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.

Conclusion. 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.


  1. This mitzvah, often referred to by its technical Rabbinic designation bal tashchit, is rooted in Deuteronomy 20:19-20, a prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees as part of a military siege. The Rabbinic tradition, summarized by Maimonides in Sefer Hamitzvot, negative commandment no. 57, extends this prohibition to the wanton destruction of manufactured articles such as clothing. ("wanton" is our rendering of the Rambam's term larik, which might also be translated as "vain," "senseless," or "for no good purpose.") See also Yad, Melakhim 6:10, where Rambam numbers tools, clothing, buildings, natural springs of water, and foodstuffs among the items that may not be destroyed derekh hashchatah, in a wanton and purely destructive manner. The "wanton" aspect of this definition is significant, in that the halakhah permits us to destroy natural and manufactured items for a variety of acceptable human purposes (e.g., economic benefit and medical need; BT Bava Kama 91b-92a, BT Shabbat 105b, 128b-129a, and 140b). The fact that the prohibition seems to cover only those items that are of use to human consumption and that it is waived in numerous cases might lead us to conclude that destruction of the environment is unobjectionable so long as some human need can be cited to justify it. Yet we should remember that the protection of the environment is itself a vital "human need." Environmental pollution and wasteful consumption of natural resources portend the most serious consequences for our future on this planet; they therefore constitute a clear example of what Rambam calls "wanton" (larik; derekh hashchatah) destruction. See also Sefer Hachinukh, mitzvah no. 529, which explains that destructiveness is a characteristic associated with evil; careful treatment of the world around us teaches us the habits of righteous people.
  2. We refer the reader to Too Good to Throw Away: Recycling's Prover Record, published in 1997 by the National Resources Defense Council and available at The report, written to counter a backlash against recycling among some conservative political and business interests, establishes beyond any serious doubt that recycling conserves natural resources, prevents pollution caused by manufacturing from virgin resources, saves energy, reduces the need for landfilling and incineration, helps protect and expand manufacturing jobs, and engenders a sense of community involvement and responsibility.
  3. In its 1990 resolution entitled "Environment," the Central Conference of American Rabbis resolved to Aencourage institutions, congregations, families, and individuals to take it upon themselves to recycle as much of their waste as possible; CCAR Yearbook 100 (1990), 160-161. For the text of the resolution, see
  4. BT Makot 22a; Sifrei Deuteronomy 61:3.
  5. Yad, Yesodei Hatorah 6:1.
  6. These are listed in BT Shevu`ot 35a; Yad, Yesodei Hatorah 6:2; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 276:9.
  7. We follow here the ruling of the Siftei Kohen, the great 17th-century commentator to the Shulchan Arukh: "The Name of God in Hebrew is properly considered a holy name. The Name of God written in any other language, however, is not a 'holy name' at all. You will understand this when you consider that it is permissible to erase a Name written in some other language, such as the word Gott in Yiddish or German" (to Yoreh De`ah 179, no. 11). For this reason, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik used to say that "those who write the English word God in the form G-d do so out of 'total ignorance' (am-ha'aratzut gemurah)... since the English word God is not one of the formal Divine Names but merely a literary device that refers to the Holy One, Blessed be He"; R. Zvi Schachter, Nefesh Harav (Jerusalem: Reshit Yerushalayim, 1994), 161. True, there are authorities who dispute the Siftei Kohen (see R. Avraham Danzig, Chokhmat Adam 89:9) and who support the custom of writing the Divine Name as G-d (see R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, 20th-century Lithuania, Resp. Achi`ezer 3:32). We, however, following Maimonides and the other scholars we have mentioned, regard that custom as an unnecessary stringency.
  8. Yad, Yesodei Hatorah 6:6.
  9. This issue touches upon the question whether "printing" (hadpasah) is the legal equivalent of writing (ketivah). Some authorities who flourished during the early days of printing were of the opinion that the new technology was perfectly acceptable "for all texts that require writing" (R. Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, Moravia, 16th-17th c., Divrei Chamudot on R. Asher b. Yechiel, Halakhot Ketanot, Hilkhot Tefilin, ch. 8, no. 23). Others accepted printing for some texts but not for all; thus, R. Menachem Azariah of Fano, Italy, 16th-17th c., ruled that a get might be printed although a Torah scroll must be written (Responsa, no. 93), as did R. Yair Bachrach, Germany, 17th-c. (Resp. Chavat Yair, no. 184). See, in general, Yitzchak Z. Kahana, Mechkarim besifrut hateshuvot (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1973), 274-276. Given that most authorities require that the holiest texts (Torah scrolls, tefilin, mezuzot) be written rather than printed, one might draw the conclusion that printed texts are of a lesser degree of sanctity with erspect to the prohibition against destroying the divine names contained in them. Yet this conclusion has been overwhelmingly rejected. See R. Binyamin Selonik (Poland, d.1610), Resp. Mash'at Binyamin, no. 99-100; Turei Zahav, Yoreh De`ah 271, no. 8; R. David Zvi Hoffmann (Germany, 19th-20th c.), Resp. Melamed Leho`il, Yoreh De`ah, no. 89; and R. Avraham Karelitz (Israel, d. 1953), Chazon Ish, Yoreh De`ah, ch. 164.
  10. Some authorities seem to draw a distinction between printing and the photo-offset method of publication: the former is much more akin to "writing" than the latter. Still, "we must not be lenient with the disposal of these texts, for that would be prohibited as the contemptible treatment of holy writings (bizayon kitvei kodesh)"; R. Shalom Schwadron (Galicia, 19th c.), Resp. Maharsham 3:357. R. Moshe Feinstein (USA, 20th c.) notes that photocopying, though it cannot produce acceptable Torah scrolls, tefilin, and mezuzot, nonetheless "performs the work of writing" because it makes the letters visible; Resp. Igerot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:40.
  11. See our responsum no. 5757.4, "Proper Disposal of a Worn Sefer Torah."
  12. We have reached this conclusion several times, for example, with respect to Shabbat observance. We have said that tzedakah projects involving physical labor, monetary transactions, or other violations of what we consider to be proper Shabbat observance ought not to be permitted on that day. Although tzedakah is a great mitzvah, Shabbat is also a mitzvah, an indispensable feature of Jewish religious life. Shabbat makes legitimate demands upon our attention, and it cannot be set aside merely because its observance would tend to interfere with the performance of tzedakah. See our responsa 5757.7 ("The Synagogue Thrift Shop and Shabbat"), 5756.4 ("Presenting a Check for Tzedakah at Shabbat Services"), Teshuvot for the Nineties, no. 5755.12, pp. 165-168 ("Delayed Berit Milah on Shabbat": "The fact that Shabbat >conflicts' with another mitzvah or worthy cause does not mean that it is Shabbat which must give way"), Teshuvot for the Nineties, no. 5753.22, pp. 169-170 ("Communal Work on Shabbat"), and American Reform Responsa, no. 52, pp. 53-55 ("Substituting for Christians on Christmas").
  13. See our responsum 5760.3, "A Defective 'Holocaust' Torah Scroll," as well as responsum no. 5757.4, cited in note 10.
  14. BT Shabbat 120b; the opinion, cited in a baraita, is that of R. Yose.
  15. Yad, Yesodei Hatorah 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.
  16. The classic source for this rule is M. Shabbat 16:5 and BT Shabbat 120b: while it is forbidden to extinguish a fire on the Sabbath, one is permitted to place vessels containing water in the path of a fire, so that when the heat of the flames causes them to break, the water will quench the fire. See Yad, Shabbat 12:4-5, Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 334:22, and Y. Noivirt, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilkhatah 41:16-17. From this rule, most halakhic opinion draws an analogy to all acts of labor (melakhot) normally prohibited on Shabbat: the law does not forbid actions that bring about the desired effect in an indirect manner (Mishnah Berurah to 334:22 in Be'ur Halakhah; R. Shaul Yisraeli in Torah Shebe`al Peh 24 (1983), 21.
  17. Among these is R. Moshe Sofer (Hungary, 18th-19th c.), Resp. Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayim, no. 32. For a summary of opinions on both sides of the issue, see R. Chaim Chizkiah Medini (Eretz Yisrael, 19th c.), Sedei Chemed, kelaley ha-mem, no. 11-12.
  18. R. Shabetai Rappaport, Alon Shevut 86 (Adar, 5741/1981), 68-77. See also R. Uri Dasberg, Techumin 3 (1982), 319-321.
  19. As a matter of technical halakhah, a number of authorities hold that the permit to cause indirectly (through gerama) the destruction of a sacred text applies only to such works of Rabbinic literature that do not contain azkarot (e.g., Mishnah, Talmud, midrashim) but not to Bibles, chumasim, and prayerbooks that do contain those names. See, for example, R. Moshe Feinstein (USA, 20th c.), Resp. Igerot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:39.
  20. This, in fact, is how Professor Shalom Albeck explains the Jewish legal rule that one who causes damage through indirect means is exempt from liability. "A person is liable for damages that he brought about as the first of a chain of causes if he should have known that his act would inevitably result in that damage"; in other words, indirect causation is exempt from liability only when no actual negligence is involved. See Pesher Dinei Nezikin Batalmud (Tel Aviv: Devir, 1965), 44. We think that the same should apply in other areas of the law: one should not be absolved from responsibility for the indirect results of one's action if one should have known that the action would lead to that result.
  21. Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De`ah 276:11. See Tractate Soferim 5:7.
  22. This is not the place to chart the history of the term tikun ha`olam in Jewish practice. Suffice it to say that the term serves in Mishnaic halakhah as a justification for Rabbinic legislative enactments designed to correct abuses in the law, i.e., instances where the literal application of the Toraitic legal standard would lead to a socially undesirable result (see especially Mishnah Gitin, chapters 4 and 5). The contemporary use of the term as a synonym for "social action" is related to, though not identical with, its original usage.
  23. Resp. Shevut Ya`akov 3:10.
  24. R. Yechezkel Katznelbogen (Germany, 18th c.), Resp. Kenesset Yechezkel, Yoreh De`ah no. 37; R. Shaul Nathanson (Galaicia, 19th c.), Resp. Sho'el Umeshiv, v. 3, part 2, no. 15.
  25. Resp. Meshiv Davar 2:80.
  26. Resp. `Ein Yiztchak nos. 5-7.
  27. See our responsum no. 5757.4, "Proper Disposal of a Worn Sefer Torah."
  28. One member of our Committee suggests that when we print or reproduce sacred texts, we should attempt to substitute kinuyim, traditional substitutes for the Divine name (such as the letter he for the Tetragrammaton) so as to avoid the necessity of destroying texts that contain azkarot. We repeat here that "azkarot" are the seven specified Hebrew names of God and that this category does not include any of the renderings of God's name in any other language; see note 7, above.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.