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Shabbat Parashat Matot Masei 5780

Ask the Rabbi: Geniza for Parts of a Pasuk

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: I received a bar mitzva invitation containing the words “Vayehi David maskil” (in Hebrew). Since this is part of a pasuk, does the invitation require geniza? (This phenomenon exists in various contexts, so please broaden the picture.)   


Answer: A crucial source regarding respect for p’sukim excerpts is found in the context of sirtut (etching lines in a writing surface to help one write straight). The gemara (Gittin 6b) tells of one who, in a letter, criticized a situation as comparable to part of a pasuk in Tanach. The gemara indicates that the writer should have done sirtut and cites two opinions as to whether the requirement is for a minimum of three or of four words. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 284:2) paskens that three words require sirtut. Poskim posit that the guidelines for what is holy enough to require sirtut apply to what must not be disgraced and must be discarded in geniza (see Ginzei Hakodesh 9:3). So, it might appear that the three words you refer to require geniza.

 But we will look deeper. First, while the words are reminiscent of and inspired by a pasuk (Shmuel I, 18:14), the navi uses two words that are missing in the invitation (between David and “maskil”). Tosafot (Gittin 6b) posits that only when the words are in the order found in the pasuk do they require sirtut, and certainly then if words are skipped it is not a pasuk segment. Even if one put in “…” to indicate that words are missing, still there is an insufficient section of the pasuk to be significant. This is logically so even according to those (Shut Harashbash 482) who say that three words is not the determinant, as two words that create a whole idea (e.g., “Lo tirtzach”) count while three words that do not form an idea (e.g., “el Moshe v’el”) do not. Some also say that when one leaves out a letter from the word, it is as if the word does not exist, although this is less clear when this is the normal way of writing, e.g, if one writes yud yud or heh instead of Hashem’s Name (see machloket cited in Ginzei Hakodesh 9:(23)).

There is another reason that the invitation does not require geniza based on these words. Tosafot (ibid.), accepted by the Shulchan Aruch (ibid.), rule that when the words of a pasuk are borrowed as a crisp way of expressing an idea, it is not considered a pasuk. This is even stronger when the context differs greatly from that of the pasuk, as this case illustrates. The pasuk refers to David Hamelech’s great success and/or wisdom; the invitation refers to a regular thirteen-year-old named David.

The exact line between a direct reference to a pasuk and using Tanach’s language to express other ideas (rabbis do this a lot) is difficult to determine. One phenomenon is using a phrase from the weekly parasha along with the day of the week to signify a letter’s date. (One could argue that this practice is justified because such letters usually contain real divrei Torah, so that they anyway require geniza, but that is unlikely to be the reason – see Ginzei Hakodesh 9:(25)). It is more problematic for an organization to put on its letterhead a pasuk or a statement of Chazal that captures their philosophy/activity because there they do want you to think about the message behind the pasuk (similar to the use in Gittin 6b above). Sometimes a pasuk turns into more of a well-known general idea than a quotation of a pasuk (e.g., mipnei seiva takum on Israeli buses). The use of quotation marks or citing the statement’s location are liable to make borderline cases more problematic.

In your case, there is clearly no requirement for geniza. In general, since it is forbidden to write p’sukim in places where they are likely to get disgraced (Shut Harambam 268), one should be careful before using them in invitations, solicitation letters, and various bulletins, which are likely to be thrown out. This is a counterweight to our healthy desire for Torah to be present in our daily lives – left, right and center. If they are used, one has to develop an approach to how to deal with borderline/low-level “sheimos.”


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