By Rav David Silverberg
As we’ve discussed this week, the Gemara (Makkot 22a) interpreted Moshe’s warning in Parashat Re’ei (12:4), “Lo ta’asun kein l-Hashem Elokeikhem” – “Do not do so to the Lord your God” as a prohibition against destroying sacred property. After commanding Benei Yisrael to demolish the sites of the Canaanites’ pagan worship in Eretz Yisrael, he warned them to ensure not to damage their own sites of sanctity, a prohibition which includes the erasing of the Name of God.
The Rambam, in his discussion of this prohibition in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah (6:1), adds that it is also forbidden to erase or destroy any Torah text, even if it does not contain an actual Name of God. And thus we are required to treat with respect all books and papers of Torah literature, and properly bury them rather than just discard them. From the Rambam’s formulation it appears that this extension of the prohibition – to include even Torah texts that do not contain a divine Name – applies by force of Rabbinic enactment, and is not included in the Torah prohibition of “lo ta’asun kein.”
Rav Asher Weiss, in his Minchat Asher (Parashat Re’ei, 18:2), addresses the interesting question that was posed to him regarding the status of the thousands of written prayers that are placed in crevices in the Western Wall, with respect to this prohibition. If a person writes a request on a piece of paper, does it attain the status of a “sacred text” such that it may not be discarded regularly in the trash?
The basis for this question is the ruling of the Tashbatz (1:2) that pages of prayers and blessings must be treated as sacred texts and not discarded even if they do not contain the Name of God (as they instead use representations of the Name, such as a double yod, as is commonly done today). According to this ruling, seemingly, there is no distinction between prayer texts and Torah texts with respect to this halakha, and thus even personal prayers scribbled on a piece of paper must be treated respectfully and not discarded.
However, Rav Weiss contends that the Tashbatz’s ruling was stated specifically with regard to the blessings and prayer texts formally instituted by the Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola (Men of the Great Assembly). Such texts, Rav Weiss explains, have the status of Torah she-be’al peh – our oral Torah tradition. Just as the texts discussing the laws ordained by Chazal have the status of kitvei ha-kodesh(sacred text) and may not be discarded, similarly, liturgical texts composed by Chazalhave this status and must be treated accordingly. In Rav Weiss’ view, the Tashbatz never intended to apply this ruling to personal prayers that people write, and which were not formally instituted by Chazal as liturgy. Rav Weiss draws proof from a passage in the Gemara (Shabbat 115b) cited by the Rashbatz, which discusses the severity of allowing liturgical texts to be destroyed. Rashi, in his commentary to the Gemara, explains that the Gemara refers to liturgy formulated by Chazal, indicating that informally written personal prayers are not included in this prohibition.
Later in his discussion, Rav Weiss adds that even if somebody happened to incorporate a Biblical verse in the prayer which he placed in the Western Wall, it may nevertheless be discarded. He cites the ruling of Netziv, in Meishiv Davar (2:80) that words of Torah that were not written for the purpose of study are not endowed with halakhic sanctity. The context of Netziv’s discussion is the question surrounding pages used as templates in printing presses. Since the text on these pages was produced solely to serve as a template, and not to be studied from, the pages may be discarded regularly and do not need to be buried. This ruling would certainly apply also to personal prayers written to be placed in the Western Wall, and thus such pages are not endowed with sanctity.
Rav Weiss concludes by noting that it is customary, reportedly, to collect the notes placed in the Western Wall and to bury them, and he writes that if this is the case, then although this practice is not strictly required, it should be followed. However, when this is not possible, such as when there is overabundance of notes and they cannot all be collected and buried, they may be discarded.
Originally appears on VBM