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Honouring the name of God

Jewish rite of book burial brings community together

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When members of Winnipeg's Jewish community gathered for a burial at the Hebrew Sick Benefit Association Cemetery on a recent Thursday afternoon, no tears were shed and no eulogies given. The burial, thankfully, was not that of a beloved community member, but of a number of holy books and other sacred items, all of them containing the name of God.

This burial ceremony, known as a geniza, is held in the city every few years. Technically, a geniza is a repository for torn, worn and otherwise obsolete or unusable sacred books and other ritual articles. The term also is used to describe the burial of these items.

"Jews cannot deliberately destroy anything that contains the four-letter Hebrew name of God," explains Rabbi Larry Lander, who officiated at the graveside ceremony on May 29. The only way to dispose of damaged Torah scrolls and other such items then is to bury them.

"The custom of the geniza originated in the Talmud," Lander adds. "It goes back 2,000 years."

At one time, every synagogue had a hidden geniza in which defective items were collected. The actual burials generally took place every seven years, but also during times of trouble. During a drought, for example, it was thought that the burial of holy books could bring about rain.

Ruined books also often were buried in the graves of pious and learned men. Although this custom is still followed on occasion, a community-wide geniza provides an opportunity to dispose of as many books and other items as necessary at a single time.

Rena Boroditsky, executive director of the Chesed Shel Emes, Winnipeg's Jewish funeral home, organized the local event.

"I knew that many synagogues, schools and the Sharon Home (the Jewish seniors home), as well as many individuals, had books in storage, and thought that a geniza would be a good community project," she says.

"Burial is a sign of respect," she continues. "The books are holy as our bodies are holy, and as the books have served us, we return them to the earth with dignity."

"Everything special goes back to the earth," adds Rabbi Lander.

Books that were buried included torn or otherwise marred prayer books, biblical commentaries and text books. Scraps of paper bearing God's name and referred to as Shemot, were also interred, as were ripped prayer shawls and damaged tefillin and tsitsit.

Tefillin, or phylacteries, are small leather boxes containing scriptural passages that observant Jewish men bind around their head and arm during morning prayers. Tsitsit refers to the small prayer shawl that these men wear at all times underneath their clothing. Both tsitsit and tefillin are designed to keep the words of the Torah close to the heart and mind.

The importance of honouring the Torah and the name of God was one of the main ideas expressed by Rabbi Lander at the half hour geniza ceremony. He also used the occasion to speak to those gathered about the critical role that books and language play in Jewish history, and to remind them of instances in which Jewish books were treated with irreverence and disrespect. The most infamous of these occurred in the Berlin Opernplaz in May 1933 when the Nazis burned thousands of Jewish texts, foreshadowing the inferno that awaited the Jews of Europe.

In addition to the rabbi's remarks, the geniza service featured readings from sources as disparate as the 12th century Talmudic scholar Moses ibn Ezra and the contemporary American poet Marge Piercy. It concluded with the recitation of the Kaddish HaRabanim, a prayer traditionally associated with religious study.

schisvin@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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