarded letters, siddurim and religious manuscripts from 870-1880) and you are immediately struck by how much use each page received before it was finally laid to rest.  

Take  Fragment T-S AS_111.164 at random.  It is a small, hand-sized parchment with a response penned by Rabbi Moses Maimonides. Not only did Maimonides draft his own response on the very letter in which he received his question, but on the same piece of parchment a later scribe jotted down a personal prayer. Each subsequent writer used every margin of space until it warranted the shlep to the genizah.

As the price of paper dropped, and mass printing emerged, sheimot disposal was transformed. Rabbi Moses Feinstein, one of the foremost halachic adjudicators of the past century, anticipated the current problem: "If the problem of wasteful use of genizah concerned the rabbis of previous generations, how much more so should  it concern us, with our slew of printed  material growing yearly?" (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chayim, 4, 39) His solution is radical. Because the Torah prohibition of sheimot is intended to safeguard the sanctity of only the written Torah, "all later works classified within the Oral Tradition, which includes the Mishnah, Talmud and every subsequent Jewish text, [as long as it does not contain the seven primary Divine Names] can be recycled."  

But if Rabbi Feinstein allows us to recycle just about everything that Mayer Yankel Rosenfeld is currently dumping  in Stansted, there must be more to this story. There is, in Rabbi Feinstein's conclusion:  "But this stance cannot be acted on until it has received the support of our rabbinical leaders."  

This responsum that could redefine the Jewish ethos of recycling  has never  received the widespread appropriation of Rabbi Feinstein's fellow sages.  Perhaps it is time to ask your local rabbi why not?

Natan Levy is rabbi of Shenley United Synagogue

Last updated: 10:47am, February 10 2011