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Discarding Torah Printouts

What do you do with sacred books (sheimos) that become worn out or otherwise unneeded? Technology has given the question more weight. With so many newspapers, handouts and printouts, the question is more urgent now than ever. We recently discussed the custom in some place to respectfully burn them. This practice was forbidden by most authorities, with one outlier who justified it. Another possible way to deal with the plethora of sheimos is to recycle them. Even if the sheimos are treated respectfully, the deinking part of the recycling process erases the words through the introduction of chemicals. Does this constitute a forbidden erasure of sacred words?

I. What Becomes Sheimos? 

Rav Shimon Ben Tzemach Duran (Rashbatz, 15th. cen., Algeria; Responsa Tashbetz 1:2) was asked about a school that did not have textbooks for children. Instead, each week the teacher would write verses on a blackboard, first erasing the previous week’s verses. Is this allowed? Rashbatz begins by differentiating between the biblical and rabbinic prohibition against erasing sacred texts. The Torah says about idolatry, “and you shall destroy their name from out of that place” (Deut. 12:3) but warns “You shall not do so to the Lord your G-d” (ibid., 4). This applies to G-d’s names, of which there are seven, including the Tetragrammaton, the name signifying lordship (adnus), Kel, etc. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 6:2). Rashbatz says that the biblical prohibition applies only to these seven names. Erasing any other part of a verse or a blessing or a religious text, including parts of the Oral Torah, is forbidden on a rabbinic level. Rashbatz points out that writing texts in anything other than a biblical scroll is technically forbidden but allowed because of “eis la’asos la-Shem, it is a time to do for the Lord” (Ps. 119:126), meaning we violate the law in order to sustain the Torah in general (Gittin 60b). If so, argues Rashbatz, erasing is the same as writing and we may do so in order to teach Torah to children if the erasure is only rabbinically forbidden. Rashbatz also says that texts and commentaries in any language have the same status as Hebrew. Rashbatz’s ruling is widely cited as authoritative. Elsewhere we have discussed the debate over whether G-d’s name in any language other than Hebrew is considered among the seven names and therefore falls under the biblical prohibition, or not and it falls under the rabbinic prohibition. (Almost universally, authorities agree that printed books have the same status as written books. See Tzitz Eliezer 3:1:20.)

II. Pre-Publication Proofs 

Already in the nineteenth century, the issue required evaluation due to technology. Before publication, authors need to review proofs of the books to correct for errors. Publishers were releasing so many new sacred books that they were overwhelmed with pre-publication proofs that qualified as sheimos. The question was asked whether these proofs could be disposed of in some way other than burial with a Torah scholar. Leading authorities debated the questions. Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (19th cen., Russia; Ein Yitzchak 1:5) permitted the respectful disposal of these sheimos for a few reasons. First, he notes that generally speaking we are dealing with sheimos on a rabbinic level (pars. 1, 22), as explained above. Additionally, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei HaTorah 6:8) rules that if a heretic writes G-d’s name, you may (and should) erase or destroy it because the heretic does not believe in the sanctity of G-d’s name and therefore writes it like any other word. A heretic definitely has intent that the name is not sacred. What if the intent is neutral? This is a matter of debate. Therefore, Rav Spektor (pars. 16,38) suggests that proofs should be printed with explicit intent (said verbally) that they are not intended as sacred. Finally, he points out that the proofs are printed to be used temporarily, for checking, and not for learning Torah (pars. 13,34). Therefore, Rav Spektor concludes if burial is impossible, publishers may print pre-publication proofs with an explicit condition and have a child put the proof into a fire to dispose of them respectfully. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv, 19th cen., Russia; Meishiv Davar 2:80) argues that it is permissible to destroy or erase sacred objects that are sanctified with the intent to destroy them. Pre-publication proofs are intended for proofreading and then destruction. Netziv compares this to sanctifying an animal as a sacrifice at a time when the Temple is destroyed and sacrifices cannot be brought. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 13a-b) allows destroying such an animal but only in a way that is not disrespectful. Similarly, we should be allowed to dispose of proofs that are printed for temporary use and then destruction. Others disagreed with this leniency. For example, Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (19th cen., Lithuania, Responsa Zecher Yehosef, Yoreh De’ah 191) dismisses the notion of disclaiming the sanctity of the text. If you are printing it as a sacred text, even for proofreading, it is a sacred text. However, the reputation and prestige of Rav Spektor and Netziv gave their permissive rulings lasting authority. The difference between their reasons, however, bears relevance to the question today of recycling sheimos, which we will hopefully address soon.