Question: What is the protocol for burying damaged Jewish prayer books and shawls? Should they be wrapped? Can they be buried in my yard? Are there special prayers to be recited?
— Linda, Randolph, Mass.
Answer: It sounds like you’re talking about burying the contents of a genizah, Linda. Genizah means "reserved" or "hidden" in Hebrew, and is traditionally a place where Jews store sacred documents when they fall out of use.
The Talmud (Shabbat 115a) stipulates that all sacred writings (scrolls of Torah, Prophets, and Writings), should be preserved in a place where they cannot be destroyed. Though this idea originally was closely tied to a prohibition from ever erasing God’s name, Maimonides ruled that holy books, such as the Talmud and midrash, should be retired to the genizah as well, even though they do not contain God’s name (Mishneh Torah, Hilhot Yesodei HaTorah 6:8).
For a long time, Jewish communities set aside a room in each synagogue exclusively for this purpose and called that space the genizah. Anything from a worn-out siddur to a contract written in Hebrew would be put in the genizah when it was no longer useful, and often ritual objects such as a tallit or a lulav were added as well.
Most synagogues now have a closet or a box where they collect used papers and ritual objects that are considered sacred. The general rule is that anything dealing with sacred subjects should be placed in a genizah rather than thrown out. An Israeli newspaper, though written in Hebrew, would not need to go in a genizah, but a Megillah that had been damaged would.
Most synagogues clean out their genizot every few years by burying the contents in a Jewish cemetery as a sign of reverence and respect. Some communities even have cemetery plots that have been donated expressly for the purpose of burying the genizah. It is considered a great sign of respect to bury a Torah scroll or other sacred work near a prestigious Torah scholar. However, you are welcome to bury your household genizah in your backyard, as long as it is done respectfully.
Before burial the items should be put in a shroud (a white pillowcase will do), and any Torah scrolls should be cut off from their wooden spools.
There is no set liturgy for a genizah burial, but many congregations have created their own ceremonies. I particularly like the one from Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, which contains passages from the Torah and Mishnah, as well as the rabbis’ Kaddish and contemporary poetry. You can adapt the liturgy to make it more appropriate or meaningful for your family or community, but it is customary to include the rabbis’ Kaddish.
The most famous genizah, by far, is the Cairo genizah, a room attached to the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. The room contained more than 200,000 documents and ritual objects from as far back as the 10th century, including commentaries and letters written by Maimonides and Rabbi Judah Halevi. In the 1890s, Solomon Schechter, a lecturer at Cambridge University, convinced synagogue officials to allow him to ship most of the contents of the Cairo genizah to Cambridge, and since then thousands of documents from the genizah have been restored, translated, and studied.
Today, most of the works from the genizah can be found at the Cambridge University Library, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the entire corpus of manuscripts is being digitized by the Friedberg Genizah Project, so that it can be studied and searched by scholars all over the world.
Before you bury your own genizah, take a look through it. You probably won’t find scraps of business contracts from the 13th century, but you might come across some valuable lessons and stories that you hadn’t thought about in years. Good luck!