the idea of sanctity

Last week we discussed the very special recycle bins meant for paper, here in Jerusalem. One of the advantages of recycling, is that we have to consider what it is that we are getting rid of. In the past, people just threw out the garbage without much of a thought to what was being disposed of, but now, in many countries in the west, people are learning to make compost from organic waste, and to separate glass, metallic items, plastic, paper, and even old batteries which can be reprocessed without poisoning the environment.

the words on the bin say ‘only for paper’

For us, paper has a special significance, because it often bears the written word. But in our culture, there is another item that is disposed of, that gets very special attention. This is our custom; when an old religious item, a book or a scroll, or a ritual item is too worn out to be of service anymore, we put them in a special repository, or bury them in a grave. Scraps of parchment that were once part of a holy scroll are also included. Such articles are not recycled. They are considered holy. And so they are laid to rest just as the body of a human being is laid to rest after death. In some places they are kept above ground in a repository for old religious items, which we call a geniza. There have been such repositories discovered after hundreds of years, some after more than a thousand years. When I was a boy, such repositories were found in synagogues, but since recycling has come into fashion, one can now find such collection bins placed on the city streets, and people can leave their holy pages there. They too have been painted, but the illustrations hint at our long past.

a modern repository for holy pages

Young children are taught from an early age to give special respect to holy books. People kiss them when closing them after study, and if a book has been dropped on the floor by accident, it is common to see the person picking up the book, kissing it. And as in the case of sorting our disposable items, the sorting and classification of our possessions, tools and belonging, and even the days of the week, our actions and intentions, are the foundation of establishing a value system. For us, the very symbol of marking a difference, is the Sabbath day. For this is a day which we sanctify with a blessing, and then it is holy for us, and different from all the days of the week.

a holy book with primary text in the middle, and commentary around it

In the book pictured above, not only is the commentary printed in a different size from the text, but using a different alphabet as well, so as to differentiate between different levels of importance. This is in fact what gives us a sense of what is holy. It is set apart from the banal. Even in our wedding ceremony, the groom says to the bride, “with this act, I have made you holy to me”. If all things are equal, it is hard for children, and hard for people altogether, to grasp the concept of sanctity. And so, recycling can be a first step to appreciating holiness in life.

another repository

We are living in a time of great changes. And I think it important that we remember that culture is built layer upon layer… all of knowledge is built that way. It was the written word that allowed for a more effective continuation of human accomplishment, generation building on the foundations of previous generations. It was Isaac Newton who said that he was standing on the shoulders of those who stood before him. Is it at all possible that within one lifetime, we would be able to develop language to the level that we use it today, or all the technological tools that have offered us new freedoms? And what would happen to the world as we know it, if the young generation were only to eat the fruits of the trees they found standing when they arrived, and would no longer work under the hot sun to plant and culture new fields and orchards?

My best wishes to all my readers for a healthy and happy new year. May you enjoy a good livelihood and keep on learning always.


65 responses to “the idea of sanctity

  1. This is so fascinating Shimon. It reminds me of an incident a couple of years ago where we came across an outdated Jewish calendar in the office and printed on the calendar was a request that the pages not be disposed of in any fashion because it contains some Holy scripture. Not being Jewish, I had no idea what to do with it. To cut a long story short, we eventually got the calendar to a local Rabbi to dispose of appropriately. Thank you for a lovely, interesting post! Have a good Shabbos.

    • Very kind of you, Jacquie, to cooperate with such a ‘strange’ request printed on a calendar… but yes, there are people and companies that print the sort of things on a calendar that we wouldn’t just throw in the garbage. Glad to have provided the answer to this mystery. And thank you for your good wishes, and my very best to you!

    • WordsFallFromMyEyes

      I agree with Shimon, this was very respectful of you.
      Myself, I find it difficult to throw out beautiful calendars year upon year. I mean, you buy them for the theme, photos or whatever. Last year, 2012, I kept two of the nature photographs that were the calendar and have them in front of me at work, but, what to do with the other 10…

      • It does not surprise me, Noeleen, that you would think about how to treat a picture that was part of the pleasure of a moment in your life. As we learn how much respect adds to our lives, we want to show it even to inanimate objects… but certainly to all living things.

  2. I like the concept of teaching sanctity. I think we in the west have lost our way there. Nothing appears to be holy anymore. I also like the way you teach children to understand levels of importance. Such a simple idea. I suppose the simplicity of it is the genius of it. I read the earlier post in which you describe the paintings on trash bins. What a wonderful practice. Here in the US, an artist would be arrested. I thought the painted bins were very attractive. Of course, our bins are empties by mechanical devices on trucks so the painting would be damaged right away. Sigh…
    I enjoyed reading about the disposal of holy papers too. Thank you.

    • There’s a lot of progress with the passage of time. In many areas, we know more than we ever did. But at the same time, we also lose a lot of old knowledge, as we enthusiastically welcome the new. Some folk remedies have been rediscovered and found to be better than patent medicines… and there are new problems (like what happened at Newtown) which never used to happen. I welcome new knowledge and new tools, but think there is still a lot that can be learned from the wisdom of the past. Thank you very much for your comment, George.

  3. Thank you. I learnt a few things from your post. Yes, these are changing times but I think they’ve always been that way. I’m sure even the cavemen pondered on ‘them changing times…. what’s comforting to us humans is that every path has already been crossed. when that last memory fades the journey is refreshed by another generation. That is what is sacred about the holy books; keeping the source alive!

    • I don’t think that change always moves at the same pace. If you watch a child grow, you notice that there are certain periods in which changes happen at a faster pace… and other periods in which change is slow. Sometimes, adults notice the same thing. It seems to me that changes have been speeding up in the last 30 years. I might be wrong, of course, but that’s my impression. Thank you for coming by and for your comment.

  4. Another great and thought-provoking post, Shimon. Like you, I too observe that we’ve lost the concept of sanctity, or holiness in our culture. Everything has to be jeered at. Yet we can’t understand anything about the Almighty unless we also understand that this is of central importance.

    It reminds me of the dilemma I faced when I had boxes of my father’s and grandfather’s archive papers. Most of it was notes made as they read books, so of no real value. But it felt wrong to simply put them out for recycling, although I guess a theological case could be made out for that too! In the end I burned them in the garden – a burnt offering, perhaps.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Gillyk. I can understand very well, the dilemma that you felt when you had to deal with your father’s and grandfather’s papers. Your solution sounds right to me. I think there are things that we can’t just pass on. That we have to resolve and close them by ourselves. Freedom, awareness, and choice have many advantages, but they also carry with them a measure of responsibility. Thank you very much for your comment.

  5. We have an odd little ritual in our house on Christmas eve, one that involves a recorded Christmas program and that was begun by accident. After reading your post, now I think I understand why it’s stuck to us for over 20 years. It has become the only quiet time in our holiday, one where the entire family is together in a darkened room, giving our attention to something meaningful to all of us. I’m not sure that “sanctifies” fits exactly, but I believe it comes close.

    Thank you for always helping me to see the sanctity of small things, with every one of your posts. Your words are an oasis of depth in my rushed days. I wish you a healthy and prosperous 2013.

    • Thank you for sharing with us that story of the Christmas eve ritual. It seems to me that moments that bring a family together in thought and emotion, and in honor of a holiday or spiritual values… is sacred. I am so glad that you enjoy these posts, techlady, and it is always a great pleasure to hear from you. May this year be filled with joy and accomplishments and learning, for you and your loved ones.

  6. Thank you for this beautiful post, Shimon, enlightening regarding the geniza, and deeply reinforcing the understanding that in life, there are relationships, words, and objects that deserve reverence, imbued as they are with the Sacred…blessings on your health, family, and joy in the New Year…Gentle peace, Shimon.

    • Yes, nowadays people use the word awesome very lightly… but we know that awe and reverence are so precious in this life, and help us find the way in times of trial and sorrow as well as in joy and happiness. I am always aware of your reverence for nature and life when reading your blog, Catherine, and thank you for joining me in an appreciation of the sacred. Thank you so much for your comment.

  7. Thought-provoking, as always, Shimon…thank you.

  8. A very interesting piece on recycling. As we take the old and layer it into the new for reuse so must we with our knowledge and history. I always enjoy your writing, your storytelling, and learning something from you each time I read. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your very gracious and meaningful comment, Shoes. It is always a pleasure to hear from you, and my best wishes to you and yours for a very beautiful new year with welcome resolutions to all the trials and tests of this life, and much joy.

  9. What a fascinating post. I like the fact that certain holy items are given more respect and disposed of with reverence. I do like these bins too!
    It’s slightly different, but when a small bird or creature dies in the wildlife unit, legally we have to put it in a plastic bag for cremation to ensure no disease spreads. I hate doing this as it seems so disrespectful to the animal….I always wrap the creature in leaves and add a little flower if any are in bloom.

    I am enjoying the journey of discovery that is your culture….spellbinding as usual, you are truly a magician with words.xxxxx

    • I am so glad to read of the way you part from these animals. There are many problems about the way we interact with nature… even when our intentions are pure. Thank you for your comment, Dina, and for giving so much of yourself to our fellow living creatures in this world.. Your work is truly holy in my eyes.

  10. What a wonderful meditation on sanctity and determining what is of great value in our lives, Shimon! The further a society moves away from tradition and respect for what has come before, the more we seem to lose our own identity. You are right that we must continue to revere and build on the past, if the future is to be strong and good. Excellent read, thank you!

  11. Some people before me have expressed what I have wanted to say about this post. This post should be put into a textbook for children to understand about sanctity, tradition and your awe for God.

    My 80 year old mother is illiterate. I remember she always shows respect for printed words. She wouldn’t get rid of papers with printed words on as she always feel that words are holy. This attitude comes from great value that is attached to education.

    This post is informative and enlightening. My son is too young to appreciate it, but I’ve read it to him and showed him the pictures of repository.

    What happens if some people don’t treat their holy books or holy items in this respectful way? Would they get punished?

    One’s culture, knowledge and wisdom is built ‘layer by layer’, and an ancient culture is so valuable. Reading your post is like being taken on a private journey of cultural discovery — the kind of in-depth travel that one may have to pay a lot of money to experience in real life. Yet I get the spiritual nourishment directly from you. Thank you Shimon. You’re wonderful, wonderful on WordPress.

    • How wonderful it is, Janet, that you yourself have witnessed that fork in the road, where written words brought unlimited knowledge and understanding to the family of man. I felt love for your mother, just reading your lines of how she values and respects the printed word. And I believe I know the happiness she has, knowing that her children and grandchildren are part of this new surge of knowledge.

      In answer to your question, we don’t punish people for a lack of respect. And it does happen… it is a problem. But we believe in free choice, and hope with all our hearts, that the mockers too will see the light and join us in our appreciation of what is holy. Thanbk you very much for your comment. It is always good to hear from you.

  12. Rabbi Mark Glickman

    Thank you for your thoughtful post about the use of Genizahs in Jewish life. Actually, I recently wrote a book about the largest Genziah ever discovered – “Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah” (Rabbi Mark Glickman, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011). As you may know, the Cairo Genizah – brought to worldwide attention in 1897 – contained upwards of 300,000 damaged and destroyed books and manuscripts, most of which were from the years 969-1250.

    One of the interesting ironies I discovered while writing the book is that, from as early as the mid-1700s, the Jews of Cairo- i.e., the community that amassed these documents – tended to value them far less than scholars from the west. To visitors from England, the US, and elsewhere, these were precious treasures to be preserved and cherished. To Jews from Cairo, they were just old junk. Synagogue leaders often gave away bundles of old manuscripts for free. Solomon Schechter took 190,000 of them to Cambridge, and gave the synagogue only a 300-pound donation for their generosity. Later, people who visited him in Cairo while he was packing the documents recall with horror watching synagogue caretakers jump into the Genizah chamber and hearing manuscripts crunch under their feet as they walked around.

    The Jews of Cairo saved a LOT of material, and they didn’t seem to care about it very much at all. To me, it begs a question with which I’m still struggling: If everything is holy, doesn’t that mean that in the end nothing is holy at all?

    If you can answer that question, please let me know.

    Thanks again for your post –

    Rabbi Mark Glickman
    Woodinville WA

    • Yes, it doesn’t surprise me that the Jews of Cairo valued these documents much less than the scholars from the west. In fact, Rabbi Glickman, the irony that I perceive is found in the fact that Westerners considered this geniza such a treasure. For those of us, who live in the world of torah, and holy books, know well which slips of paper… which pages and which scribbles find their way to the geniza, and the treasury of our living libraries is much greater in our eyes. Sadly, as the learning and scholarship decreases, so the interest in the scraps increases. I am reminded of a young man, some years back, who used to search the garbage can behind Bob Dylan’s house for ‘treasures’.

      Your question, is well stated. Not everything is holy… And those scrolls that were filed away in the geniza were no longer kosher, and couldn’t be used in the traditional way. But out of respect for what they once represented, and because some of the words were still whole, even if they were no longer in proper context, the scraps were saved from desecration. I suppose it is all a matter of perspective. But in any case, I thank you for your visit, and your comment.

  13. Wow. Wonderful sentient and thought provoking post. I makes me ask if the trove of Dead Sea Scrolls are a Genizah (sp). How would one know? My father…a farm boy, was the first to teach me that books were not to be harmed; No writing or underlining as is common practice here. I’ve even seen a number of Bibles so affected. I have kept a log of every surgical procedure I ever did, and to me…it’s uncommonly important. I sincerely believe that because of who I am and the circumstances I’ve lived, that I have personally done more Different surgical procedures, than any one other surgeon. Shame.

    • No, Bob. The Dead Sea Scrolls are not a Genizah. They were in a library. There was order, and pupose in the way they were kept. A geniza is just a hodgepodge of all kinds of written material, randomly put together. Sometimes you can make sense of what was going on… and sometimes you can’t. I think your log of surgical procedures would be quite interesting. Going through it would probably remind you of some very dramatic memories…

  14. Two things made me chucle before thinking more seriously about your post. Starting with your first sentence I immediately snapped to attention, as if I was sitting in first grade: “Last week we discussed the very special recycle bins meant for paper” as if you were the teacher and I was the student.
    The second thought that made me chuckle had to do with the fact that I still kiss the prayer book if it falls down! I do it so automatically and I wasn’t even aware of it!
    As to your post. We are, after all, The People of The Book. I cannot think of a time when books were not important and religious books not sacred. I have a box in my garage that contains a volume of the Talmud, and I cannot let go of it, even though I know that I should give it to a synagogue or Jewish library, because when I die my sons will just toss it.
    I don’t know what sacred is anymore to the world, to a country or a community. I think we are left to design our own concept of holiness, especially the secular community.
    A thought provoking post for me, as it points at the significance of rituals.

    • I have a feeling, Rachel, that if you were sitting across the table from me, you wouldn’t be reminded at all of a teacher in first grade… probably more like a fellow student… a little later along the line… There is something so wonderful about kissing a book… especially when it isn’t automatic. The last time I did it out of pure feeling was about two months ago, and I still remember the wholeness I felt at that moment… If I were you, I think I’d take that volume of the Talmud and leave it on a desk or table at some orthodox synagogue. You wouldn’t have to explain a thing… and no one would probably ask any questions… you could just go by, ask to use the toilet, and lay it on a table… It is wonderful to think I was able to bring you a chuckle.

      • Oh, I know many places I can give the volume to, and I don’t need an excuse:) I know many orthodox synagogues…. I’m simply not able to say goodbye to it yet.

        • Oh… that’s completely different from what I thought… in that case, it might be a good idea to move it from your garage to your bedroom (or wherever it feels most comfortable outside of the bathroom), and find a good place for it…. And let yourself get a feel for it’s presence. I have had so many relationships… of varying natures with inanimate objects… you’ve given me an idea for a blog, Rachel… and a sweet thought too. No, don’t get rid of that volume of the Talmud. Just get a wee bit closer to it…

      • I’ve found out in the UK, before a story begins, the common starter is: Are you sitting comfortably?

        It came from an old BBC program called Listen with Mother, which opened with the phrase “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” Later of course this phrase went into the Oxford dictionary.

        I’ve always imagined as Shimon’s student and, trying to behave.

        • This is a very interesting article you have brought to our attention. I find stories very valuable in teaching… and they don’t have to be folk tales… but folk tales are good too.

  15. Very interesting. Similar to the kiss you may see some Buddhists touch Dharma material (religious text) to their forehead after reading, or if dropped. Dharma books should never be put on the floor, nor into the garbage. Even brochures or newsletters with a photo of someone such as HH the Dalai Lama, or a high up teacher, will have something written about returning to the temple or centre it came from for correct disposal..

    • My experience with Buddhism has included some very familiar experiences, as well as a few startling and alien ones. I spent a little time studying zen, and that was most familiar… there is something about true reverence that transcends all languages. Thank you so much for your comment, bodhisattva.

  16. Thank you for this post, Shimon. In the west, much of our humor has degenerated into mocking anything or anyone considered holy. It saddens me.

    • Sometimes, in nature too… one life form will try to masquerade as something else… with all kinds of intentions… ranging from sinister to sexy. I think in the west, the mocking of holiness started in the wake of fakes… and in outraged reaction to self-righteousness… and eventually took over and ran amok. Now, to enjoy a little of the truly sacred, we might have to hide in a corner… or under a tree. Thank you for your comment, my dear yearstricken.

  17. in the west, we don’t recycle nearly as much as we should. i have been around many people in their 60’s and 70’s who are stuck in a previous mentality that believes it’s unnecessary. i’ve watched them mix everything without care of anything other than their own conveniences. but i’ve also worked in places at which the custodians took the recyclable containers and dumped the paper, plastic, and cans in with the rest of the trash. so sometimes, in the west, the people are doing the right thing but the collectors are not respecting it.

    in the west, we have a long way to go.

    • Yes, it’s hard for oldsters to get used to new ideas, especially if it means more work for them. But if the west still has a long way to go, in the east they’ve barely thought about it, and they have problems of industry poisoning the environment in a way that causes immediate danger to the people living there. Part of the problem, is that populations are becoming dense, and so the mishandling of nature can easily backfire. But in the long run, I have faith in the society of men and women… that we will learn how best to deal with the problem. Thank you for your comment, Rich, and my best wishes for a very good year.

  18. Happy New Year to you too! I love the idea of what is done with Holy Texts here. I don’t have any that have reached that point, but I’ve always wondered what should be done with them. I think this way there isn’t any disrespect to the text, which I like a lot. It’s something I will keep in mind for the future I guess!

    • I’m glad you liked the idea. And you’re right… books can last a long time. Especially if we care for them. I have some that have been in this world much longer than I have, and though their pages may have yellowed a bit, they still give great pleasure. May this be a very beautiful and sweet new year for you too, SighYuki

  19. Dear Shimon,

    Man I ask you a question. In the libraries of Isreal, where is your Holy Book and other sacred documents placed? Generally speaking, is there a rule if they should be placed on top or bottom shelves? What about other sacred books from other religions?

    3 years ago, in England, some people were not happy as the Koran was placed at the bottom shelf in a library. They considered their holy book should be placed on top of all ‘commonplace things’. For equality reasons, consultations were sought, the Christian bible was forced to move to the top shelf too. But some people complained that bibles and other important research documents then became out of reach as they were too high up.

    What’s the purpose of holy books in a library? If they are to be read and understood, does it matter where it’s placed (as long as it’s treated well)?

    • As you can imagine, Janet, I don’t want to get involved in arguments between different religions that are not connected to me, but were the Christians to ask my advice, I would tell them to put the Koran way on the top of all other books, and leave the Christian texts where they were before. We have two types of holy texts. The most holy, are written on parchment, by hand. They are kept in a separate closet. The other texts (in much greater volume… the Talmud alone, is composed of 60 very large books) are kept on shelves and wherever they are most handy for those who study them. And we don’t worry too much about their place on the shelf or the height of the shelf. As you said, it is meant to be read and studied, and I can assure you that in my home, it is treated just like every other book. Thank you for your comment, Janet. And I hope my answer satisfied you.

  20. Thank you Shimon. No, my intention was not to cause arguments — I’m sure you fully understood me. I was just curious. Thank you for your patience in answering my question. I’m so pleased to tell you that I’ve learnt many technical words and new concepts in your blog,, getting to know your community, those cats and dogs, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing the world through your eyes.

  21. Hello Shimon, you may know me from BCUK as Mick-M. An interesting post as ever. Like yourselves we used to just throw it all in regardless whether it was food, glass, metal or paper. A mate of mine was manager at a bin depot and he said to just chuck everything in, the metals are magneted off, everything else burns and whatever is left over such as glass, non magnetic metals are manually segregated and whatever was left after that, carbon residue etc would be landfilled. What he said was patently cavalier, as many precious metals, gold for one, are non magnetic. Things have changed a tad, Sheffield’s incinerator provides heating for a huge flats complex comprising several thousand homes and most refuse is burned but plastics, glass, paper & cardboard are segregated by us the taxpayer. Larger items are segregated at “dump it” sites. In Holland you have to pay to use such a site, in filthy old England people would probably fly tip more stuff on the side of country lanes if they had to pay for getting shut of unwanted household stuff.

    • Some changes make life easier… are playful and enticing… They’re easy. But some changes seem like a pain… adding to our chores. I imagine that a lot of people have a problem dealing with garbage, even when they can throw everything in one bin. But then, having four separate bins makes the whole thing a lot more of a pain. And what makes it worse, is that we don’t know if this is really a solution. There might be better solutions up ahead. But at least, it’s a start. Thank you for coming by, Mick. It’s good to see you.

  22. Thank you dear Shimon, it was a nice post again. Happy New Year, love, nia

  23. A wonderful post linking the role of paper over time, culture, and modern life. Happy 2013 to you … and may it bring you many joys.

  24. This is beautiful and interesting.

  25. The painted recycling bins are wonderful. And I very much enjoy learning more about your faith and culture. Thank you and happy new year!

  26. After contemplating all week, what came to mind was the importance of distinctions.And how the first one was Light distinguished from Darkness.
    What is sacred will be different but that there is the sacred is crucial

    • Yes, Kathryn, distinctions are important though they don’t necessarily place values on the different distinctive objects. However, if we wish to enjoy and treasure certain parts of our life and the world around us, we have to put values on what we encounter. Not everything is equal. Thank you for your comment.

  27. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

    I like the ideal of recycling sanctity….
    i first thought of recycling sanity, which is sorely lacking in this country these days….
    this was a wonderful post, I enjoyed it very much…
    and I love your photos…spoke volumes of real life, not painted fluff…
    Thank you for sharing pieces of you and your thoughts
    Take Care….
    You Matter….

    • Thank you very much for coming by and having a read, Maryrose. I visited your blog too, and enjoyed reading a few of your posts. It was very nice to meet you.

  28. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    Your posts are always meaningful, valuable, and timely, Shimon. Excellent stuff.

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