Ask the Rabbi: Discarding religious literature

Ask the Rabbi Discardin

A: I admit, I am slightly insulted that you don't keep these columns for posterity, but I will assume that you rely on the archives. In all seriousness, the proper disposal of used religious literature has become an acute problem, as computer printing has multiplied the number of publications beyond precedent. The value of preserving sacred texts, furthermore, occasionally conflicts with contemporary societies that advocate that everything is recyclable (environmentalism) while concomitantly displaying that everything is disposable (consumerism). The Torah demands that one should not destroy a holy item as he would a foreign idol (Deuteronomy 12:4). This biblical prohibition encompasses destroying sacred objects, like elements of the Holy Temple and God's name (Makot 32a). God's name includes the four-letter Tetragrammaton (YHWH) and other titles including Adonai and Shaddai, but not descriptive names of God, such as "the merciful one" (rahum) (Yesodei Hatorah 6:1). Many scholars deem names of God in foreign languages as nonsacred and therefore erasable, thereby making it permissible to spell God without a hyphen (G-d), despite popular practice (Shach YD 179:11). If a Torah scroll becomes worn beyond use, the sages ordained its burial (geniza) in an earthenware vessel, thereby delaying its inevitable disintegration (Megila 26b). The sages further declared that receptacles that contain sacred scrolls (tashmishei kedusha), such as tefillin and mezuzot boxes, also require burial, albeit not in an earthenware vessel (OC 254:3). This interment prevents degradation of the sacred objects and provides an appropriate last rite of honor. In contrast, the sages permitted one to simply discard ritual items which were used to fulfill commandments (tashmishei mitzva, appurtenances to a mitzva), such as torn tzitzit strings or a lulav. With the commandment now fulfilled, the objects lose their sacredness. The common practice is to discard them in a respectful and indirect manner, even without requiring formal burial (OC 21:1). The status of religious literature which does not contain God's name was subject to historical debate. Some classified all religious literature as sharing the same inherent holiness as Torah scrolls, since it too symbolically represents divine teachings (Magen Avraham 154:9). Most scholars, however, reject this categorization, deeming this literature as holders of religious teachings (tashmishei kedusha) that one must bury and not actively destroy (Yesodei Hatorah 6:8). Jews have traditionally interred worn manuscripts in special storage areas, including the famous Cairo Geniza which, when explored in the beginning of the 20th century, revealed a treasure trove of previously unknown writings. The invention of the printing press and its creation of regularly discarded galleys posed a serious problem for publishers. Since nearly all scholars affirmed that printed material retained the same status as texts written on parchment, many decisors lambasted printers for destroying these rough drafts or using them for sacrilegious purposes (Shu"t Maharshadam YD 182). In one remarkable 18th-century responsum, Rabbi Ya'acov Reischer suggested that it was preferable to privately burn these galleys rather than allowing them to used in a denigrating manner, a suggestion which drew the ire of his contemporaries (Shvut Ya'acov 3:10). In the late 19th century, Rabbis Naftali Berlin (Meshiv Davar 2:80) and Yitzhak Spector (Ein Yitzhak OC 5) claimed that writings only become holy if they are written with intent to sanctify them as holy literature. They further asserted that material produced for immediate erasure or destruction could not achieve such status, and may therefore be destroyed (thereby providing not only a solution for galleys, but also material displayed on computer screens). These solutions, however, were not universally accepted, and they might not necessarily help with literature intended to be studied, albeit not for perpetual use (like newspapers or weekly pamphlets). As such, some maintain that one must inter all contemporary literature, no matter how cheap or common (Shevet Halevi 5:162). However, a number of decisors, including Rabbis Haim D. Halevi (Aseh Lecha Rav 3:28), Yitzhak Weiss (Minhat Yitzhak 1:17-8), and Nahum E. Rabinovitz (Siah Nahum No. 74), suggest that one may wrap these writings in a bag and dispose of them in a garbage bin. This ruling is further supported by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's understanding that non-biblical literature (e.g. the Oral Law) cannot attain the status of the Holy Scriptures (Igrot Moshe OC 4:39). It remains tashmishei mitzva, and once one has completed the mitzva of studying it, one may respectfully dispose of it, as with a lulav. Rabbi Feinstein's grandson, Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport, further suggested recycling this material, especially if one reuses it for new Torah literature. While the Tzomet Institute has proposed a procedure for this dignified recycling (Techumin 3), it remains to be seen if this practice will become popular. Note: One might want to keep this article for further reference! The writer, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.