Rabbi I Have a Problem

Is it better to recyle an old siddur than bury it?

An Orthodox and a Progressive rabbi debate issues in contemporary Jewish life


Question: I have some old siddurim which are falling apart and no longer usable. I know religious books are supposed to be buried but would it not be more of a mitzvah these days to recyle them?

Rabbi Brawer: The halachic basis for the practice of not destroying old or used sacred books emerges from a passage in Deuteronomy (12:3) that calls for the destruction of pagan worship sites and implements. This is followed by the exhortation, “Do not do similarly to the Lord your God” (12:4).

This pithy passage is understood by the Talmud as prohibiting the destruction of the whole or part of God’s name (Makkot 22a). This is codified in the Shulchan Aruch, where it also specifies seven names of God that fall under this prohibition, among which are Y-h-v-h, Elohim, El, Adonai, all of which appear with frequency in the Torah and in Hebrew prayer books (Yoreh Deah 276:9).

Because of this, Jewish custom is ideally to store tattered and used prayer books in a special room called a genizah (a storage place), and if above-ground storage space is limited, to bury the sacred books in the ground, often alongside the deceased at a funeral.

Your question brings into sharp focus two competing Jewish values. On the one hand, the value of revering God’s name and the inherent sanctity in a sacred book; while on the other hand, the value of not wasting and respecting the environment. The question is particularly pressing today when there is an excessive proliferation of photocopies and printouts of prayers and Torah-related material. 

When printing was rare and expensive, one might imagine a synagogue accumulating dozens of tattered prayer books over the course of many years. The contemporary synagogue might produce several bags of sacred pages each month. Where is it all to go?

While there is broad agreement that a page containing one of God’s names must be stored or buried, there is disagreement regarding sacred writing (all prayers and Torah texts are sacred) that do not contain God’s name. The lenient opinion is that while one cannot overtly destroy such writings, a passive stance — such as placing them in a recycling bin, leaving the mechanics of the actual recycling to another — is in pressing circumstances, permissible (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4, 39). The contemporary responsa B’mareh Habazak draws on several other views as a basis for permitting the recycling of scripture that does not contain God’s name (volume 5 p 145). 

It might also be worth considering repairing or rebinding old prayer books. Our consumerist culture prioritises the new. But there is something very beautiful in tending to the old, especially when it is a prayer book that has passed through many hands and served as the conduit for numerous hopes and dreams.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain:  It is certainly the tradition to bury old prayer books in Ashkenazi circles, although the Sephardim will put them away in an attic or storeroom, known as a genizah. 

The motivation is partly so as not to destroy an item that contains the name of God. Names sum us up; they conjure up who we are in two words and so are very powerful. The thinking is that this applies even more so to the name of God.

Still, there is the danger of “going to the nth degree” and forgetting that the essence of respecting God is how we behave, the awareness that we need to treat others well and preserve the world God has entrusted to us. It is not what we do with bits of paper, which is merely symbolic of a much more demanding level of being God-fearing. It is too easy to love God and do harm.

There is also a danger of accidental paganism if we invest too much power in a compilation of letters forming God’s name, whereas the reality of God is so much greater and cannot be contained in squiggles.

It means that when we consider your query, we have to balance the reaction of “how can you do that to a siddur?” with the importance of recycling and how essential, or not, it is to keep a siddur intact. Is it hurting the name of God or honouring it by recycling and protecting God’s world?

There is another motive for burial. It is a sign of respect for the book itself and the way it has been used for prayers over several years. Most books we put down once we have reached the last page, but a siddur has accompanied its users at services throughout the year, as well as at both sad and joyous times. It is a familiar friend.

This begs another question: is recycling a siddur an act of convenience to save the trouble of going to the cemetery, or is it done as a fitting end for a book much valued? 
If you feel, as I do, that the answer to both these questions is the latter, then it is religiously appropriate to recycle. Of course, it should not just be siddurim, but a high percentage of your household waste, for if we regard it as a modern mitzvah, then it should be done wholeheartedly.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email with details

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