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the genizah and a new beginning

01/03/2023 09:00:45 AM


Rabbi Liora Alban

During the month of January, everyone at PTS has the chance to participate in a community-building and uniquely Jewish opportunity, our Community Shred Event and Genizah Collection on Friday, January 13th. In reading this, you may be wondering what this event is all about. I am here to explain. 

In Jewish tradition, we treat sifrei kodesh, or holy books, as more than just scribbles on paper. Any writings that contain the name of God should not be discarded into the trash or burned when no longer usable. Instead, they should be buried as if they contain a spark of God, similar to how we treat humans. The impetus for this comes from a discussion in Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 115a. The text reads, “With regard to all sacred writings, one may rescue them from the fire on Shabbat, whether they are read in public or whether they are not read in public. This ruling applies even though they were written in any foreign language.”

From this passage, the tradition of the genizah arose. The hebrew word genizah means, “reserved” or “hidden.” It is a hidden place inside of a synagogue or other Jewish space to house discarded holy books. Most synagogues contain some sort of closet or storage area for these books and they are emptied every few years. The most famous genizah in history is the Cairo Genizah, part of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. It was discovered in 1896 to hold over 200,000 documents and Jewish ritual objects dating back to the 10th century. Today, Cambridge University holds most of its contents. 

The Jewish tradition of the genizah is more than just an unusual ritual. It is a practice that speaks to the importance of the written word in Judaism. We are not called “The People of the Book” for nothing! We understand that the written word holds power. Words are how we communicate with each other, gather information, and express our praise, thanks, and requests to God. At the start of the Jewish new year, we are called upon to use our words to apologize to others and to set intentions for the year ahead. This January, we may not be starting a new Jewish year, but we are starting a new secular year. Now is yet another perfect opportunity to recommit to using our words for good. Let us ask ourselves: How can we speak with patience, compassion, and generosity? How can we ask questions that express curiosity and make others feel respected? What can we read this year that expands our horizons?

There is a Jewish custom of reciting a special passage after the amidah during the Jewish prayer service. It goes like this: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, oh God, my rock and my redeemer. This new year, may we live out the words of this passage, remembering the holy power of words and being mindful of God’s presence when we read, write, and speak. We look forward to seeing you on January 13th!  

Tue, April 23 2024 15 Nisan 5784