Shabbat 79

Among the various items previously listed in the Mishna (Shabbat 8:2, see Shabbat 78b) as having inherent purpose, value and importance is a קלף (i.e. a small piece of parchment that can be used to write one of the tefillin scrolls). Given this, today’s daf (Shabbat 79b) discusses a variety of laws relating to the types of parchments that can and cannot be used for the writing of Mezuzot, Tefillin and Sifrei Torah and it is here where we are introduced to the halachic principle of מעלין בקודש ואין מורידין – ‘we can upgrade items to a higher sanctity, but we shouldn’t downgrade them to a lower sanctity.’ However, to explain this principle and its usage here, a little background is necessary.

Jewish law categorises different ritual items into different groups. For example, there are items with inherent sanctity – קדושה )such as Mezuzot, Tefillin and Sifrei Torah); items that are used to protect and lend honour to קדושה items known as תשמישי קדושה (such as a Torah cover, a tefillin bag, a mezuzah cover), and items used for mitzvot known as תשמישי מצוה (such as a sukkah, a lulav and a shofar). Moreover, even within these categories there can be items with greater relative sanctity, and in the case of קדושה, because a Sefer Torah contains the entire text of the Torah containing all the mitzvot, it is considered the most sanctified in this category, and this is then followed by tefillin, and then by mezuzah. Based on this, if a scribe wrote a portion of the Shema on the parchment of a Sefer Torah, it would be deemed improper to use that section for use in a tefillin or for a mezuzah because this would contravene the halachic principle of מעלין בקודש ואין מורידין – ‘we can upgrade items to a higher sanctity, but we shouldn’t downgrade them to a lower sanctity.’

Significantly, this is almost exactly the case cited in our Gemara where we are taught: ‘Tefillin that are worn out, or a Sefer Torah that is worn out, may not be used to make a mezuzah because we may not downgrade an item from a stricter level to a ligher level’. Yet, unlike the above-mentioned example, here the ‘higher level’ item is now out of use as it is worn out and would ordinarily be placed in geniza (see Megillah 26b), meaning that it would either be placed in a dignified storage space or buried with dignity. Why, therefore, don’t we suggest using it for other purposes and consider this as an act of ‘upcycling’?!

Interestingly, the Taz (on OC 154:7) raises this precise point while addressing a range of questions relating to תשמישי קדושה. As he explains, surely the prohibition of taking something of higher sanctity and using it for a lower sanctity is ‘when it is capable of being used for a higher sanctity, but if it is not capable of being used for this and can only be used for a lower sanctity, surely it is preferrable that we do so?!’.

However, the Noda BiYehuda (Tinyana YD 174) rejects his rationale since a worn out Sefer Torah is meant to be placed in geniza which suggests that the more dignified treatment is its disuse rather than its use for other purposes. Moreover, the Ohr Sameyach (commentary to Hilchot Mezuzah 5:1) adds that while the Taz may be right, since he was speaking about cases of תשמישי קדושה, and given our explicit Gemara, his rationale can only be applied with respect to תשמישי קדושה. What we learn from here is that while there may be times when a utility-maximising perspective may be able to justify using sacred items for other purposes, our task is to foster a sanctity-sensitive-perspective and understand the message of מעלין בקודש ואין מורידין.

Finally, it is important to note that this principle shouldn’t just apply to items of sanctity. Instead, it should be our approach to how we live our lives such that we should always be striving to upgrade ourselves to a higher sanctity. As Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel explains, ‘it is our duty to know that just as our Torah is a Torah of life, so too our sanctity is the sanctity of life, and in life there is no standing still. Instead, you are either ascending or descending.’ (Derashot El-Ami Vol. 3 p. 4).