Image: Old machzorim (High Holy Day prayerbooks) being buried. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Joshua Franklin, Jewish Center of the Hamptons.
Jews have great respect for our seforim, our holy books. Those include everything from the Torah scroll itself, to the Bible, to the volumes of Talmud, to the prayer books we use every week in services. We handle them reverently. If we make notes in them, we do so neatly. If we mark a spot, instead of turning down a corner, we use a bookmark or a Post-it.
Holy books are our companions in study and worship. They are also repositories of the lashon kadosh, the “holy tongue,” the Hebrew language, and especially the written Name of God which we do not ever say aloud.
We have a long history of our holy books being mistreated by anti-Semites. The Romans burnt a rabbi alive, wrapped in a Torah scroll (Avodah Zarah 18a.) In 1242, 24 wagon loads of Jewish books were burned in Paris. In 1933, German university students burnt Jewish books as well as books by Jews at the behest of the Nazis.
We treat our holy books gently and with respect, and when they are finally worn out, or have no more useful life, we bury them gently as we would beloved friends. Sometimes they are temporarily stored in a genizah (safe storage place) until there are enough of them to bury.
Here are some photographs from the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. Rabbi Franklin tried to find a home for the old machzorim (High Holy Day prayer books) but he was unable to find a synagogue who needed them. The Jewish Center no longer uses this machzor, so the proper thing to do with the books was to bury them where they could not be defaced.
Some might say, “Why not recycle them?” If they can be recycled for use in another place, that is appropriate. But recycling them by sending them to a paper recycler would not be respectful – they could end up as tissue, or something else disposable and bound for the garbage pail. Better to put them respectfully in the ground to decompose.