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The Prohibition against Erasing or Destroying Torah Materials

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Nov 27, 2009

The Prohibition against Erasing or Destroying Torah Materials

Advances in modern technology have caused many to take a closer look at the laws of erasing or destroying Torah materials.  Torah materials are being printed at a greater rate than ever before and burying these materials is costly.  Furthermore, for many, appearance of Torah materials on a computer screens or other digital devices is a regular occurrence.  In this issue, we will address the prohibition against erasing or destroying Torah materials as it relates to printed materials and materials on a computer screen.

 The Nature of the Prohibition

In reality, there are two prohibitions that are relevant to this discussion.  First, there is a prohibition against erasing the name of G-d.  The Gemara, Makot 22a, derives this prohibition from the juxtaposition of the verse (Devarim 12:3) mandating the destruction of idolatry with the verse (Devarim 12:4) that one should not do the same to G-d (i.e. one should not destroy G-d's name).  Second, there is a prohibition against destroying Torah literature, its commentaries and its translations.  Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 6:8, implies that the prohibition against destroying Torah materials is only rabbinic in nature.

R. Moshe Soloveitchik (1879-1941, cited in Reshimot Shiurim, Nedarim 2a) notes that these two prohibitions are fundamentally different.  The prohibition against erasing G-d's name applies whether one's intent is for a productive purpose or a destructive purpose.  The prohibition against destroying Torah materials only applies if one destroys the materials for a destructive purpose.

 Printed Torah Materials

R. Naftali Z.Y. Berlin (1816-1893), Meishiv Davar 2:80, notes that there is a leniency regarding destruction of the name of G-d that is not apparent regarding other Torah materials.  R. Berlin's responsum discusses the disposal of the galleys used for printing Torah materials.  [Galleys are the rough drafts that a printing press will produce as it prepares to print the final copy of a book.]  The Gemara, Gittin 54b, states that in order for one of the names of G-d to attain sanctity in a sefer Torah, one must specifically have intent that the name should be imbued with sanctity.  R. Berlin suggests that if one has specific intent not to imbue the names of G-d with sanctity, they may be erased.  He further notes that even if one does not have specific intent to imbue them with sanctity, but their sanctity is not beneficial, they do not achieve sanctity.  [R. Shabtai Kohen (1621-1662), Shach, Y.D. 276:12, rules that if a name of G-d was not sanctified, one may erase it for a productive purpose.  The explanation for Shach's ruling seems to be based on the fact that Shach considers a name of G-d that was not written with sanctity to be on the same level as other Torah materials.  According to R. Moshe Soloveitchik's analysis, one may erase ordinary Torah materials for a productive purpose.]   

R. Berlin asserts that this leniency does not apply to Torah materials and they may not be destroyed, even if they were produced with specific intent that they should not be sanctified.  However, R. Berlin notes that there is an additional leniency that can be employed regarding the prohibition against destroying Torah materials.  He suggests that this prohibition only applies to materials that were produced to last.  If they were produced with the intent that they would be immediately destroyed, there is no prohibition against destroying them.

In applying these two leniencies to the disposal of galleys, R. Berlin notes that there is no prohibition against erasing G-d's name because imbuing the names of G-d in the galleys with sanctity is not beneficial and therefore, one can assume that they have no sanctity.  There is no prohibition against destroying Torah materials because the galleys are only printed for temporary use and are not meant to be used for long-term purposes.

R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (1817-1896), Ein Yitzchak, O.C. no. 5, takes a similar approach regarding disposal of galleys.  He suggests that if Torah materials are printed for a purpose other than to learn from, they are not imbued with sanctity and may be destroyed.  He adds that it is preferable to state explicitly that they should not be imbued with sanctity and then one may dispose of them without burial.

There is a distinction between galleys and modern day Torah materials that are printed at home or in a newspaper.  According to R. Berlin, the permissibility of disposing of galleys is partially based on their temporary nature.  Today's printed Torah materials are not necessarily disposed of immediately after use.  According to R. Spektor, the permissibility of disposing of galleys is partially based on the fact that they are not really meant for learning.  This is not true of today's printed Torah materials.

R. Moshe Shternbuch, Teshuvot V'Hanhagot 1:553-554, provides an additional leniency regarding today's printed Torah materials.  He notes that Rambam, op. cit., only mentions a requirement of burial regarding the actual books of Tanach.  Regarding their commentaries and translation, Rambam only list a prohibition against destroying them.  As such, R. Shternbuch suggests that Torah materials that were printed in newspapers may be discarded in a way that doesn't represent a desecration of the materials.  They may be placed in a separate plastic bag and placed in the trash and do not require burial.  R. Shmuel Wosner, Shevet HaLevi 5:162, disagrees and maintains that these materials require actual burial.

 Torah Printed on a Computer Screen

One practical difference between the leniency of R. Berlin and the leniency of R. Spektor may be with regards to computer screens.  Print on a computer screen is temporary and would qualify for R. Berlin's leniency.  However, print on a computer screen is meant for learning and would not qualify for R. Spektor's leniency.  Nevertheless, there are a number of other leniencies regarding a computer screen.

First, R. Shternbuch, Teshuvot V'Hanhagot 3:326, comments that if one concludes that it is prohibited to erase G-d's name from a computer screen, one would have to eliminate the production of all siddurim and chumashim as well as computer programs that check sifrei Torah for errors.  He notes that the prohibition against erasing G-d's name does not apply according to those opinions that the name of G-d requires sanctification in order to be subject to the prohibition.  Nevertheless, there still exists a prohibition against erasing Torah materials.  One of the leniencies he provides seems to be based on his leniency regarding disposal of newspapers.  He writes that since the only prohibition involved is the desecration of Torah materials (and there is no formal requirement to bury the materials), a computer screen, which has no actual writing, is not subject to desecration when its words are erased and therefore, there is no prohibition.

Second, R. Natan Gestetner, L'Horot Natan 12:86, notes that one may be lenient based on the fact that a computer screen has no tangible writing.  He notes Rambam's opinion in Hilchot Avodah Zarah 7:10, that it is permissible to benefit from the light of a coal that was used for idolatry because the light is not something tangible.  Since, the laws of erasing G-d's name are derived from the verse that states that one should not treat G-d the same way one must treat idolatry, one may be lenient regarding writing on a computer screen, which is not tangible.

Third, the Gemara, Shabbat 120b, permits someone who has G-d's name written on his skin to immerse in water.  The Gemara explains that although G-d's name will be erased when he enters the water, it is permissible to erase G-d's name in an indirect manner (gerama). R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (1878-1953), Chazon Ish, Y.D. 164:2, notes that the standards for gerama regarding erasing G-d's name are different than the standards for gerama in other areas of Halacha.  Regarding erasing G-d's name, one only violates the prohibition by employing something that actively erases.  As such, one can argue that changing the image on the computer screen is not considered actively erasing the previous image.

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