When Holy Wears Out

When Holy Wears Out

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

Holy things are not just ritual items or Torah scrolls and prayerbooks. Holy things are anything we consider dear to us, or set apart for special reasons. We call them “Kadosh.” A prayerbook or bible from your bar or bat mitzvah, or a photo album from the past might be holy to you. Your grandmother’s China dishes that are set up high on a shelf and are rarely used might be holy to you. When such items age, break, or disintegrate, it’s difficult to let them go or to dispose of them. Who hasn’t stood over the trashcan and with a wince tossed in the broken plate? But what do we do with prayerbooks, bibles, and other items that are truly “Kadosh”?

Since the 7th century, at least, we know that storehouses were used to hold sacred items. The most famous storehouse, or Genizah, is the Cairo Genizah, discovered in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. It was revealed to the world in 1864 by Jacob Saphir and studied, principally, by Solomon Schechter. The Genizah held hundreds of thousands of documents, papers, and scrolls, that told of the religious, social, and economic history of Jews in their communities, especially through the Middle Ages. In keeping with Talmudic teachings to “preserve” holy writings, a Genizah can be any depository used to hold such pieces. Historically, it can be a room, a cabinet, or a special collection bin. Eventually, a full Genizah is emptied into a grave in a Jewish cemetery or other special plot of land. Torah and its lessons were given so that we might “live by them.” When their purpose is done we return them to the earth like we would a body, with respect.

At Congregation Beth Israel, we have a Genizah. It was created by an Eagle Scout some years ago in the backyard of the Shlenker School. This past week, I joined Shlenker 5th graders to teach them about the Genizah. They learned that holy things are anything with God’s name written on it, but also anything that we consider sacred to us. That’s why the Cairo Genizah contained more than holy books. It contained important letters, correspondence, and notes that told stories about times long ago. It told stories about people who are no longer remembered by us, but whose lives are linked to ours because of their devotion to Jewish life and living. Standing in front of our Genizah, we spoke words and shared a prayer to acknowledge these sources of worship and Jewish thought. Then we took old prayerbooks that were worn or out of use, and placed them inside the Genizah. Each child placed a book or two or three into the Genizah and covered them with soil. There they’ll become part of the earth again.

In my Temple office, I have some very old Jewish books and prayerbooks. I found them in antique stores among other old books. When I bought them from the owner, I felt like I rescued them. Eventually, they’ll be put into the Genizah, too, with gratitude for their role in Jewish life and laid to rest with respect. What’s “kadosh” in your house or storage locker that should be added to a Genizah? Answer the question for yourself. Don’t bring bags of books to Temple, but one day we might help you put in the Genizah what’s holy to you but no longer of use. Then we can share words of gratitude, together, as we cherish our heritage and move from strength to strength.


When Holy Wears Out 3