Parshas Re-eh (5774)
What's in a Name (of G-d)?
Q. According to Jewish tradition, what do we bury even though it is not dead?
Sheimos (lit. “Names” of G-d) refers to the practice of properly disposing of worn-out Judaica and ritual objects by burying them in the ground.
The source for this time-honored Jewish practice can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Re’eh.
In preparing the Jewish people for their entry into the Promised Land, the Torah commands us: “Destroy all the places where the gentiles that you are driving out worshipped their gods, whether they were on high mountains or on hills, or beneath any leafy tree. Raze their altars, smash their pillars, burn their idolatrous asheirah trees, and demolish the images of their gods. Obliterate the names (of their deities) from that place. Do not do this to the L-ord, your G-d!” (Deuteronomy 12:2-4).
Based on this last verse, the Talmud in Shabbos 120b teaches that just as it is a Biblical obligation to destroy idols and everything associated with them, so too is it a Biblical violation to destroy anything containing G-d’s Name.
From here we learn that G-d’s Name is holy and must be treated with the greatest respect. One cannot erase G-d’s Name or discard it – one actually has to go to great lengths to preserve it with sanctity. In addition, one must treat all Holy Scriptures as well as other sacred objects with the utmost regard, even after they are all worn-out. This is why old siddurim (prayer books) and no-longer valid tefillin are buried rather than merely tossed out in the trash. [See Rabbi Doniel Neustadt’s Weekly Halacha article at: http://www.torah.org/advanced/weekly-halacha/5770/behaaloscha.html for all you need to know about the proper disposal of ritual objects – including what needs to be buried and what doesn’t.]
I believe that we can learn a very important lesson from the laws of Sheimos about how to treat our fellow Jew. I mean, think about it for a second ... isn’t it amazing how a sofer (scribe) can take the skin of an animal, turn it into parchment, write on the scroll all the Scriptural verses of the Torah with G-d’s Names in them, and it becomes so holy to the point that when the Torah scroll gets worn out and unfit for use, its status as Sheimos obligates us to bury it in the ground?! How did the hide of an animal all of a sudden become such a holy object to be treated with such reverence and respect?
The truth is that this should not surprise us at all - for we are all living “Torah scrolls”.
The Talmud in Mo’ed Katan 25b states: “One who is in the presence of the deceased when the soul departs is obligated to perform kri’ah (rend one’s garment as a sign of mourning). To what may this be compared? To a Torah scroll which is burned up, for which one is obligated to perform kri’ah ...”
What the Talmud is teaching us is an amazing thing ... that each and every one of us is much like a Torah scroll. A Torah scroll begins as an animal hide, and we too start off in this world as very physical beings – just like an animal. Yet just as the words of the Torah are inscribed on that animal hide, turning it into a holy object, so, too, do we strive to study Torah and perform mitzvos (good deeds) throughout our lives so that by the time that our bodies are all “worn-out” and “no longer fit for use” they will have become “holy”– just like a Torah scroll - and out of respect for that holiness, will be buried in the ground. So let’s remember that just as we treat our old siddurim and other worn-out Sheimos objects with respect and reverence in deference to their holiness, our friends and neighbors and family members are similarly “holy” and must be treated with the same respect.