The Life and Death and Life of Books

As a congregational rabbi, I am used to the ebbs and flows of time and ritual. Shabbat comes every week, the holidays cycle every year, there will always be births and deaths, weddings and b’nai mitzvah. But every so often an opportunity arises that a rabbi will participate in only once (maybe twice) in a career.

One is the dedication of a new synagogue, which I had the honor to plan and participate in during my first year at TBH, and my first year as a rabbi. That was an amazing experience to think about ritual and ceremony for something that happens very rarely in the life of a congregation, and to do it so early in my tenure was truly an emotional experience, and one that from the beginning deepened my relationship with the congregation.

Another was this past Thursday, as we gathered to bury our sacred texts. Jewish tradition dictates that sacred texts and ritual objects—prayerbooks, Torah books, tallits, etc.—that are no longer of use or in good condition should be set aside and buried. In this way we show honor to the divine, as many of these sacred texts have the name of God written in Hebrew, the sacred language. And we show honor to our tradition, as these books are the repositories of our sacred literature.

Since it is not an easy thing to open a gravesite to deposit books, we at TBH, as is common, stored our old books in a closet until there was enough to warrant a burial. (The Hebrew term for such a repository is a geniza.) This year it became clear that we had enough to bury. Over the years we had collected older editions of multiple prayerbooks we no longer used as a congregation, as well as books that were donated by individuals.

When we gathered for the burial, we had the opportunity to reflect on the fact that these sacred books carry both the traditions of our people the traditions of individuals and families. Some people contributed personal books that had been a part of their family history, or had individual meaning for them, and sharing stories and reading inscriptions.

I too contributed a personal copy of a prayerbook. During a break-in at TBH over a decade ago we experienced vandalism when books and pews in the sanctuary were overturned. One of the books was my personal copy of the siddur that I used on the bimah; it was tossed to the ground and its spine was broken. I had put it aside for eventual burial, and reflected on it as my first “rabbinic” prayerbook.

And some people reflected on how the books collected told a communal story as well. For one, the variety of prayerbooks collected tell the story of the Jewish people, as multiple denominations and generations of prayerbooks were represented, from Orthodox to Reconstructionist, from this country and from the Old World. And, as was commented on, the collection of books represented the history of this congregation, harking back to a time in which we had rotating styles of service using different prayerbooks each week on Shabbat.

The date on which we gathered was chosen for practical reasons—we wanted to wait until spring when we had a greater chance at better weather—but also to tie it into the Jewish calendar we did it on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the beginning of the new month of Tammuz. During the summer month of Tammuz, we mark the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz. In the Torah, in the story of Sinai, we read how when Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets of the 10 Commandments, he discovered the Israelites worshipping an idol. In his anger, he smashed the tablets on the ground. Later, after all was resolved, he returned to God to receive a new set of tablets. Tradition records that the day of the smashing of the tablets was the 17th of Tammuz.

Jewish tradition also teaches that both the older broken set of tablets and the newer whole set of tablets were kept in the Ark of the Covenant and accompanied the Israelites on their wanderings. Thus the Israelites carried with them both brokenness and wholeness, death and life, the past and the future.

So we took the time at the beginning of the month to lovingly bury our broken tablets—the books that in physical form do not serve us anymore. But we still carry them with us, the words live in other forms (sometimes even electronically now!) and will continue to guide us.

We treat our books who have come to the end of their life as we treat people when they reach the end of their lives: with respect, care, and love, graciously guiding them to a final resting place. When a loved one dies, we commit ourselves to keep their memory alive and incorporate the lessons they taught us into our lives. As we bury these books, we too recommit ourselves to Judaism and our sacred texts, incorporating Jewish traditions and teachings into our lives.

Burying our geniza reminds us that books have a lifespan, but the words themselves do not.

 

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