Must photocopies of bible, siddur, talmud and midrash be buried in a genizah or may they be discarded in a regular garbage bin?
This question is related to four different mitzvot or prohibitions:
1. It is biblically forbidden to actively destroy or erase one of the seven holy names of God (Deut. 12:3-4 and Sifrei Deut. ad loc.)
2. A Torah scroll that has become worn out needs to be buried next to a Torah scholar (Megillah 26b).
3.There is an additional prohibition against destroying biblical books (Shabbat 115a).
4. Lastly, it is forbidden to toss or throw biblical books (Eruvin 98a), which indicates, of course, that biblical books should be treated with respect.
The Oral Law was not originally included in these halakhot because it was not supposed to be written down (Temurah 14b). Later on, when this restriction was lifted, Mishnah, talmud and midrash were treated with a similar measure of respect (Tosafot to Shabbat 115a). This general attitude of reverence towards biblical books and all their commentaries was codified by Maimonides (Yesodei Hatorah 6:8) and in practice Jews buried all books written in Hebrew letters in genizot such as the well-known Cairo genizah.
Regarding the specific status of photocopies we have to deal with four questions:
1. What type of destruction is prohibited? “Gerama” or indirect erasure of one of God’s names seems to be permissible (Shabbat 120b). Later authorities did not generally adopt that approach but some rely on it under special circumstances.
2. Is there a difference between books written by hand and books “written” by a printing press or a photocopy machine? When the printing press was invented, opinions differed. Today all agree that printed bibles and other sacred texts are holy and cannot be actively destroyed though they do not have the same degree of sanctity as a Torah scroll.
3. When does a page of bible or other sacred texts become holy? Is an individual page intended for temporary use as holy as a complete book? This question was asked in the past in connection with galley proofs and the like. Most authorities allowed these pages to be discarded because a) they were full of errors and could not be studied in their present form and b) they were never intended to be studied from. Photocopied texts, however, do not fit this category. They are legible and usable and they were created for the express purpose of learning and teaching. Therefore they should be considered just as holy as complete books.
4. Does the law change according to circumstance and is there a difference between before the fact and after the fact? This is our main question because since the invention of the printing press, and even more so since the invention of the photocopy machine, the amount of holy material has grown astronomically and it is simply impossible to give all of it a dignified burial.
This problem was already felt by Rabbi Jacob Reisher in the early eighteenth century. He was asked about large barrels of holy books and pages standing in the cemetery, which were being stolen or used as toilet paper. He ruled that they should be burned in private and the ashes should be buried in a clay jar next to a Torah scholar. Many later authorities agree with him that when there is no alternative burning is permissible. There are disagreements, however, as to when one reaches the point of “no alternative”. It would seem that today we have reached that point. Rabbi Dessberg, who has investigated the problem, has found dozens of sacks of holy books and pages sitting in a corner of the Har Hamenuhot cemetery in Jerusalem. Some of the sacks were torn open and the pages were scattered on the ground.
Today, however, there is a new alternative, which must be considered: recycling. This option has been discussed by four rabbis. Rabbi Haim David Halevi says it is forbidden to recycle books, which contain the seven names of God. As for the Mishnah, talmud and midrash, he is unable to decide. Rabbi Shabtai Rapaport rules that it is permissible to recycle holy books because the person who throws out the pages is not actively destroying anything, while at the plant the holy books are a small percentage of the paper involved and are annulled by the majority. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein forbids the recycling of books with the seven names of God but allows the recycling of talmud and midrash since they do not contain those names. Rabbi Uri Dessberg is the strictest. He says that the holy pages from printing presses must be recycled separately by “gerama” and that the new paper must be used in a respectful fashion.
In our opinion, when genizah is not possible, recycling is preferable to burning for a number of reasons: First of all, there is an established custom in Judaism of reusing “mitzvah objects” such as lulavim, aravot and tzitzit for the performance of other mitzvot (see Shabbat 117b for the principle). Books are “holy objects” which are more sacred, but if we are already desperate enough to ignore their holiness and burn them, it would be preferable to recycle the paper since the proceeds are used for the mitzvah of helping Israeli soldiers. In addition, recycling saves natural resources and is in keeping with the mitzvah of “bal tashhit” (Deut. 20:19-20).
In conclusion, we recommend the following:
1. Photocopies of the bible and the siddur must be buried in a genizah since they contain the seven holy names of God.
2. It is a mitzvah to bury photocopies of talmud and midrash in a genizah since that has been the standard Jewish practice for hundreds of years.
3. If the quantities are too great to handle or if it is discovered that the pages are being desecrated, they may be recycled in the bins of the Va’ad Lema’an Hahayal.
4. If this too is not feasible, they should be burned in the fashion recommended by Rabbi Jacob Reisher.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
Approved Unanimously 5751