What happens when a Torah scroll is so worn it can no longer be used, or a prayer book is torn beyond repair? Should objects such as these, which not only include the name of God but have an intrinsic holiness themselves and are also essential elements of mitzvah fulfillment, be thrown into the trash?
Absolutely not! In fact, Jewish law forbids the destruction of such items and gives specific instructions regarding their proper disposal. “Rava said: Covers of single books of the Torah and cases of Torah scrolls, are accessories of sacred items [that are no longer usable] and must be hidden” (Megillah 26b). If covers of holy books may not be indiscriminately disposed of, how much more does this apply to the scrolls themselves.
The Hebrew word used for “and must be hidden” is v’nig’nah'zeen, which is related to the word genizah, the room in which shaimot (unusable books or papers with God’s name) are stored.
Probably the most famous location for shaimot was the Cairo Genizah. While the ancient storage room was known to locals in Fostat (old Cairo), it was rumored that there was curse on anyone who explored it. It is, however, mentioned in passing in scholarly works as early as 1773 (The Israelites on Mount Horeb, Simon von Geldern). When the contents of the Cairo Genizah were finally opened and studied by Solomon Shechter in 1896, a treasure trove was unveiled.
The Ezra Synagogue, in which the genizah is housed, was built in 882 C.E. The dark, dry conditions kept the parchment and papers in excellent condition and revealed to scholars not only ancient versions of religious texts, but also legal and social documents of the era, which revealed much about the life of the Egyptian Jewish community in many different eras.
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