Image: 13th century manuscript from the Cairo Genizah, a letter by Abraham, son of Maimonides. Photo via wikimedia, public domain.
A regular reader asked, “Rabbi Adar, what becomes of the aged Torah scrolls?”
Torah scrolls, or Sifrei Torah, are the great treasures of the Jewish People.
- We commission their scribing,
- we hold them at bar and bat mitzvah,
- we spend hours learning how to read and chant from them,
- we hold them close,
- we dance with them at Simchat Torah,
- we read them every week,
- we celebrate them at Shavuot,
- we even risk our lives to rescue them from burning buildings,
- but eventually, they wear out from use.
It’s true: some Torah scrolls are very, very old but it is unusual to see one that is more than 100 years old because they are fragile, very much like human bodies.
Over the lifetime of a Torah scroll, a responsible custodian of the scroll (usually a congregation) will seek out a skilled sofer [scribe] from time to time who will repair damaged letters, re-sew weak seams, and even attach the old scroll to new etzim [rollers] if need be. Just as human beings may need repairs as we age, Torah scrolls need periodic repair.
But the time comes when a Torah scroll is past repair and past respectful use. At that time we consign the scroll to a genizah, a safe resting space for sacred books, or we bury it in consecrated ground. The most famous genizah is the Cairo Genizah, from the ancient synagogue in a suburb of Cairo. There, sacred writings were collected in a wall of the synagogue for over 1,000 years and include handwritten pages from Maimonides himself. In 1896-7 the members of that synagogue permitted the Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter to remove the materials for study after he reassured them that the writings would be handled with reverence and preserved.
I have officiated at the burial of sacred writings; it is a solemn event. Some congregations designate a grave at a Jewish cemetery for that purpose. Others include sacred books in the casket when learned members of the congregation die and are buried.