It’s a uniquely practical issue and a particularly ironic one in our throwaway society.
What to do with sacred objects that, for reasons of damage, age or simple lack of use, must be disposed of?
In Judaism, the answer is as elegant as it is simple: Inter them in a geniza, a dedicated space — a sort of burial plot — in a cemetery.
At 1 p.m. Sunday, Southern Nevada’s Jewish community will participate in the dedication of the valley’s newest geniza at King David Memorial Chapel and Cemetery, 2697 E. Eldorado Lane.
The new geniza will serve as a resting place for ripped or damaged Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot parchment, and “anything that has sacred writing on it,” said Rabbi Shea Harlig of Chabad of Southern Nevada.
Jewish tradition holds it disrespectful to dispose of such items in more conventional ways. Instead, Harlig said, “the tradition is that we bury it.”
A geniza also serves as a resting place for items that are used in prayer or that might contain God’s word. So, Harlig said, a geniza might hold such items as prayer shawls or shofars, too.
Such items are referred to as shaimos. Typically, a family might store shaimos in their home or take the items to a synagogue for disposal. Harlig said shaimos also occasionally are buried with members of a congregation.
Genizot, in contrast, are centralized, dedicated places where unused holy objects and writings can be respectfully and reverently disposed of.
Jay Poster, general manager of King David Memorial Chapel and Cemetery, said Palm Mortuaries about 10 years ago donated three graves at Palm Valley View Cemetery to serve as a geniza for the community.
That geniza was opened every year for the placement of shaimos collected by valley congregations, he said. “But we filled that, actually, about a year ago. That’s one reason I’ve been thinking about this.”
The 180-square-foot underground burial vault that will be dedicated Sunday is designed to be easily opened so that shaimos can be placed in it as needed, Poster said.
“We’ll be able, when congregations call us, to schedule (interments in the geniza) at a much quicker time frame,” Poster added.
The new geniza also will serve as a memorial for Southern Nevadans’ loved ones. Poster noted that many valley residents have moved here from somewhere else and that their relatives are buried in other states.
“I wanted to find some way to create a memorial honoring those who are buried out-of-state,” he said. “And, at the same time, we have a need for this geniza.”
So, atop the underground geniza is a custom-built granite cenotaph, which describes a monument to someone who is deceased but buried elsewhere.
“Probably the best example is the Vietnam Memorial,” Poster said, which lists the names of war dead who are buried in other locations.
On the new geniza, “there are squares along the surface on top and on the side on which we will be able to memorialize (Southern Nevadans’) loved ones,” Poster said.
That dual purpose, and its design, makes King David Cemetery’s geniza atypical, Poster said.
“Most genizot are inconspicuous. Most of them will be just a simple grave somewhere in a cemetery,” he said. “This will certainly be a focal point to the entrance of the cemetery.”
King David Cemetery will not itself collect or store items for the geniza, Poster added, and Southern Nevadans should continue to take shaimos to their own synagogues for disposal. However, the public can bring shaimos directly to the cemetery during Sunday’s ceremony.
Although it’s not the primary purpose of genizot, the repositories can serve as treasure troves for historians. For example, the Cairo Geniza in Egypt, explored during the mid-1800s, contained priceless historical artifacts, including manuscript fragments that were hundreds of years old.
Typically, water and the elements eventually find their way into genizot, damaging their contents. But, Harlig said, “the Cairo Geniza was an unbelievable find.”
On a more immediate level, the geniza “teaches us how to value books and how to value sacred writings,” Harlig said.
“It just ingrains in us the concept of respect that we have for God’s word and for the written word.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.