Proper Disposal of a Worn Sefer Torah
Our congregation owns a sefer torah which a local sofer has declared pasul and irreparable. It will never be fit for public reading, and my congregation is considering burying the scroll in our cemetery. There is, meanwhile, a woman in our community who conducts Jewish classes in her home and from time to time directs a small prayer group on Shabbat, also in her home. She has asked that we give her the sefer torah so that she might keep it in the room she uses for her study and prayer-group activities to help establish an appropriate religious atmosphere. She promises that she will keep the scroll in a place of respect and that she will not use it for public reading, although she may open the scroll for educational purposes as there are some columns that are in good condition.
Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof (Contemporary Reform Responsa, no. 24) has ruled that a Torah scroll unfit for public reading (sefer torah pasul) may be kept in the Ark, but his ruling does not address the uses suggested here. Is it permissible to use a worn sefer torah for the purposes described? (Rabbi Ira L. Korinow, Haverhill, Massachusetts)
This question actually combines two separate concepts which, for the sake of clarity, ought to be kept distinct. The first of these is the sefer torah pasul, a Torah scroll unfit for public reading due to a scribal error in its text. The second is the sefer torah shebalah, “a Torah scroll that has become worn” and is unfit for public reading or any other normal use due to its physical deterioration.
A Torah scroll is pasul when it is found to violate one of the twenty rules which Maimonides lists in his Mishneh Torah. Such a scroll, he writes, “enjoys none of the sanctity of a sefer torah. It is like a chumash which is used in teaching children, and it is not read in public.”1
Should an error be discovered during the reading of the Torah, the reading from that scroll is halted and is continued from a second scroll.2 The customary berakhot are not recited over a sefer torah pasul. The scroll should be repaired by an expert sofer if this is possible.3
A Torah scroll “which has become worn” is considered to have deteriorated beyond the point of repair. It is placed in an earthen vessel and buried in a cemetery, preferably next to the grave of a Torah scholar.4 We find in the literature two primary explanations for this requirement. The one has to do with the proper honor that we must show to a Torah scroll: we store it in an earthen vessel (cf. Jeremiah 32:14) and bury it because we seek to preserve its writing for as long as possible.5 The other6 stems from the prohibition against destroying sacred texts, particularly those containing the name of God. We learn this prohibition from a midrash on Deuteronomy 12:4: that is, while we are bidden to destroy the places and implements of idolatry in the land of Canaan/Israel, “you shall not do that to Adonai, your God.”7 Thus, when we find the need to dispose of worn-out texts, we must not burn them, for this is how we should destroy objects of idolatry, but bury them.
The sho’el’s description of the Torah scroll in question (“irreparable”; “there are some columns that are in good condition”) suggests that it is a sefer torah shebalah rather than simply “unfit”. That is, the scroll is pasul not because of an error or errors in its text but because it has deteriorated to the point that it cannot be restored to a condition of kashrut. Were this a case of a pasul but reparable Torah scroll, the congregation would have to refuse the teacher’s request. To be sure, there is no objection to using a pasul scroll for educational purposes on a temporary basis, until it is repaired. As Rambam says in the passage cited above, such a scroll has lost its inherent sanctity and is now akin to a chumash “which is used in teaching children.” On the other hand, we would not want to maintain the scroll in its unfit condition.8 The essential function of the sefer torah is precisely that we use it for public reading rather than as a study text, let alone as an object for educational display.9 It would be most inappropriate to leave the scroll in a condition in which it could not fulfill its primary purpose.
Yet this is a question concerning a worn Torah scroll, which will never again be read in public. Is burial the only proper thing to do with this scroll? Or may we follow the teacher’s suggestion to use it as a tool for Jewish education?
A good argument could be made that her suggestion has merit. That argument would note that neither of the two explanations for the custom to bury a worn sefer torah applies in this case. If we bury sacred texts, first of all, out of a desire to spare them from burning, we might respond that no Jew would ever suggest that a deteriorated Torah scroll be consigned to flames. The very thought of such a thing conjures horrific images from our recent history, and there is not the slightest possibility that we would do to our sifrei torah, no matter how worn, what the Nazis did to them. There is no longer any reason to insist upon burial of the scrolls as a precautionary measure against something that, in any event, will not happen. And if the reason we bury our scrolls in order to preserve their sacred texts for as long as possible, it could be said that we better serve the cause of preservation when we “seal the Torah in our students” (cf. Isaiah 8:16) rather than in the ground. That is, in our religious tradition, which holds the study of Torah to be the supreme mitzvah,10 it makes more sense to use a worn Torah scroll as a means of Jewish education than to bury it away forever.
We think, however, that a better argument can be made against the teacher’s request. For the one element that is missing from this suggestion is that of reverence, the proper attitude we assume toward objects which possess sanctity (kedushah). The very definition of reverence, of a sense that we stand in the presence of that which is kadosh, is that we cannot use that thing for our own purposes, no matter how exalted we think those purposes to be. The rules by which we use a holy object are by this definition not rules of our own device but rather those which we have inherited from tradition, from the religious experience of our community, a people in covenant with its God. And in that experience, the proper expression of reverence toward a sacred text which can no longer serve its intended purpose is to bury it. To the objection “what good does it do there in the ground, when we could make better use of it in other ways?”, the answer is clear: we are not to make use of it in other ways, for the essence of reverence is that we do not manipulate holy objects for our own ends. Thus, the texts of a worn sefer torah may not be cut out and used in tefillin and mezuzot, nor may the parchment of a worn sefer torah be used for the writing of tefillin and mezuzot. Even though one could say that to use the scroll for these purposes is to perform mitzvot and that the doing of mitzvot is a more useful way of disposing of a worn Torah scroll than is burial, the tradition declares that “we do not allow the Torah scroll to be brought down to a lower level of sanctity” (i.e., from that of a sefer torah to that of tefillin and mezuzot).11 The very sanctity of a worn sefer torah, in other words, precludes its use as a tool to achieve other ends, even worthy ones.
We see no good reason for us to abandon this traditional understanding of reverence in favor of one that is more “pragmatic” or “useful.” On the contrary: an attitude of reverence and a sense of the holy are precisely the right values for us to inculcate in ourselves and in our children. If one were to ask “should not this demand for reverence give way before the mitzvah of Torah study and Jewish education?”, we would respond quite simply that one of the goals of talmud torah is to teach us reverence, to lead us to just such an appreciation of the kedushah that we believe inheres in the Torah scroll. Jewish education is indeed important: for this reason, therefore, we should make sure that in educating our people, we teach them the correct ways of Jewish religious behavior.
We do applaud the motivations of this teacher, and we agree that it would serve the purposes of Jewish education for her students to see an open Torah scroll. Yet she and they need not acquire a worn-out scroll in order to do this. It would be much better, we think, for her to bring her students to a synagogue, where the rabbi or a suitable designate may open for them a sefer torah that is not in fragile condition.12 We would urge her to do this especially on a Shabbat or a festival or some other time when the Torah is actually read. In this way, they fulfill not only the mitzvah of Torah study but also join together with the congregation in fulfillment of an additional mitzvah: that of keri’at hatorah, the public reading of the Torah.
We therefore urge the congregation to adhere to its original plan and bury the worn sefer torah in its cemetery.
1 Yad, Sefer Torah 10:1. A chumash in traditional terminology is not a printed book as we conceive of it today but any one of the five books of Moses written individually on a separate scroll. It was used for study but not for the fulfillment of the requirement of keri’at hatorah, the public Torah reading.
2This is a complex issue in the halakhah. Essentially, the issue is whether that portion of the reading that was done prior to the discovery of the error counts toward the fulfillment of the requirement of keri’at hatorah. Many authorities hold that since a sefer torah pasul should not be read in public, the verses already read in it should be disregarded, and the entire reading should be repeated from a fit scroll (see, for example, Resp. Harosh 3:5; Resp. Rashba 1:230). On the other hand, at least one authority rules that it is permissible to read in public from a sefer torah pasul and even to recite the benedictions over it, since the blessings refer not to the unfit scroll but to the words that are read, which are fit; Resp. Rambam, ed. Freimann, no. 43 (and how this opinion squares with the position stated in Yad, Sefer Torah 10:1 is an issue treated at length in Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 43). The procedures suggested by Karo and Isserles in Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 143:4 can be seen as efforts to compromise between these two views. See Mishnah Berurah 143, no. 13.
3 The standard for this: a sefer torah which contains three textual errors on every sheet may be repaired; if it contains four errors on every sheet it must be stored away. This has to do specifically with words written chaser, into which the missing letters must be inserted. To do this more than three times per page, the sages say, would make the scroll appear “speckled” and hence is a disrespectful thing. If the majority of the scroll is properly written, then so long as one sheet from the “spoiled” section (the section that has not been checked for errors) is found to be correctly written, the scroll may be repaired. See BT Menachot 29b; Yad, Sefer Torah 7:12; Shulchan Arukh Yore De`ah 279:4.
4 BT Megillah 26b; Yad, Sefer Torah 10:3; Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 154:5 and Yore De`ah 282:10.
5 See Beit Yosef, Yore De`ah 282.
6 Cited by Magen Avraham, Orach Chayim 154, no. 9.
7 Sifre and Rashi to Deut. 12:4; BT Makkot 22a; Yad, Yesodei Hatorah 6:1.
8 See BT Ketubot 19b (Yad, Sefer Torah 7:12; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 279:1): an unfit sefer torah must either be repaired or stored away in thirty days.
9 See R. Asher b. Yechiel at the beginning of his Hilkhot Sefer Torah, which follows immediately upon the conclusion of tractate Menachot in the printed editions of BT. It is generally considered a positive mitzvah for a person to write his own sefer torah (BT Sanhedrin 21b, from a midrash on Deut. 31:19; Yad, Sefer Torah 7:1; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 270:1). R. Asher, however, writes that “nowadays, Torah scrolls are written and placed in synagogues to be read in public. Therefore, it is a positive commandment for each person to write chumashim and books of Mishnah, Talmud, and commentaries so that he and his sons may study them. For the mitzvah to write a sefer torah was so that one might study from it.” Later authorities question whether R. Asher means to exempt the individual from the requirement to write a Torah scroll (or have one written for him by a scribe) or whether his words come to expand the original requirement to include other books; see Beit Yosef and Bach to Tur, Yoreh De`ah 270. Yet none of them contest his point that we no longer use Torah scrolls primarily for purposes of study and that “nowadays,” their function is to be read in public during synagogue services.
10 Talmud torah keneged kulam (M. Peah 1:1; Yad, Talmud Torah 3:3).
11 BT Menachot 32a; Yad, Sefer Torah 5:1; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 290.
12This sort of educational display is quite customary in our congregations and schools. It can be seen as a logical extension of the minhag of displaying the scroll to congregation at the time of its public reading and declaring: vezot hatorah, “this is the Torah,” etc.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.