Friday, 28 February 2020

Geniza Day - Yevar La Ley

Our Sifrei Torah do not last forever. We have several Sifrei Torah that are too old and worn out to be used, the writing is too cracked and faded and the parchment too fragile. In Jewish Law and tradition, we bury Sifrei Torah that are too old to be used. Al Maimon pointed out to me in his father’s writings an old custom called Yevar La Ley which means burying holy objects. Every two to three years the Sephardic community would go to the cemetery and bury old prayer books and Rabbinic works.

It is our desire to bring the whole community together to take part in this noble endeavor of burying our holy Sifrei Torah together with old Humashim, Siddurim and the like. Please save the date of May 3rd at 11:00 AM at the Seattle Sephardic Brotherhood Cemetery for this auspicious occasion.

Please note Shabbat programs, photocopied sheets, synagogue newsletters and Jewish magazines etc. do not need to be put in geniza and should be wrapped in a paper bag and recycled. 

Burying Holy Objects (Yevar La Ley) by Sam Bension Maimon

Aside from the burial, there are several other occasions at which time Jewish people go up to the cemetery, referred to as Beth Hahayim (house of the living).  For example, such as going to unveil a tombstone, or going to make a “visit” to our dear departed, or going to say prayers on Erev Rosh Hashanah or Erev Yom Kippur.

One such special event that was prevalent in the early days of our Seattle Sephardic community was the custom of making a pilgrimage to the cemetery for the purpose of yevar la ley, literally “to carry the law.”  This was done probably once every three years, and most often coincided with the Sunday or the week of Lag La Omer.

To understand this practice, we would do well to review, in short, the rabbinical rule that anytime any religious object got worn out or became unusable, rather than throw it in the junk heap, we are bid to put it away in the geniza (a small storeroom or a cupboard).  This is done to avoid the desecration of the name or names of God that these objects might contain.  A torn out page from a Bible, or an old mezuza contains the name of God.  It’s our duty to treat these names of God with dignity and respect and not to discard them wantonly, without regard to its sacred contents.

Every synagogue has a geniza, where members bring in their worn out leaves from tefilah (prayer) books, old talets (prayer shawls), mezuzot (small parchment with biblical passages affixed to doorpost), tefilin (phylacteries), etc.  When these storerooms or cupboards get too full, all the contents of the geniza were gathered and taken to the Beth Hahayim to be buried in a special grave set aside for this purpose.

In our Seattle Sephardic community, when the men in charge had determined that there was enough ojas de ley (torn pages from sacred books, etc.) to warrant such a pilgrimage to the cemetery, this geniza material was filled up in several gunny sacks.  The general public also accompanied this procession, which included singing and dancing.  People today still talk about this as a very unusual and happy occasion.

When the people reached the cemetery, the chairman then would announce that there were so many gunny sacks filled with la ley and that each gunny sack was to be auctioned off, the highest bidder thus acquiring the privilege of accomplishing the mitzva of enterar la ley, or burying that particular sackful in the appropriate “grave,” and so the chairman would sing, “Kuanto dan por el primer saco de la ley?” (“How much is offered for the first sack of the law?”) Each gunny sack that was sold was accompanied to the place while the audience would sing appropriate songs including Bar Yohay, a song which Jewish people usually sing on Lag La Omer in tribute to the memory of the saintly Tanna Rabbi Shimon Ben Yohay who died on Lag La Omer.

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