Beth Shalom buries old books containing the name of God.
It looked like any other funeral procession, except there was no hearse and no corpse. Volunteers in a small convoy of cars from Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park to Hebrew Memorial Park in Clinton Township were carrying old prayerbooks and other printed materials containing the name of God. According to Jewish tradition, these need to be stored or buried, not trashed or burned.
Such items, which can include everything from old, irreparable Torah scrolls and worn-out prayer shawls to primers introducing children to prayer, are known collectively as shaimos, or “names.” The practice of burying them stems from Deuteronomy Chapter 2, where the Israelites are ordered to blot out and destroy the names of the gods of the nations they conquer, but not to treat God in the same way.
“Sacred texts should not be discarded in the garbage,” said Beth Shalom’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Robert Gamer.
For thousands of years, Jews have been storing or burying such materials in spaces that became known as genizas, from the Hebrew verb l’g’noze, to stash or store away.
The renowned Cairo geniza, discovered in 1896, was a shaft in an ancient synagogue wall where all kinds of materials written in Hebrew were stored. Because of the dry environment, the items, dating back to the 1100s, did not decompose; they proved to be a historical treasure trove.
Beth Shalom had 103 cartons of old printed materials, including full sets of prayerbooks last used in the 1980s, benschers used for the grace after meals, old library books and texts from the religious school. Much of the material had been in the synagogue’s basement and had been damaged in the 2014 flood, but there was also a complete Talmud in good condition. Other materials came from congregants and others who lived in the neighborhood and had heard about the geniza project.
“We looked at more than 3,000 books to decide what we could recycle and what had to be buried,” Gamer said. “We tried to give things away, but not much was taken.” One reason is that many Hebrew texts, including the Talmud, are now available free online. People don’t need the physical books as much anymore, he said.
Some congregations bury shaimos in a plot on their own grounds. In Detroit, most such materials are interred at Hebrew Memorial Park in Clinton Township, under the auspices of the Hebrew Benevolent Society. Beth Shalom’s executive director, Shira Shapiro, worked with cemetery officials; once they knew the number of cartons and their dimensions; cemetery workers were able to prepare a long, narrow plot just large enough to handle the materials.
A dozen synagogue members joined Gamer and Cantor Sam Greenbaum in a brief ceremony in the synagogue’s lobby before loading the cartons into cars and unloading the cartons into the prepared plot.
Burying books is ecologically responsible, Gamer said. The books will return to the earth to enrich the soil, which will be used to grow trees, which will be used to make more books.