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What to do with an old prayer book?

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Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain responds to the question: "What should I do with a prayer book that I no longer use - which must be a common problem now that the Reform Movement has a new edition of its siddur?"

The Jewish view is that you cannot throw away a prayer book as you might do with any other book. You have a relationship with it, it has served you for several years, perhaps you used it at your mother’s shiva or son’s barmitzvah - it resonates with meaning and personal memories. Moreover, according to Jewish law, sacred texts cannot be destroyed. One traditional solution was to bury it. Just as you treat a dead body with respect, so you now treat old pages with respect. If it is just one or two copies, then they are often placed in a coffin of someone who has died - there is obviously space for a few and it is considered a mitzvah and meritorious. If , however, there are dozens that need disposal, then they are collected until you have enough to fill a separate grave space in their own right. The other alternative was to bury them in what was called a ‘genizah’ - a dedicated space, perhaps the synagogue cellar, where they were stored, given a respectful home and gradually turned to dust.

A modern option is recycling. It may seem strange, but if you think of the number of forests that are daily destroyed to produce paper, it ties in with another mitzvah of not wasting precious resources and looking after God’s world. The Assembly of Rabbis investigated how feasible it would be to collect old prayer books and recycle them en masse. However, because of the difference between the type of paper used in the 1970s and techniques today, it proved undesirable from a practical point of view. This leaves three options : 1) if you have a prayer book that is in tatters, bring it in to your synagogue, who will arrange for it to be buried 2) if you have one that is in good condition, why not keep it at home as part of your Jewish library, especially as it contains a wonderful study section that is still worth consulting 3) another alternative for books in good condition is to give them to your synagogue for it often needs copies to use at the Religion School.

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