Putting a Torah to rest in Colma

Last Sunday morning, some 70 people gathered at Eternal Home Cemetery at Colma to witness a little-known Jewish ritual: the burial of an invalid Torah scroll, one that can no longer be used because of age or damage.

Rabbi Joey Felsen of the Jewish Study Network carries the Torah toward its final resting place.

The July 14 service and burial were organized by the cemetery, Sinai Memorial Chapel Chevra Kadisha, San Francisco Congrega-tion Adath Israel and the Palo Alto–based Jewish Study Network.

According to Sam Salkin, executive director of Sinai, no one in attendance had ever witnessed such a ceremony.

A Torah scroll, like certain other sacred documents and ritual objects, may not be casually discarded when it is no longer usable; it must be kept in a genizah, or storage place, and later buried together with the rest of the genizah’s contents.

Rabbi Shaye Guttenberg of the Jewish Study Network lowers the Torah into the grave.Rabbi Shaye Guttenberg of the Jewish Study Network lowers the Torah into the grave.

The most famous genizah by far is the one discovered in Cairo in the late 19th century containing more than 200,000 documents and ritual objects dating to the 10th century. Many synagogues today have their own genizahs for the disposal of holy items.

But damaged documents and other sacred objects also may be buried directly. In May, more than 1,000 people gathered in Far Rockaway, N.Y., to bury a dozen Torah scrolls damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Sam Salkin places dirt on the Torah, part of filling in the grave.

The Torah scroll buried last weekend was used in the 1930s and ’40s in San Francisco Talmud Torah, a community-wide Jewish school system that disbanded in 1949. More recently, it was housed at Adath Israel, where it probably was taken out only on Simchat Torah, said the shul’s former spiritual leader, Rabbi Jacob Traub.

At the July 14 ceremony, Traub said the scroll was being buried because the ink had fallen off some of the letters, rendering it not kosher. “Ironically, it’s more cost-effective to buy a new Torah than to fix it,” he told j. afterward. “We live in a disposable society.”

Participants then carried the Torah from the chapel to its final resting place. The covered scroll was placed carefully in the grave and, as in all Jewish burials, mourners filled in the grave with dirt. A tree was planted and a memorial stone placed at the site. — sue fishkoff