Proper Disposal Of Religious Texts


In an era of better and more widely available recycling resources, my congregants and I are curious as to how we might properly dispose of religious books in the 21st century. With so much emphasis being placed on the heightened need for us to dramatically decrease the amount of waste we throw away, we can't help but wonder if it would be more Jewishly responsible to recycle old prayerbooks rather than to bury them. (Rabbi William Dreskin, White Plains, NY)


Concern for the environment is, without question, a profound Jewish ethical value. We Reform Jews believe that when we act to protect the cleanliness of our air and water and to preserve our natural resources we fulfill the mitzvah that warns us against the wanton destruction of our surroundings.[1] In particular, we recognize recycling as one of the most effective measures we can take to protect and replenish the natural world.[2] We ought to make every possible effort to institute programs of recycling in our homes and institutions.[3] This is certainly the case with the large quantities of paper that our synagogues and schools consume. To recycle this paper is both an act of environmental responsibility and a means by which those institutions can practice the Judaic values that they preach.

This she'elah, however, presents us with a conflict between the mitzvah of environmental stewardship and another important Jewish value: the care we take in the treatment and disposal of our sacred texts. As we shall see, Jewish tradition prohibits us from destroying written texts containing any of the azkarot, one of seven proper names of God. The recycling of old prayerbooks, which are replete with these names, would seem to transgress this prohibition. Our task, therefore, is to resolve this conflict of Jewish principles, each one making its powerful and legitimate claim upon our attention.

The Prohibition

. The Torah's prohibition (isur) against erasing or otherwise destroying an inscription containing the name of God is based upon Deuteronomy 12:2-3, which commands the Israelites to dismantle, burn, and destroy the altars of idolatry they would encounter in the land that they were about to inherit: "you shall destroy [the names of the foreign gods] from that place" (12:3, end). Verse four then instructs that "you shall not do thus (lo ta`asun ken) to Adonai your God." Although the contextual meaning (peshat) of this verse seems to address the words that follow in verse five (namely, that the Israelites must not sacrifice to their God at the pagan holy places but do so only at the place God shall choose), the traditional halakhic understanding (derash) of this verse reads it as a prohibition against erasing or destroying of God's name; that is, you are not to do to God's name that which you have just been commanded to do to the names of the idols.[4] As Maimonides formulates the law: "whosoever effaces one of the pure and holy names of the Holy Blessed One violates a prohibition of the Torah."[5] This prohibition applies to the "seven (Hebrew) names that are never to be blotted out."[6] (It is important here to emphasize the word Hebrew: the prohibition does not apply to the name of God when it is translated into any other language.[7]) It applies even when these names of God are inscribed upon implements of glass or metal rather than written upon parchment or paper.[8] It applies to printed texts[9] and to texts that are produced photographically.[10] For this reason, our tradition would forbid us from recycling old or worn prayerbooks. We dispose of them in the same manner that we dispose of old and worn Torah scrolls: by storing them away in a genizah or by burying them in the ground.[11]

Some might argue that, as a matter of social concern, the mitzvah to protect the environment takes precedence for Reform Jews over the purely ritual prohibition of defacing the Divine name. We categorically reject that argument. "Social" mitzvot do not always and necessarily override "ritual" ones. While ethics and social justice are central to Reform Jewish thought, they are not on that account more "important" than the ritual acts by which we worship God, celebrate the seasons of the year and of our lives, and sanctify the world around us. Holiness, the goal of Jewish life, requires both sorts of behavior; ritual acts, no less than ethical ones, play an indispensable role in the construction of our religious world. That Reform Judaism has done away with a number of ritual mitzvot is a fact of our history; it does not mean that ritual obligations must automatically yield in the face of conflicting ethical or social obligations.[12] This is rather a judgment that we must make in each specific instance. We should not discard any aspect of our religious behavior until we have carefully considered its place in our experience and the demands that it makes upon us. In the present case, the prohibition against defacing sacred texts is a mitzvah that we take in all seriousness and that retains its relevance for us. The traditional rules concerning the treatment of our sacred texts, which teach us how to find God and to live Jewishly, are as valid for us as they are for other Jews.[13] We cannot answer this question, therefore, merely by saying that the "ethical" act trumps the "ritual" one. Both are mitzvot, and we must seek another way to resolve the conflict between them.

Exceptions to the Prohibition

. One way to do just that is to consider the exceptions that Jewish law recognizes to the prohibition against effacing azkarot. As we examine these exceptions, let us ask whether any of them might offer a justification for the recycling of old prayerbooks.

1. Indirect Causation. The Talmud[14] records an opinion that permits one "upon whose flesh the name of God is written" to immerse in a mikveh, even though the water will erase the name, so long as he himself does not rub away the writing. The reason is that Deuteronomy 12:4 prohibits us only from taking direct action to destroy the name of God; the law does not forbid destruction by means of indirect causation (gerama), that is, by putting the text in a place where some other factor, such as water, will erase the name. Although the leading codifiers omit this opinion,[15] the halakhah does posit that activities otherwise prohibited (for example, those involving labor on Shabbat) might be permitted when accomplished by indirect causation.[16] On this basis, some leading authorities rule that there is no prohibition against taking an action that leads indirectly to the effacement of the Divine name.[17] This in turn has led at least one contemporary Israeli halakhist to permit the recycling of sacred texts: since the recycling process involves a complicated chain of steps, the act of placing the texts in a recycling bin does not directly cause their destruction.[18]

To us, however, this line of thinking is not persuasive. Gerama is a flimsy basis upon which to justify the destruction of sacred texts.[19] As a matter of substance, we see no difference between the direct and the indirect effects of our action. We are surely responsible for any outcome that is the inevitable, planned result of our action, whether we were the immediate cause of that outcome or simply the first in a chain of causes.[20] Since, in our case, the effacement of the Divine name is the inevitable and planned result of the recycling process, it makes no substantive difference that we do not efface it directly, with our own hands. By placing the books in a recycling bin, we knowingly set off a chain of events that leads inevitably to their destruction; thus, we are responsible for that outcome. If, therefore, we would refrain from destroying a sacred text with our own hands, then we should be equally reluctant to destroy it through indirect means.

2. Destruction for the Sake of Repair. It is not forbidden to erase the Divine name when the goal is to correct the text. For example, should the letters of the name come into contact with each other, or should ink spill across them, it is permitted to scrape the ink from that spot; "this is a correction (tikun), not an erasure."[21] Might we permit the recycling of old prayerbooks as a different sort of tikun, as tikun ha`olam, an act undertaken in order to "repair the world"?[22] This argument, too, falls short, because it makes the erroneous assumption that a sacred text we no longer use ought to be sacrificed to serve a "higher" purpose. As we have already suggested, we cannot say that concern for the environment necessarily outranks the reverence for sacred texts on our scale of Judaic priorities. Both of these values are exalted purposes; we have no calculus by which we can declare that one must automatically give way to the other.

3. Destruction to Save the Text From Disgrace. If neither of these two exceptions to the "no-destruction" rule offers a remedy for us, there is a third exception that does. The eighteenth-century sage R. Ya`akov Reischer ruled that it is at times permissible to dispose of worn sacred texts by burning them. If a community has run out of space in which to store their rapidly accumulating texts, these might well be shoved into "filthy places" or trampled underfoot; in such a case, one is permitted to consign them to the flames as the only way to save them from contemptible, disgraceful treatment (bizayon).[23] While some disagree sharply with Reischer's conclusion,[24] similar considerations led two outstanding nineteenth-century authorities, R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhyn[25] and R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spector of Kovno[26] to permit Jewish printers to burn the galley proofs and spoiled pages of Bibles and prayerbooks. Here, too, the large quantity of these proofs and pages, the unavoidable products of the printing process, made it virtually impossible to store them away or to bury them, so that destroying them was the only sure means to protect them from bizayon. These scholars, we should note, were reacting to the challenges posed by the new technology of printing, which by increasing the number of sacred texts had also increased the problem of their proper disposal. At the same time, they recognized this new technology, which had made prayerbooks and works of Torah widely available and affordable, as a most positive contribution to the quality of Jewish spiritual and intellectual life. None of them calls upon the community to abandon the printing of sacred texts, even though such a course would have greatly reduced the number of texts that required disposal. They opted instead for a different means of disposal as the best available response to the problems associated with this new technology.

The situation we face today in our schools and synagogues is not at all dissimilar to theirs. Thanks to new technologiesBin our case, photocopying and electronic publishing--we, too, produce a tremendous quantity of texts for study and worship. As did our ancestors, we regard our new technologies as a blessing, because they do much to help us fulfill the mitzvot of study (talmud torah) and prayer (tefilah). Yet like the Jews of those days, we find that limitations on space make it virtually impossible for us to store away or to bury all of these papers once they have served their purpose. And we worry, as did they, over what will happen to these texts if we do not find some acceptable alternative means of disposing of them. Bizayon, the contemptible and disgraceful treatment of sacred texts, is as much a concern for us as it was for our ancestors. The very holiness of our texts demands that we treat them with respect when we use them and in the means we choose to dispose of them when the time comes; we do not wish to toss them into the trash heap or dump them out with the garbage. We could address the disposal problem, of course, by abandoning these new technologies so as to produce less material. But given their very real usefulness to us in our study and our worship, we are as reluctant to do that as our ancestors were reluctant to turn their backs on the printing press. Therefore, just as leading authorities could countenance the destruction of printed sacred texts in order to save them from disgraceful treatment, we can do the same with the texts that we produce by photocopying and electronic publishing. And if it is permitted to destroy these texts as a means of preserving their honor, we think that it is even more proper to recycle them, since in doing so we act to fulfill the mitzvah of environmental responsibility.

We add this caveat, however: the above reasoning applies only to texts that exist in the form of loose pages, pamphlets, or in any other way that suggests their temporary or ephemeral function in our religious activity. It does not apply to prayerbooks, chumashim, and Bibles, for two reasons. The first reason is that we are willing to countenance the rapid destruction of sacred texts if and only if such disposal is required to save them from bizayon, disgraceful treatment. This may be the case with texts produced by copier and computer, which accumulate so rapidly that were we not to adopt this remedy we would quickly run out of space to bury or store them. The same cannot be said about bound books, which we tend to acquire in rather fixed quantities. It is difficult to imagine that most of our congregations cannot find the means to dispose of these books in the traditional way, by burying them, by storing them away, or by donating them to other communities. The second reason has to do with the nature and function of these books. Prayerbooks, Bibles, and chumashim are intended for our permanent or long-term use. They therefore embody a degree of kedushah and lasting worth that other printed and photocopied pages do not attain. We encounter and express this kedushah in the careful and reverent way that we treatBor at least ought to treatBthese books. That sense of reverence and devotion testifies to the fact that these bound volumes occupy a status in our religious life quite unlike that of photocopied pages and computer printouts. These books are our constant companions in worship and study, guiding us through the yearly cycles of daily, Shabbat, and festival observance. They symbolize in physical form the very message that their words would teach us: namely, the enduring values of human and Jewish life, that which is eternal and lasting over against that which is temporary and evanescent. Given what these books mean to us as individuals and as communities, it is inappropriate to dispose of them in the same way that we permit ourselves to dispose of more ephemeral texts.

It might be argued that burying or storing away our worn religious books is a senseless and wasteful misuse of space. It might be argued that, as long as these books no longer serve a useful purpose for us, it is better to recycle them so that they may serve the mitzvah to protect the environment. To this, we respond: yes, we are committed to preserving the environment. In the name of that commitment, our communities ought to recycle all their reusable waste products. Yet we are committed to other values as well. One of these is the respect we owe to our sacred books, and that value precludes us from defining our old and worn prayerbooks, chumashim, and Bibles as "waste products." It is the essence of "sanctity" that we treat a sacred object not in a way that we find useful and not even in a way that, to our mind, serves some "higher" purpose. rather, we treat that object in the manner prescribed by our tradition, the very source of knowledge and value that declares its true purpose, that defines it as "sacred" in the first place.[27] Therefore, if we can no longer use our sacred books, or if we cannot donate them to individuals or institutions that can, we should retire them as our tradition teaches us to do so, putting them away in a genizah or burying them in the earth. By doing this, we acknowledge their holiness as well as their usefulness. By doing this, we render them the honor they deserve. By doing this, moreover, we can teach an important lesson about the need to focus our attention upon the things in our world that are of permanent worth. And that lesson, too, in a throwaway culture such as ours, is part and parcel of our environmental ethic.


. The traditional Jewish teachings concerning the proper treatment of our sacred texts continue to speak to us today. We should strive to dispose of worn sacred texts in the traditional manner, through genizah or burial, whenever possible.[28] We may recycle them if that is the only practical way of preserving them from disgraceful treatment, provided that these texts are intended for our temporary and ephemeral use. Prayerbooks, chumashim, and Bibles, books that enjoy a status of permanence and kedushah in our religious lives, should not be recycled; we should dispose of them by the traditionally prescribed procedures.



22a; Sifrei Deuteronomy 61:3.



120b; the opinion, cited in a baraita, is that of R. Yose.

6:6, rules that it is forbidden to immerse without covering the inscription. The Tur and the Shulchan Arukh do not address this issue at all.

276:11. See Tractate Soferim 5:7.



nos. 5-7.


If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.