By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
There is a mitzva to write or at least participate in the writing of a Torah scroll. While everyone should strive to fulfill this mitzva in this way at least once in their life, one is also considered to have fulfilled this mitzva by purchasing “sefarim”, holy books, from which to study Torah from. Sefarim are so called from their root “sippur” which means “to relate” or “to tell”, referring to the role of sefarim in relating to us the greatness of God and how to serve Him. One who does not purchase sefarim is deemed a wicked person.
Sefarim are said to represent God’s clothing as they “clothe” His Torah, and should be treated accordingly. We should be familiar with the contents of all our sefarim as well as of those we choose to purchase, rather then to simply buy sefarim indiscriminately. It is also recommended to periodically take an inventory of one’s sefarim including those which may have been lent out. Never stand on a table or other surface used primarily for sefarim. Some have the custom to place many sefarim on one’s table in honor of Yom Kippur in place of the challot and other foods which normally grace the Shabbat and Holiday table. One is permitted to open a sefer which contains lettering on its pages on Shabbat as the letters were intended to be opened and closed, though some authorities recommend not using such sefarim on Shabbat.
One should make sure that all one’s sefarim are neat and organized so that they will be easy to find. One should happily lend sefarim to others, even one’s enemies, in order to contribute to the proliferation of Torah knowledge. Indeed, in the buying and selling of sefarim we are to afford priority treatment to those who are known for lending sefarim. Nevertheless, it is best to never borrow or even read another person’s sefer without permission. A Siddur, however, is different and may be used without permission. A person should write his name in all his sefarim.
One who borrows a sefer and ruins it or wears it out due only to extensive usage is exempt from paying any damages. It goes without saying that one may not remove a sefer from a synagogue or Beit Midrash without permission. Some authorities forbid one to browse through a sefer being sold in a sefarim store in fear that one may ruin it or spoil the newness of the pages, though common custom is to be lenient and allow shoppers to browse sefarim. That being said however, one is obligated to pay for a sefer that one has clearly ruined in the course of browsing it, such as if it falls from one’s hands to the floor and gets torn.
It is even permitted to use one’s designated charity monies for the purchase of sefarim if one will lend them out or otherwise make them available for public use. Sefarim should never be used as security or collateral in any business transaction. Expect to pay more for rare and original sefarim.
We should be sure to show great honor and reverence to sefarim, similar to that accorded to Tefillin. One should shake sefarim from their case or bag in order to retrieve them – always remove them gently, preferably with one’s right hand. It is not permitted to write anything on the pages of a sefer unrelated to one’s Torah studies nor may one use a sefer for storing loose notes and the like. We should not lean upon sefarim or otherwise use them to further personal comfort. It goes without saying that sefarim should never be placed on the ground, on a surface where they are likely to fall, nor tossed from one person to another. However they may be placed in a box that is sitting on the ground.
One is even permitted to interrupt the Shemone Esrei prayer to pick up a sefer that has fallen on the floor should one feel the urge to do so. Similarly, one may also interrupt the wrapping of the Tefillin to pick up a sefer that has fallen. One may use the surface of a sefer to assist one in writing Torah related notes, but not for anything else. It is not permitted to engage in marital relations in the presence of uncovered sefarim.