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Why Don’t Jews Write ‘This Book Belongs to…’?

Why Don’t Jews Write ‘This Book Belongs to…’?

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There is a common custom not to inscribe Torah books with “From the Library of John Doe,” “This Book Belongs to . . .” or similar Hebrew equivalents. Instead, the name itself is written with no preamble. Some have the custom to preface their names with “LaHashem haaretz umeloah,” “The earth and all that fills it belong to G‑d,”1 or the acronym lamed, hay, vav.

The custom is attributed to Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid (“the pious”) 1150-1217, who writes in his ethical will that people should “not write in a holy book that it is theirs. Rather, they should write their name without writing it is theirs.”2

Nothing Is Ours

Some explain that this custom is a fitting reminder that nothing truly belongs to us; it is only entrusted to us. Accordingly, one should follow this practice not just with regard to Torah books, but with all personal belongings.3

Others, however, question that if this was the sole reason, then why would Rabbi Yehuda specifically single out Torah books?

Lend Books to Others

They therefore explain that Torah books are unique in that one should be especially willing to lend them out.4 Indeed, according to Jewish law, if there are no other Torah books available for the public to learn from, a rabbinical court can actually force an individual to make his own library available to the public.5

“The Earth and All That Fills It is G‑d’s”

The common custom is that before writing one’s name in a Torah book, one writes, “The earth and all that fills it belong to G‑d.”

This is in keeping with an incident recounted by Rabbi Chiya bar Abba in the Talmud:6

One time I was hosted by a homeowner in Laodicea, and they brought before him a table of gold that was so heavy it required sixteen people to carry it, and there were sixteen chains of silver attached to it, and there were bowls and cups and pitchers and flasks attached to it, and there were all sorts of food, and delicacies, and fragrant spices on it. And when they placed it there they would say: “The earth and all that fills it belong to G‑d, etc.”7 And when they removed it, they would say: “The heavens are G‑d’s heavens, but the earth He gave to mankind.8

Rashi explains that they would first recite the verse ascribing ownership of earth to G‑d, implying that we may not benefit from this world until we bless Him. They would then recite the second verse, insinuating that it is only through G‑d’s largesse that we have this benefit.9

By inscribing our Torah books with a declaration that all we have truly belongs to G‑d, we are reminded to always use “our” possessions for the betterment of others.

Footnotes
2.
Tzavaat R’ Yehuda Hachassid 47 (60 in some editions). In some versions it reads, “A person should not write in a holy book that it is theirs. Rather, they should just sign their name.” Some explain this to be an instruction to authors, not owners. See commentary Damasek Eliezer on Tzavaat Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid, ad loc.
3.
Shiv’im Temarim, Mahadura Batra 55.
4.
Shemirat Haguf VeHanefesh, vol. 1, 86:1, fn. 1.
5.
See Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 292:20.
6.
Talmud, Shabbat 119a.
9.
Rashi, ad loc.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous Laurel, MT January 2, 2018

But what happens if I already put a label "This Book Belongs To Ellyn Williams?" Is something bad going to happen? I did it because I didn't want my kids to take it and forget where they got it from. It took be almost ten years to get my "Torah" book. I just didn't want to lose it. Will I not see my son when I pass?
Reply

Aharon Goldstein BERLIN, DEUTSCHLAND December 25, 2017

Why Don’t Jews Write ‘This Book Belongs to…’? Dear rav Yehuda,
Allow me to thank you for your brilliant essay. To each and every owner of a library of Jewish books (be it a hall filled with Jewish books or just a modest 2-3 shelves) your essay is a great treasure, a jewel, one should say.
Thank you again and again for composing and posting this essay.
Hatzlocho un Brocho

Sincerely,
Reply

Feigele St Johns FL December 22, 2017

The proof of that story is that we don't take anything with us when we pass. It goes on to the next person and next and next and so on. So it all belongs to G-d, who in turn, distributes to someone else and so forth. Being a mountain of gold or a penny, we leave it all behind us, but! meanwhile, we enjoy what we can while it last. Reply

Anonymous israel via chabadberkeley.org December 22, 2017

I've seen many siddurim with "bir'shut" written above the person's name, so if someone borrows it to daven, it's with permission and not stealing. Reply

M. Gold New York December 21, 2017

I would just like to point out that there exists a picture of a book belonging to the Rebbe (actually, I believe the Rebbe received it as a gift at his wedding, 1928), where you can clearly see the Rebbe wrote (in Hebrew) "Misifrei," meaning "from the books of". Reply

Anonymous Toledo December 20, 2017

A dear friend who is now of blessed memory gave me two books to learn from, both of them were inscribed with her name, I often look at her writing to remember her but I never knew why she did this, now I know. I am still learning from her even now Reply

Roland Leblanc Ham-Nord, Qc Canada December 20, 2017

Most of the time , books are the expression of somebod'ies' point of view. That somebody needed at some point to share his or her findings. It is most of the Time , a point of view...Being gifted to acknowledge Truth as seeing of felt by someone is a privilege that we can share or not. Using words reflects ideas that we can understand, but that others will not necessarely receive correctly. Interpretation is the key? Dont you think. The actual physical paper book or other media might be yours, but inspiration is part of the Whole Reality that we cannot name or comprehend easily; thus the mystery ... Life is a gift that can enable us to understand; meaning be with, apart, and hanging there. Have a nice journey ! !!! Reply

Yakov December 20, 2017

Oh I didn’t know this so most of my sforim are written with “this book belongs to...” Reply

Anonymous Israel December 20, 2017

"Belongs to"and "from the library of" have very different meanings. While some might follow this approach for the latter, in doing so they diminish the value of a collection of sources, i.e, a "library," as opposed to scattered volumes here and there among a community. Five or ten books is not a "library." Saying that a volume is part of library communicates to others that there are many more such written sources available to the user and that the users play a central role in maintaining the library as a "library" by returning the volumes after their short term use is concluded. Much more persuasive to me is the explanation in footnote 2: "Some explain this to be an instruction to authors, not owners." This seems correct and in furtherance of the modesty Judaism asks us to aspire to. Nonetheless, users appreciate knowing who was the "author" because it permits them to decide what to read. In both cases (library;author) more than ownership is being communicated. Reply

Anonymous December 19, 2017

I never heard of this custom. Do I need to rip out all my bookplates? Hope not. Reply

Boaz December 19, 2017

Uh, actually, in many synagogues, I see inside the covers of the books,"Property of (name of shul). Please do not remove." Reply

Anonymous December 18, 2017

I just mailed my mother two books. One is a book about the philosophy of Chabad which I have had for many years. I never wrote my name in it and did not inscribe it before sending to my mother. Since we have the same name I will ask her to inscribe it with the words “The earth and all that fills it belong to G-d” and then to put our name. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous Scranton, PA December 18, 2017

Is it permissible to inscribe one's name and phone number - and no other information, much less claims of ownership - inside a prayer book or siddur? The intention would be for the sake of prayer, so that if it is lost, then somebody has the chance to call the Jew and return the prayer book. Is that an issue? Reply

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