Sacred Jewish books, objects buried in special rite

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Last week's genizah, held on Tisha B'Av by San Francisco's Congregation Adath Israel, entailed the burial of more than 30 cartons of prayer books, Torah texts and Talmuds, as well as tallitot and tefillin, all of which were collected and used by Adath Israel over the past two decades. Once they became unusable, the objects were stored in a room at the Sunset District Orthodox synagogue.

The objects "served us well over the years," Rabbi Jacob Traub told the small crowd gathered at the burial site near the entrance of the Eternal Home Cemetery. "There's no reason we shouldn't serve them well, [and] treat them with the dignity they deserve."

While most burials occasion sorrow, this unusual interment offered Adath Israel members a chance to express appreciation for the tools of their faith. They took turns lowering cartons of objects into the grave, and then shoveled dirt into the hole, which measured approximately 6 feet by 6 feet.

"This is a service of love," Traub said. "Burial is a sign of respect."

Some of the buried objects had simply become too worn for further use. Others had been given to Adath Israel by relatives of people who had passed away. The fact that the objects are now buried does not signify their end, Traub stressed. "For every humash [the five books of Moses] that's being buried, there are 10 new ones," he said.

Among those attending last week's genizah was Edwin Lopez, a minister at the Spanish-speaking Assemblies of God church in San Francisco's Mission District. Lopez works for Adath Israel president Robert Sosnick, and volunteered to help bring the cartons of objects to the site so he could observe the ritual.

"This is something new for me," Lopez said as he stood near the gravesite. "Maybe we can apply it in our church, too."

The genizah (Hebrew for "storage") dates back to talmudic times, when unusable holy utensils were hidden. Later, sacred writings and objects were buried underground or stashed in walls, building foundations or synagogue attics.

Most genizot discovered over the years have been too damaged by moisture and mildew to yield significant historical information.

The best-known exception is a genizah found in the attic of Cairo's Ezra synagogue in the 18th century. Preserved by Egypt's clear, dry climate, this genizah brought to light a trove of literary treasures and historical documents.

Among these was abundant material on the history of Karaism (a Jewish sect that originated in and around Persia during the 8th century), and documents relating to the history of Jews in Israel and Egypt from the time of the Islamic conquests until the First Crusade. This is a period about which little had been known.

Of course, there's always a chance that someone will unearth Adath Israel's genizah one day.

Should that happen, Traub says, the material would largely show that "in 1996, there was continuity, that the Jewish people practiced their religion in the same way their great grandfathers did."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.