How to Treat Holy Jewish Books

Jews demonstrate the holiness of biblical and rabbinic texts in several ways.

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In Jewish tradition, holy books require special treatment. In this article, the author surveys how the decoration, storage, physical placement, and disposal of worn books serve to reinforce the user's sense of the holiness that inheres in Jewish books.

Treating Books Like Royalty

If the description of God as King or Sovereign has a physical manifestation in Judaism, it is through the decoration of the Sefer Torah, the scroll of the Torah written on parchment. In Ashkenazic (Central and East European) Jewry, the Sefer Torah is dressed in an elaborate cloth mantle, which is frequently decorated with semi-precious stones and a breastplate. In Sephardic (Western European and Arabic) Jewry, the Sefer Torah is kept in its own case, usually made of silver. In both communities, the Sefer Torah is adorned with a crown, also of silver.

As with royalty, an elaborate protocol has developed. When the Torah is lifted, people stand. When the Torah is carried around the congregation, people face it and kiss its mantle out of respect (the parchment is never touched directly). The 16th century Kabbalist (mystic), Elijah ben Moses de Vidas, described the royal image of the Torah explicitly, "When one carries holy books, one should act as though one is carrying the clothes of the king before the king" (Sefer Reshit Hokhmah). De Vidas is drawing on an idea expressed in the Zohar (the classic work of Jewish mysticism) that most people only see the garments of Torah; some can penetrate through the garments to the body, and the truly enlightened can even glimpse the soul of the Torah.holy books

The Hierarchy of Books

As de Vidas expressed, other holy books are only garments for the Torah itself. This image of the Torah's superiority over other holy books is given concrete expression in Jewish practice. As expressed in the Mishnah, the primary document of rabbinic law, the guiding principle was that one "increases in holiness, and one does not decrease." A Sefer Torah was at the pinnacle of the ladder of holiness, and one was not allowed to sell a Sefer Torah to buy other synagogue items for that would be a decrease in holiness (cf. Mishnah Megillah 3:1). As a physical expression of this ladder of holiness, the Talmud prescribes that a Sefer Torah can be stacked upon another Sefer Torah, but an individual book of the Five Books of the Torah could not be put on top of a Sefer Torah. Similarly, a single book of the Five Books could be put on top of books of the Prophets or books of the Writings, but not vice versa (Talmud Megillah 27a).

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.