“Preserving the Sanctity of Sacred Objects and Sacred Ideas”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Very soon after the opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, the Torah, in Deuteronomy 12, highlights the special sanctity of Eretz Israel, the Promised Land that the Children of Israel are about to enter.

Scripture, in Deuteronomy 12:1 declares, אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּן לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן השׁם אֱ־לֹהֵי אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ,  כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה, These are the decrees and the ordinances that you shall observe to perform in the Land that the L-rd, the G-d of your forefathers, has given you to possess it, all the days that you live on the Land.

The Torah then warns the people that because of the land’s exalted sanctity, they must utterly destroy the idols that may be found in the land and any vestiges of idol practice. Even the roots of idolatrous trees must be removed from the ground. The Torah cautions the people to shatter all idolatrous altars, smash the pagan pillars and burn their sacred trees in fire. All idolatrous images must be cut down and even the names of idolatrous places are to be obliterated.

As if to starkly contrast the negative impact of idolatry with the positive impact of Jewish sacred objects, the Torah cautions that Jewish objects that are sacred to G-d must be properly preserved and treated with utmost respect and dignity. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 12:4 declares: לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַהשׁם אֱ־לֹהֵיכֶם, You shall not behave in this manner with the L-rd, your G-d. The Torah insists that only in the place where G-d chooses to place His Divine Presence (meaning Jerusalem), may the people bring their sacrifices and offerings and eat of the sacred offerings.

Rashi explains that the declaration, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן, you shall not do so, is the source of important lessons: 1. Offering sacrifices for the sake of Heaven in any place, other than the place where G-d chooses(Jerusalem) is prohibited. 2. While one is permitted (indeed required) to smash the idolatrous altars and destroy their names, this may not be done to the sacred places of Judaism or do anything that may in any way desecrate G-d’s name. Erasing G-d’s name or destroying a stone of the Sacred Altar in Jerusalem is forbidden.

Offering a fascinating alternate interpretation of this verse, Rashi explains that the People of Israel are not only to cleanse the land from the defilement of the idolaters, they may also in no way defy G-d. Their sinful behavior would bring destruction upon the people, and bring defilement upon the holy altars and the sacred Temple of Jerusalem.

The commentators also warn against the fallacious reasoning that may lead the people to conclude that since the Temple and its altars were built by humans, it may be permissible to destroy the Temple furnishings that are the work of their own hands. They explain that once the stones become an integral part of the Temple, they are sacred, and no one may defile their sanctity.

Expanding the prohibition, the commentators explain that just as defiling sacred objects is forbidden, so is defacing sacred ideas.

Thus, sacred writings that have G-d’s name on them, may not be erased or destroyed, and must be carefully handled. Worn sacred objects and writings that can no longer be used must be respectfully buried, such as scrolls of Torah, prayer books, Bibles, Tefillin, Mezzuzot, etc.

The seven sacred names of G-d may not be erased or profaned by using them in vain. They are: 1. The Tetragrammaton, the four letter Hebrew name of G-d. 2. “Eh’lo’ah;” 3. “Shah’dai;” 4. “Ayl;” 5. “Ah’doh’nai;” 6. “Eh’lo’him;” 7. “Tz’vah’oht.”  The penalty for effacing the sacred names of G-d is very severe.

Other names by which G-d is known, such has חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם–compassionate and merciful, may be erased. Instances in the Torah where the names of G-d appear, but are not intended to be sacred, may be also be erased. Thus, when Lot says to the messengers who come to Sodom (Genesis 19:18), אַל נָא, אֲדֹנָי, “Please, my masters,” in this case אֲדֹנָי–“Ah’doh’nai” means, my masters, and is not sacred, even though the Hebrew word is the same as G-d’s name.

The Hebrew language is often referred to as לְשׁוֹן הַקֹּדֶשׁ–the Holy Tongue, and the holiness of the language is maintained to this day. Even in the contemporary State of Israel, modern day Hebrew contains very few expletives. Most of the local curse words are from Arabic.

Because of the sanctity of G-d’s names, it has been the Jewish custom for millennia for Jews to protect the names of G-d, never writing them for a non-sacred purpose, frequently inserting hyphens between letters, in order to make certain that they are not intended to be sacred. A good example of the lengths to which the Jewish people go to protect the holy names, is that, even in English, the word “G-d” is often written with a dash, even though it certainly is not a sacred name. In this way, the sanctity of name is preserved.

A holy book that falls to the ground, is lifted carefully and kissed, the way a child who falls might be kissed.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that the particularly sensitive treatment shown to holy writ creates a sense of awe and trepidation, not only for the names of G-d and the sacred objects, but for the entire concept of serving G-d with complete respect and reverence.

In sum, we see that the Jewish concept of “sanctity” is not only revolutionary, but also ubiquitous. Holy objects and holy ideas are treated with utmost reverence and love. In truth, sacred objects are often treated as if they were alive and breathing. Since the purpose of almost all of Judaism is the sanctity of all human life, it is quite understandable that Judaism may, at times, treat inanimate objects as if they were living. In this manner we are assured that the sanctity of holy objects and holy ideas are safeguarded and properly preserved.

May you be blessed.