On the Doorposts of Your Home: All About Mezuzot

Dear Josep,

So before I explain about mezuzot, I must first begin with the Shema prayer. Something tells me you have heard of it. 😉 Here is a translation of the full text of the first paragraph of the prayer:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”

—Deuteronomy 6:4-9

That last verse is the source for the mitzvah of mezuzah.

So first of all: what is the Shema? Why is it so important? And why did God command us to say these words morning and evening, to bind them “as a sign upon your arm” and “a reminder between your eyes” (that’s the mitzvah of tefillin, which I’ll hopefully get to in a future e-mail!), and to have them hanging at every doorpost?

The crux of the prayer is the opening verse. It is our declaration of allegiance to God, and our belief that He is one. The rest of the paragraph explains how that allegiance manifests in our daily lives.

Okay, so we declare our allegiance to God. “The Lord is our God”. Why “the Lord is one”? What does his oneness have to do with our allegiance to Him and love for Him?

Well, first there’s the obvious: we were the first nation to believe in the oneness of God, and this was our unique characteristic at the time. And though this may seem totally basic in a world so strongly influenced by the three monotheistic faiths, it’s actually really not that intuitive an idea. When we look at the world all we see is contrast. Everything is defined by its separation and distinction from everything else. A tree is not a rock. The sky is not the sea. Dark and light. Good and evil. These things are so mutually exclusive that it doesn’t make sense at all that they could be all truly part of one unified thing. But they are. They are all God. This is a very difficult concept to grasp. So difficult, that the ancient peoples assigned different gods to the different forces in the world. This made sense. Even the Christians felt a need to do this to some degree. Mainstream Christianity assigns all evil in the world to a being separate from God—the Devil—because God is supposed to be pure good; how could evil come from Him as well? But according to the concept of the Shema, this is a mistake. The good and the evil in the world are both a part of God, and all are part of the same reality, which is all ultimate good. This is very hard to understand.

But that concept is central to our mission in this world, and thus central to our identity as the Jewish people. Our mission in the world is to help reveal God’s oneness and goodness. To lead the human race in its pursuit of Him, so that together, we can bring the world to a point where He can bestow His goodness entirely. The message of the Shema is our raison d’être.

And that is why we surround ourselves with its words. We recite it morning and evening. It is the first prayer we teach our children, and the last prayer we say before we die. (This is why you hear stories of Jews crying it out when facing death.) We bind it—physically or mentally—to our arms and minds when we pray (tefillin again!). And, yes… we hang it on every doorpost.

If you look at the first verse of the Shema in a Torah or mezuzah scroll, you will see that the last letter of both the first and last words of the verse are enlarged:

The mezuzah scroll. Note the beautiful calligraphy; it is actually a requirement that this scroll be especially written by a scribe, a sofer, who has learned this special calligraphy that we use for holy texts (namely: the Torah, mezuzah scrolls, tefillin scrolls, and the Scroll of Esther for Purim). The letters must be perfect, otherwise it cannot be used. We have to have our scrolls checked by a sofer from time to time to make sure they are still kosher.

These two letters spell the word עד, ed, which means “witness”. Our mission in the world is to bear witness to God’s oneness.

Okay, so that’s the first paragraph of Shema. What about the second paragraph? It reads like this:

“And it will be, if you will diligently obey My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord Your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be sated. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Lord’s wrath will flare up against you, and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Lord gives you. Therefore, place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be a reminder between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates—so that your days and the days of your children may be prolonged on the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them for as long as the heavens are above the earth.”

—Deuteronomy 11:13-21

Very similar to the first paragraph, but with one major difference: this one talks about the consequences of not loving God and following the commandments. In Judaism we talk about two motives for loving God: ahava and yir’a, love and awe (sometimes translated as fear, but awe is a better word for it). Both are important components of our service of Him, but love, obviously, is the highest level. The first paragraph of Shema corresponds to ahava. It is unconditional. We love God with all our hearts and all our souls and therefore we perform these commandments. This is really ideal. But when we are not on that level, we need the second paragraph of Shema, which corresponds to yir’a, so we perform the commandments out of fear of the consequences. The concept of Divine reward and punishment is very complex and I won’t get into it now, but suffice to say that according to many Jewish philosophers such as Rabbi Chaim Luzzato, it is not as simplistic as it seems here. (…And there’s another topic for another e-mail! 😛 Apparently I’m never going to run out!)

There is a third and final paragraph of Shema, but it is less relevant here because only the first two paragraphs are included in the mezuzah.

So what is the mezuzah? The word “mezuzah” actually means “doorpost”. The mezuzah itself is a scroll of parchment on which the first two paragraphs of the Shema are inscribed on one side, and the word Sha-dai is inscribed on the other. Sha-dai is one of God’s names in Hebrew, associated with kindness, and it is also an acronym for shomer dlatot yisrael, “Guardian of the doors of Israel”. The scroll is rolled up from left to right with the words of the Shema on the inside. It is then affixed to the doorway. As you know, usually it is placed inside a nice protective case, one which has the letter ש or the word Sha-dai on it. Archeologists always know they have found a Jewish building when they see an indent carved into the doorway to hold the mezuzah.

The purpose of the mezuzah is, of course, to help us maintain an awareness of God and of our purpose in the world, every time we enter or exit a room.

“Psst! Hey Jew! The Lord is One! You may now carry on.”
Photo credit: 00dac, CC BY 3.0

The minimum halakhic requirement is to place one just on the main entrance of the home, but most of us affix a mezuzah in every doorway (except the bathroom, out of respect for the holy text), and also in buildings people don’t live in, like office buildings. There is a custom to kiss it as we walk past; most of us do this by touching it and then kissing our hand. (You probably saw me do this a few times…) This helps us maintain an awareness of it. Though it becomes something of an automatic reflex. Whenever I’m in a place with a doorway that doesn’t have a mezuzah, I find myself automatically reaching for a mezuzah that isn’t there! I call this “Phantom Mezuzah Syndrome” 😛

The mezuzah is affixed to the upper third of the doorway, on the side that, upon entering the room, is to the right. The Ashkenazi custom is to affix it tilting towards the interior of the room; the Sephardi custom is to affix it vertically. Why the difference? Well, because, of course*, there are differing opinions on the proper direction. 😉 According to one opinion, it should be vertical. According to the other, it should be horizontal. Sephardim go by the first opinion; Ashkenazim go by a compromise of both!

When affixing a mezuzah, the following blessing is recited: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.

And with that, my friend, I bless you that only goodness, harmony and peace should cross your doorways, and awareness of God and His love for you should ever be in your mind.

Have a peaceful St. Stephen’s Day and a restful weekend.

Love,

Daniella

***

*You will find within these letters many references to the irrefutable truth behind the classic joke, “Two Jews, three opinions”. 😉

Blog readers: What surprising places have you seen mezuzot? What physical objects in your life help you focus on what’s really important to you?

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