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Disposing of sacred objects

How faiths deal with worn-out scriptures

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Instead of burying their noses in their textbooks, teacher Ruth Ashrafi is asking her students to bury the books.

Of course, there's a catch: The only books to be laid to rest are those that are damaged and contain the Hebrew name of God, explains the director of Judaic studies at Gray Academy.

"We want our students to have this tradition so they continue their awareness," says Ashrafi of why she involves students in the ritual book burial. "These books symbolize these values, which we hold so dear."

Ashrafi and high school students from Gray Academy plan to show that respect when they bring boxes of books and paper to a Jewish community book burial, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 20, at Bnay Abraham Cemetery on north Main Street.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of boxes of books and papers, as well as worn-out prayer shawls and phylacteries will be placed in a large grave about three metres square, says Rena Boroditsky, executive director of Chesed Shel Emes, the Jewish burial society co-ordinating the event. The burial also includes photocopies and pages downloaded from the Internet.

In the past, synagogues kept worn-out books and papers in a Geniza, a dedicated storage room or container. Boroditsky says the burial society is offering the ritual book burial, last held 16 months ago, as a free service to the Jewish community.

Jews are instructed by religious law dating back 2,000 years not to destroy books and papers that contain the name of God, explains Rabbi Alan Green of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, who will conduct the graveside ceremony. He says that instruction is specific to the name of God written in Hebrew, and not to English or other languages.

"They give us meaning and direction to our lives that we otherwise wouldn't actualize," says Green of the value of books to the Jewish community. "We show them respect when they can no longer be used."

That direction for proper disposal means Boroditsky and her flock of volunteers have been sorting through boxes of books and papers, some musty and water-damaged, in an attempt to divert what is still usable from what isn't. They also remove anything metal, which doesn't decompose.

She says members of the community are still welcome to bring their old books and papers to the Chesed Shel Emes office at Main and Manitoba.

In various Christian traditions, the disposal of holy objects and worn-out Bibles is not as clearly laid out, says Rev. Richard Soo, chancellor of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg.

Although Christians view the Bible as a holy book, it is not the actual physical pages and covers that are sacred, Soo says.

"For us, it's not the actual document. With the Bible it isn't the material as much as the actual word of God that is spiritual," he says.

Most Catholic churches would have a sink that drains directly into the ground for disposing of holy water, says Soo. Other blessed objects or consecrated items such as chalices and vestments, are returned to the ground so they can return to the natural elements, Soo adds.

The organization that places 500,000 Bibles each year in the country's hotels, hospitals and prisons attempts to recycle used scriptures to other Christian mission agencies as much as possible, says Gordon Balfour of the Gideons International in Canada.

He says Bibles are replaced in hotel rooms about every six years, and ones that are damaged or defaced are burned by a professional disposal agency.

"While we consider the contents to be significant, we don't consider it to be a holy relic like Jewish people or the Muslims," says Balfour in a telephone interview from his Guelph, Ont., office.

Muslims generally dispose worn-out, Arabic language copies of the Qur'an by putting the pages to sea, burning them, or burying them on high ground, says Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Social Services Association.

She says English or other translations can be recycled, with the preferred method varying according to culture.

Boroditsky says the process of sorting through boxes of papers and books from the Jewish community has given her a better understanding of her heritage as an Orthodox Jew. As she leafs through volumes of commentaries, prayer books and scriptures, some brought to Winnipeg a century or more ago by immigrants from Russia, Poland or Ukraine, she wonders about the people who treasured them.

"Look at these books, how far they've travelled and (now) they've come to their end," she says of a small, fabric-bound book of the Psalms, printed in Poland in 1928.

But it will be a good end, one that places them back in the earth, as has been custom for centuries, she says.

"I would be happy to see them (the books) continue to live, but if it has to come to an end, at least it has some meaning to it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2009 A9

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