Question: Is there any basis in halachah to discard old s’farim without burial?
Short Answer: Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l suggested that one may discard into the garbage old s’farim of Torah SheB’al Peh that do not contain Hashem’s name. However, many poskim disagree and hold that even Rav Moshe did not rely on this leniency.
We previously discussed (Article #5) how it is forbidden to discard old s’farim by throwing them in the garbage. Instead, they must be buried. Nowadays, baruch Hashem, there are hundreds if not thousands of new s’farim being printed on a daily basis worldwide, leading to an exponential increase in future sheimos. Are there any leniencies to discard used s’farim?
II. The Igros Moshe
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, in a long but groundbreaking 1980 t’shuvah (Igros Moshe Orach Chayim 4:39), bemoans a similar situation. Rav Moshe admonishes those who print s’farim for printing siddurim and s’farim with extra t’filos/m’farshim that are not commonly used. For example, children’s siddurim should not contain S’lichos, etc. Since only some of the pages will become worn out, these unused – and perfectly good – pages will end up being buried with the entire sefer, even though they are not worn out. Rav Moshe elaborates that printing s’farim that will eventually be burned or destroyed is a violation of “Lo sa’asun kein,” the prohibition not to destroy Hashem’s name. Indeed, this violation exists even if the person only indirectly causes the destruction of the s’farim.
Rav Moshe, however, makes a key distinction between Torah SheBichsav and Torah SheB’al Peh. The Gemara (Shabbos 116a) rules that a sefer Torah that still has 85 letters visible retains its k’dushah. Rav Moshe explains that, separate from the k’dushah from learning from the sefer Torah, there is a k’dushah infused on the sefer Torah from the obligation to write a Torah. Thus, even if the sefer Torah is unusable for learning (e.g., it only has 85 visible letters), it retains its k’dushah based on the obligation to write a Torah. However, this separate k’dushah only applies to Torah SheBichsav, and not to Torah SheB’al Peh, as there is no obligation to write Torah SheB’al Peh. Accordingly, there is only k’dushah on Torah SheB’al Peh when it is usable for learning.
Based on the above, Rav Moshe suggests that there is no problem discarding any s’farim of Torah SheB’al Peh, e.g., Gemara, Mishnayos, etc., that will no longer be used for limud haTorah. Indeed, even if the Maharsha in the back of the Gemara is usable by itself, it may be discarded together with the rest of the gemara if the Gemara part is no longer usable. Since no one uses a Maharsha by itself as a separate sefer, it is rendered “unusable” when the Gemara part of the gemara is unusable.
Rav Moshe notes, though, that the Gemara (Shabbos 116a) appears to forbid destroying even Torah SheB’al Peh. The Gemara recounts a story of Rabban Gamliel, who was reading a “targum” (translation) of sefer Iyov. Rabbi Yossi noted that his father told Rabban Gamliel that Rabban Gamliel’s own grandfather required a targum of sefer Iyov to be buried. Rabban Gamliel obliged and placed the sefer Iyov under a pile of mud. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi disagreed with the story and queried how it is permitted to actively destroy kisvei kodesh. Rather, they should be placed in an unguarded place so that they may be destroyed by themselves. Rav Moshe notes that from this Gemara it appears that one may not actively destroy even Torah SheB’al Peh (e.g., targum of sefer Iyov).
Nevertheless, Rav Moshe clarifies that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s stringency is not based on the pasuk of “Lo sa’asun kein” but is rather his own “s’vara” (logical opinion). Accordingly, even though throwing kisvei kodesh into the garbage is tantamount to actively destroying them, one may be lenient when dealing with Torah SheB’al Peh, which is only forbidden because of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s “s’vara.”
Rav Moshe concludes that, “practically,” it is “clear to me” that worn-out sifrei Torah SheB’al Peh, or even sifrei Torah SheB’al Peh that are not worn out but won’t be used any longer for whatever reason [author: for example, it has old/bad print], may be discarded in the garbage as long as they don’t contain the name of Hashem. This includes volumes of Gemara, Mishnayos, Rishonim, Acharonim, etc. However, Rav Moshe says that before people follow his ruling, they should “speak” with other great “poskim” in Eretz Yisrael as well as roshei yeshivos and halachic deciders in the Eidah HaChareidis and Sefardi communities.
III. The Opposition
The sefer Ginzei HaKodesh (8:1:8) vehemently disagrees with Rav Moshe’s leniency. He writes that he personally spoke with “poskim” in Eretz Yisrael who did not agree with Rav Moshe, including Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, Rav Nissim Karelitz zt”l, Rav Shmuel Wosner zt”l, and Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l. Moreover, the Ginzei HaKodesh suggests that even Rav Moshe himself did not rely on his leniency as, in other t’shuvos, he bemoans the printing of wedding invitations, etc. with p’sukim/Torah, implying that there is no readily available leniency to discard these items. Further, the Ginzei HaKodesh writes that he asked Rav Dovid Feinstein zt”l about this contradiction in the writings of Rav Moshe, and Rav Dovid did not provide any answer. [This author is unsure why there is a contradiction. Rav Moshe himself acknowledges that there is a difference between Torah SheBichsav and Torah SheB’al Peh. Perhaps, Torah SheBichsav on wedding invitations, and not on parchment such as a sefer Torah, has the same status as Torah SheB’al Peh].
The Ginzei HaKodesh notes, as well, that certain facts have changed since the time that Rav Moshe wrote his t’shuvah. First, our s’farim often include Hashem’s name in them. Second, the paper of the sefer, after it is disposed of, is recycled for degrading uses. Based on this, even Rav Moshe would not have allowed his leniency.
Indeed, Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l, cited in an article by Rabbi Moshe Dovid Lebovits on the Kof-K website, held that even Rav Moshe never relied on his own leniency to practically discard worn-out s’farim. See https://www.kof-k.org/articles/040108100403W-18%20%20Desposing%20of%20Shaimos.pdf.
Next Week’s Topic: May one discard into the garbage a paper that contains a pasuk?