Thursday, November 13, 2008

Burying Books

The Hillel school is preparing to bury a number of books - there's a long tradition of burial for worn out sifrei kodesh (holy books), since we aren't supposed to throw out any book with God's name in it. I had a chance to meet with some of the students to talk about putting together a ceremony for the burial, and in preparing, I came across an interesting idea.

Jeffrey Spitzer makes a link between the Jewish tradition of treating our books with respect and our tradition of conflating the name of the book with the name of the author. It's very common in Judaism for a author to start to be referred to simply by the name of his (or her) book. So, the author of Arba'ah Turim becomes known as Ba'al Turim (the owner of Turim), and the writer of Sefat Emet becomes known simply as Sefat Emet. It's as if the author and the work become, almost literally, one and the same.

Books in Judaism are more than just books - they become the living embodiment of the content. Jews have always seen books as something almost alive - to us, reading a book is like reading the mind of the author (which is why reading Torah is such a holy act - when you think about who wrote that!).

Given that, a book burial becomes more than just a polite way to show respect and reverence for books. It becomes, instead, the natural outcome of this book-view. What I'm trying to say is that we don't bury books because it's respectful; we bury books because, symbolically, they're people. We would no more throw out a sacred book than we would dispose of a loved one!

It's an interesting connection - it made a practice I already appreciated even more meaningful, and quite touching.

I asked the kids - if you were going to become a book, what would the title be. Any one reading this care to offer a title for their book?

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