Rest in Peace, Holy Books

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.



New HHD Resources Online: Machzorim!

Image: A tallit (prayer shawl) sits on an open prayer book. (MstudioG/Shutterstock)

A Machzor (or Mahzor) is a Jewish prayerbook for a major holiday. Usually when people talk about a Machzor, they are talking about the prayerbooks for the High Holy Days.

If you are unfamiliar with the Machzor, here’s an introduction: What is a Machzor? has a wonderful article, Mahzor Contents: A Guide to the High Holy Days Prayers. I recommend it highly.

I just got an email from about their new High Holy Day resource: Machzorim (High Holy Day Prayerbook texts.)

If you are unfamiliar with Sefaria, you can read about them here on the blog at Meet Sefaria!  You may want to spend a little time playing with the interface – it’s worth the effort.

Also, if you are wondering about the extra day of Jewish holiday (“2nd day of Rosh Hashanah,” etc) Judaism101 has a good explanation of the tradition.

Some other articles on this blog:

High Holy Days for Beginners

Teshuvah 101

A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings

Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days

Food Traditions for Rosh HaShanah

What is Selichot?

What is Shabbat Shuvah?

What Does Kol Nidre Mean?

Seven Shofar Facts

The Hardest Prayer in the Book (Unetaneh Tokef)

18 Facts about Rosh HaShanah

Have you found any High Holy Day resources online that you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments!


What is a Machzor?

Image: Calligraphy from the Worms Machzor, 13th century. Public domain.

The Machzor is the book of services and prayers for the Jewish High Holy Days, covering the services from Erev Rosh Hashanah [Rosh Hashanah evening] to the close of Yom Kippur. It is different from the Siddur [Prayer Book] used during regular weekday and Shabbat services in synagogue.

The word machzor is from a root meaning “return.” These are special services that return annually.

There are many different machzorim in print, and many others that have been compiled by congregations for their own use. In any machzor, there are certain things you can expect to find, although not necessarily all of them are in every machzor:

  1. THE BASIC SERVICE – The core prayers of the service will remain. To learn more about those, read What Goes on in a Jewish Service?
  2. PIYYUTIM – (pee-you-TEEM) – Special poetic prayers written just for the holy day. These include the Unetaneh Tokef, about which I have written more in The Hardest Prayer in the Book and Life is Unfair. Now What? Another famous prayer is Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King.]
  3. ROYALTY, MEMORY, & SHOFAR – This is a small service embedded in the Rosh HaShanah daytime service, including Biblical verses and poetry, and the blowing of the shofar.
  4. VIDUI – The vidui is a confession of sins.
  5. KOL NIDRE – This legal formula (no, it isn’t a prayer!) opens Yom Kippur service. It is so dominant in the minds of many Jews that many refer to the entire evening service with the shorthand “Kol Nidre.” For more about this text and its many meanings, read What Does Kol Nidre Mean? 
  6. AVODAH – “work” – A Yom Kippur service that recalls the purification of the sanctuary in Temple Times.
  7. MARTYROLOGY – Also known as Eleh Ezkarah “These I remember” it is a recitation of names and stories of Jewish martyrs.
  8. JONAH – On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the Book of Jonah, which is usually included in machzorim for that purpose.
  9. NEILAH – The closing service of Yom Kippur, which takes place as the sun is setting.

You don’t need to acquire a machzor; it is supplied by the congregation. However, one way to prepare for the High Holy Days is to read and study a machzor.

May you have an insightful and fruitful High Holy Day season!