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Genizah Burial Teaches Respect for Jewish Tradition

Some old, close friends of a Massachusetts synagogue’s members were recently laid to rest after they imparted their wisdom to youngsters in the congregation one final time.

Dozens of tattered prayer books and other sacred objects were buried in a plain pine casket at the Sharey Tefilah Cemetery in West Roxbury, Mass., during the fist genizah-burial service in the history of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, Mass.

The synagogue conducted the service to show children Jewish funeral rituals in a non-threatening setting, as well as to discard its unusable sacred objects properly.

About 150 congregants attended.

“They eulogized, in a sense, the contents of the casket,” Rabbi Robert Miller said.

“In our tradition,” Miller said during the service, “every single letter is `kadosh,’ sacred.”

A “genizah” is a collection site where old tattered prayer books and other ritual objects containing God’s name are kept when they become unusable for normal rituals.

Traditionally, genizot were rooms attached to synagogues. During wars and periods of forced conversion. Jews often hid their sacred objects in caves or tombs to preserve them.

The Cairo genizah, where many documents on such topics as the history of the Jews of Israel and Egypt from the period between the Islamic conquests and the First Crusade were stored, is among the most famous genizot in the world.

Miller began the service by discussing the objects’ sacred nature and the reasons for placing them in genizot. The congregation then read a responsive reading from a portion of its prayer book that deals with the Torah and revelation.

Miller said he chose the passage, usually read on Shavuot, because “I thought it would be appropriate.”

The first item placed by Miller into the plain pine casket was a prayer book printed in Poland in 1851. The book was published “especially for the three festivals, in Hebrew and in Yiddish.”

Miller also left an 8-year-old prayer book that someone defaced in the casket.

“It can no longer be restored,” Miller said. “It has served us well.”

After congregants loaded the casket with their sacred items, it was carried to a hearse parked outside. In what resembled a funeral procession, many congregants followed the hearse to the cemetery.

“They are to be shown the same respect and same reverence as a deceased person,” Miller said of the sacred objects.

Miller continued the service at the cemetery, where children circled the gravesite and put dirt on the casket.

It was the fist genizah-burial service conducted there in at least 27 years, said Kenneth Lassman, operations manager of the Stanetsky-Hymanson Memorial Chapels in Brookline, Mass.

“I don’t think anyone else around here has done one,” said Lassman, who provided the casket.

Normally, synagogues bring their unusable sacred items to the cemeteries without holding the burial service, he added. Cemetery workers then put these items in the new graves.

Lassman said he proposed doing the service after Miller told him about the synagogue’s large collection of tattered sacred objects. Lassman has helped children understand Jewish funeral ritual for 25 years and thought the genizah- burial service would be educational for Temple Beth Avodah’s youngsters.

“It’s not going to be as awesome and as frightening for them now,” Miller said, “because they’ve been through it.”

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