“At that time the Lord said to me: Carve for yourself two tablets of stone like the first and ascend to Me to the mountain; and make for yourself a wooden ark. I will inscribe on the tablets the statements that were on the first tablets that you shattered, and you shall place them in the ark. I made an ark of acacia wood, I carved two tablets of stone like the first and I ascended to the mountaintop and the two tablets were in my hand. He inscribed on the tablets like the first inscription, the Ten Precepts that the Lord spoke to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly and the Lord gave them to me. I turned and I descended from the mount, and I placed the tablets in the ark that I had made and they were there, as the Lord had commanded me.” (Devarim 10:1-5)


The subject of this passage is Moshe’s re-telling of the sin of the golden calf, its aftermath and God’s forgiveness, in particular, His giving of the second set of tablets. Unlike the first set which were made entirely by Hashem, the second tablets were hewn by Moshe and then engraved by God. Moshe adds something that does not appear in the original narrative in Shmot chapter 34 and that is God’s command to him to make an ark. The identity of this ark is somewhat unclear. Rashi (10:1) is of the opinion that this is not the same ark that Betzalel made for the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant. Although both were made of acacia wood, the Ark of the Covenant was covered within and without with gold and had an elaborate lid with two golden cherubs. The ark that Moshe made was far simpler. Rashi notes that it was this simple ark that the Israelites would take with them into battle while the ornate Ark remained in the camp.


Ramban (Nachmanides) questions Rashi’s opinion based on several passages in the Talmud. His conclusion is that once the Ark of the Covenant was completed by Betzalel, the simple ark of Moshe was put away in accordance with the law that applies to “all items that serve holy objects” (tashmishei kedusha). Ramban is referring to the question of what to do with sacred objects when they have become worn out or are no longer required. This topic is a long and fascinating area of Halacha that is found mostly in the fourth chapter of tractate Megillah and codified in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 154 and Yoreh Deah 282. Some of the issues raised there include: how does one sell a shul? May one sell an old Sefer Torah to buy a new one or use the funds to perform another mitzvah? What does one do with tallis and tefillin bags when they have worn out? Whose consent is required when disposing of communal religious items or property? Do printed books have the same level of sanctity as scrolls written by a scribe? If funds are raised to purchase a Sefer Torah or build a shul and there is an excess, are the communal leaders permitted to use those funds for a different purpose? Can one place a Torah crown on the head of the Chatan Torah on Simchat Torah or on the head of a groom prior to his wedding? Can the parochet (curtain of the ark) be used as a chuppah?   These questions and many more are dealt with in the Talmud, codes and other books of Halacha.


The Talmud (Megillah 26b) provides the basic principle: “Items used in the performance of a mitzvah (tashmishei mitzvah) may be discarded; items that serve sacred objects (tashmishei kedusha) must be set aside. And these are items used in the performance of a mitzvah: sukkah, lulav, shofar and tzitzit. And these are items used to serve sacred objects: Cases of scrolls (Torah scrolls), tefillin, and mezuzot; and a container for a Torah scroll; and a cover for tefillin and their straps.” From this passage, three categories can be discerned: (i) Items used to perform mitzvoth; (ii) sacred objects (kedusha) and (iii) items that ‘serve’ sacred objects (tashmishei kedusha). Sacred objects are those that contain words of Torah, such as a Sefer Torah, tefillin and mezuzot. These items never lose their sanctity even when they are worn out or no longer kosher. They need to be set aside in a respectful manner, which usually means burial or a being placed in a dedicated cupboard or room in a shul. The place in which sacred objects are placed has come to be known by two names: genizah (setting aside) or sheimot, meaning “names”, a reference to God’s Holy Names that may never be destroyed. The same law applies to the items that ‘service’ them, such as Torah covers, tefillin straps and bags. An item used to perform a mitzvah that does not contain words of Torah, such as a shofar, lulav and sukkah, is only sacred for the duration of the mitzvah. Once the mitzvah has been completed, the items may be discarded. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Orach Chaim 21:1) writes that even though they may be discarded, this should not be done in a disrespectful manner, such as throwing them in the bin with the chicken bones. If at all possible, the worn out item should be used to perform another mitzvah. Thus, there is a custom to use broken tzitzit strings as bookmarks (Mishna Berura 21:1 #8). An item used to serve a mitzvah object, such as a tallis bag or etrog box, is no stricter than the mitzvah object, itself, and may be discarded after use.


The ark that Moshe made had the status of a tashmish kedusha because it held the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, which themselves contained words of Torah. Thus, according to Ramban, when the humble ark was no longer needed because a new, ornate ark had been fashioned, it was set aside. The Talmud (ibid) rules that when a Sefer Torah is no longer fit for use, it is to be placed in an earthenware container and buried close to a Torah scholar. The requirement to place it in an earthenware container is derived from a verse in the prophet Jeremiah (32:14), “So said the Lord of hosts, God of Israel: Take these deeds. This deed of the purchase and that which was sealed and this unsealed deed, and place them in an earthenware vessel, so that they will endure for many days.” In ancient times, deeds of sale and other documents were written on parchment. To protect them from mould, they had to be hidden away in a dry place. If such documents are sealed in an earthenware container, they can remain intact for thousands of years. This was the case regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in 1947 in earthenware utensils near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, in an area called Qumran.


Concerning  worn-out Torah covers (mantelach in Yiddish), Mar Zutra (ibid) states that they should be used to make shrouds for indigent people “and that is how they are set aside.” Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Chatam Sofer 6:10) explains that such behaviour is appropriate, for a “Jewish person who dies is like a Torah scroll that is burned, as explained in Moed Katan (25a) and therefore the shrouds are considered tashmishei kedusha, items that serve a holy object.” The Talmud (Brachot 8b ) makes another similar connection between human beings and sacred objects: “Rabbi Yehudah would say: Be wary how you treat a Torah scholar who has forgotten his learning because of old age or difficulties for our sages said that both the complete tablets (of the Ten Commandments) and the broken tablets were placed in the Holy Ark.” Even a person who was previously learned but has now been ‘broken’ by the ravages of time is worthy of respect. 


Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom! Rabbi Liebenberg


Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:


Lee and I will be attending the annual Chief Rabbi Harris Rabbinical Conference in Kwazulu Natal from 7-9 August.













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