How to Treat Holy Jewish Books

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

Print this page Print this page

Perhaps the most interesting way in which books become almost human is reflected in this comment by Jonah ben Elijah Landsofer:

Our sages of blessed memory warned and threatened that one should not teach law in front of one's teacher (one should defer to one's teacher); similarly, one should not teach law in front of one's teacher when one's teacher is a book [and] when the book is available to him to look up the law. Even if the matter is obvious to him, in any case, out of respect for the book, it is appropriate to open it up and to look up what is the law. For the letters themselves provide wisdom, and many times the law is made clearer from looking in the book than from just teaching from memory. Furthermore, when other scholars are present and the law is clear to them, one should not be embarrassed (to consult a book); to the contrary, this is how one shows honor to the Torah by clarifying the law to a point of certainty (Hanhagot Tzadikim, R. Yonah Landsofer 8:45).

Of course, Landsofer's emphatic charge to check one's sources is designed to maintain a level of professionalism in the administration of Jewish law, but it is clear from his language that in his mind, books do represent their authors and are therefore deserving of great respect as teachers in their own right. The fact that Landsofer was a scribe and a descendant of a long family of scribes might have had an influence on his attitude.

The ultimate sign of respect for books, however, is how they are treated when they wear out. Holy books, like the people who used them, are buried, usually sharing the grave with a deceased Torah scholar (following Talmud Megillah 26b). This serves both to honor the books and to prevent further degradation. In modern times, with the tremendous increase in the amount of printed material and photocopies of holy books, storage and/or burial have become quite difficult. Different authorities have suggested various responses, although most agree that a Sefer Torah as well as printed editions of biblical texts should still be buried, even if options are found for non-biblical texts and copies made for temporary use.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.