Tag Archives: Shema prayer

Prayer, Part II: A Peek into the Jewish Prayer Book

Dear Josep,

In Part I, we discussed the concept of prayer in Jewish thought. Today, we’re going to get into the technicalities of formal Jewish prayer.

So first of all: why do we have formal prayer at all? Why not just say whatever we like whenever we like? Well, the first reason is, as I’ve explained before, to help the Jews maintain a regular use of Hebrew. (As I mentioned, formal prayers are always conducted in Hebrew–with some prayers in Aramaic.) Needing to pray in a group (as I will elaborate later) also forces Jews to live close together, maintaining ties with a community. And having a specific liturgy helps us all focus on the things that are most important to us individuals and as a nation. I would say the main functions of formal prayer are to connect us with one another as a community, unifying us in our service of God; and to institute connecting with God as a regular practice throughout the day, providing a formula and framework for an “effective conversation” with Him.

When I say “formal prayers”, I’m including all the proscribed prayers that you will find in the siddur (or maḥzor–High Holiday prayer book). Will all students please open their prayer books to the table of contents….

The table of contents from the Ahavat Shalom Artscroll siddur with an English translation.
The 3-page-long table of contents from the Ahavat Shalom Artscroll siddur with an English translation….

Yyyyeah, so, we are not going to cover everything that’s in there. I will describe the basic structure of the prayers and prayer services, building from the “core” of the prayers outwards. Which means, we must start with…

The Amidah

Formal prayers as a daily practice began at the beginning of the Second Temple period, with the composition of the Amidah prayer, also known as the Shmone Esrei. “Amidah” means “standing”, referring to the fact that it is recited while standing. “Shmone Esrei” means “eighteen”, because it was originally composed of eighteen blessings (another was added later), addressing a variety of universal topics. Remember how we mentioned that Jewish prayer is usually structured using the praise-request-thanksgiving formula? So the Shmone Esrei begins with praise: praising God for his treatment of us and our forefathers, for his might and kindness, and for his holiness. Next come the request prayers. We pray for knowledge and understanding; for repentance and being drawn nearer to the will of God;  for forgiveness; for redemption; for health and healing; for prosperity; for the ingathering of the exiles; for restoration of justice; for the annihilation of evil and evildoers; for the welfare of the righteous; for the rebuilding of Jerusalem; for the restoration of the Davidic royal dynasty (a.k.a. the Messiah), and lastly, for God to accept all our prayers. Then comes thanksgiving. We thank God for our lives, for “Your miracles that are with us every day”, for “Your wonders and goodness at all times”, and His eternal kindness. Finally, we pray for peace and His blessing in all things, and thank Him for blessing us with peace.

During services, this prayer is first recited in silence, every person to him or herself. We recite it while standing with our feet together, which is symbolic of the angels (who are described somewhere as having only one foot), while facing Jerusalem. At the beginning and end of the prayer, we take three steps backwards, and then three steps forward. There are a number of reasons for this, some of them having to do with the Temple services, but this is how I like to think about it: before the prayer, “we step back” from the material world and then “step up” before the King of Kings. After the prayer, we back respectfully away from our Master and return to the material world. We also bow during certain parts of the prayer, as though bowing before the King.

After the silent recitation, the ḥazzan, the cantor, repeats the entire prayer out loud. This practice was established for those Jews who couldn’t read and couldn’t memorize this (rather long) prayer. They can fulfill their duty to pray it by answering “amen” when the azzan completes each blessing.

Prayer Services

Jews are required to recite many prayers throughout the day (most of them blessings), but as a general rule, there are three prayer services that we are required to attend. (And by “we”, I mean men. In Orthodox Judaism, women are exempt from commandments that have specific proscribed times. We are also required to pray, but not necessarily at the proscribed times and not necessarily three times a day.) The prayer services are Shaḥarit (morning services), Minḥa (afternoon services) and Ma’ariv/Aravit (evening services). They were established in memory of the three daily sacrifices at the Temple that corresponded to them. As a rule, men are supposed to attend these services and pray with at least nine other men (in a minyan–a quorum of ten men. In Orthodoxy, women are not counted for this because they have a different “level” of requirement for this particular commandment.) In practice, if they can’t attend a synagogue for whatever reason, they may pray on their own, but certain prayers that are said in a minyan must be omitted.

On Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat, a weekly portion of the Torah is read during the morning services, after the azzan‘s repetition of the Amidah. (More details on the Torah reading here.) On Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and holidays, there is an additional prayer service called Musaf ( meaning “addition”), which corresponds to an additional sacrifice that was offered on those days. It is usually recited right after morning services, as part of the same service.

Composition of the Services

The morning service can be rather lengthy, lasting 30-45 minutes in a synagogue on a weekday and longer on Shabbat or a holiday. It begins with a series of “morning blessings”, thanking God for basic things like eyesight, clothing, being able to walk, etc. Then, there is a series of psalms and other prayers that fall under the shevaḥ (praise) category. Next comes the Shema prayer, which is proceeded and followed by two long blessings. Then comes the Amidah, and depending on the tradition of the congregation, there may be a number of other psalms and prayers read before the service is concluded with a special prayer called Aleinu (“It is Upon Us”), which is about our responsibility to now go out into the world and proclaim God’s glory, and the kaddish prayer (a special prayer in Aramaic about God’s supremacy and holiness. I’ll get back to it when we talk about Jewish mourning practices, because at certain points in the service, only mourners–those who have lost a close family member in the past year–say this prayer).

The Minḥa service is much shorter, consisting only of a few psalms, the Amidah, and Aleinu. Ma’ariv is also short like this, but it includes reading the Shema again before the Amidah, with slightly different blessings preceding and following it. On Shabbat and holidays, the Amidah is different–it includes only seven blessings, not eighteen, because we don’t do request prayers on Shabbat and holidays. Instead there are different blessings specific to the day. This is also true of Musaf. On Shabbat and holidays there are also additional songs and prayers, and certain prayers that are omitted.

Other Prayers

I’ve written about blessings before, but there are also a few other prayers we say that are not part of the daily prayer service. One of them is the prayer we recite upon waking in the morning, “Modeh/Modah ani”: “I give thanks to you, living and eternal King, for returning my soul to me. Great is Your faith.” That last bit contains a very deep idea–God has returned my soul to me, not because of my faith in Him, but because He has great faith in me. He returned my soul to me because He trusts that I will contribute goodness to His world and work to fulfill my role here, whatever that may be.

Another prayer worth noting is tefillat ha’derekh, the traveler’s prayer. It is a short prayer for safety we recite upon leaving the city limits. The roads here being as they are, this is a prayer I recite with particular intention and fervor every time I leave town… :-/


Generally speaking, no special equipment or attire is required for prayer; one must be at least minimally clothed, of course, and it is proper to be fully dressed, with our heads covered (hence the kippah), out of respect for the Guy to Whom You Are Speaking.

However, if you ever stumble across a Jewish man in prayer on a weekday, a rather strange sight will greet your eyes:

Rabbi with tefillin by Jan Styka. {public domain}
“What, this? This is my God antenna.”
Rabbi with tefillin by Jan Styka. {public domain}

This is a painting of a man wearing a prayer shawl, a tallit, and phylacteries, tefillin. The prayer shawl is a four-cornered garment, so it has tassles (tzitziyot) at each corner, according to the commandment of tzitzit (described in this post). The stripes of the tallit are what inspired the blue stripes on the Israeli flag–symbolizing the State as the culmination of our prayers for two millennia.

For the record, that's what's supposed to go in that velvet bag of yours.1
For the record, it’s also what’s supposed to go in that velvet bag of yours.1

Tefillin is a separate commandment, mentioned in the Torah a number of times, one of which is the Shema prayer: “You shall bind [the words of the Torah] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as a reminder between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8) So that’s what those little black boxes are. They are leather boxes that contain parchment scrolls, on which four passages from the Torah are inscribed–two from Exodus, and two from Deuteronomy, the latter two being the first two paragraphs of the Shema.

The tefillin scroll from the one that goes on the forehead, containing the first paragraph of the Shema. Note how the letters
The tefillin scroll that goes on the forehead, containing the first paragraph of the Shema. Note how the letters “ע” and “ד” are emphasized as they are in the mezuzah scroll.
By Dovi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The boxes are bound to the body with leather straps: one on the forehead (“between the eyes”) and one on the inner side of the arm–the left arm if you’re right-handed, and the right if you are left-handed. (In the painting above, the “arm tefillin” is hiding under the tallit.) Men are required to put on tefillin every day except Shabbat and holidays. Women are not required because of the same rule mentioned before. We are also not forbidden to do it, but there is a very strong tradition for women not to, and in the vast majority of Orthodox circles, women don’t. I suspect that very slowly, over the next few decades, this will change. In Conservative and Reform circles, women do put on tefillin.

The Torah explains that the purpose of tefillin is to serve as a reminder of God’s intervention in the Exodus from Egypt. Practically speaking, having a physical object connected to prayer on your body helps channel your concentration and maintain an awareness and focus on God.

On Another Personal Note

I shared in my previous post that I sometimes struggle with spontaneous request prayer. I really struggle with formal prayer, too–and always have. It is very difficult to maintain kavana (intention, concentration, and focus) on the same exact words every single day. I find that it’s much easier to connect and feel that the prayer is “doing something for me” when I have a longer space between prayers. Especially with kids around, it’s really a challenge. I get very frustrated when I’m interrupted, and as you full well know, there is no way to be around young kids without being interrupted every 30 seconds. So I tend to rely on the most lenient opinion that women are only required to say one prayer per day, and that it doesn’t have to be the Amidah–just something structured with the praise-request-thanksgiving formula. I know the idea is perseverance, continuing to “show up” even when you don’t feel like it and even when you can’t do it as well as you’d like or should. And obviously, that’s something I need to keep working on. I hope when my kids get older I’ll feel more available to pray regularly. It’s strange; it seems like such a burden when I think about it, but on the rare occasions when I actually pick up my siddur and start to pray, it usually feels like a breath of fresh air for my soul.

I will conclude with this section of Sephardic version of the Amidah:

Hear our voice, Lord our God; Merciful Father, have compassion upon us and accept our prayers willingly and with mercy and favor; for You are God who hears prayers and supplications; and from before You, our King, do not turn us away empty-handed. have mercy on us, and answer us, and hear our prayer. For You hear the prayer of every mouth. Blessed are You, Lord, who hears prayer.



1. Josep sent me some pictures of his room back in November 2006, “to help me get to know him better”. After noting, with amusement, the big Israeli flag hanging over the bookshelf, I squinted at the detail pictured above and was like, “Wait… is that a tefillin bag? And a kippah?! What is a non-practicing Roman Catholic in Barcelona doing with those things?!” He explained that they were gifts from a friend who had traveled to Jerusalem, and after some back-and-forth we figured out that the bag said “tallit” on it. I called this corner of his room his “Judaism shrine”. 😛 

ETA: …And today he was kind enough to provide a more detailed picture of the tallit bag in question:

This shall henceforth be filed under "random things Daniella makes Josep waste time on during his weekends"
This shall be filed under “random things Daniella makes Josep waste time on during his weekends”

An Introduction to the World’s Biggest Book Club

Dear Josep,

Most people who know the basics about Judaism know that our holy book is what we call the Torah. But there is a lot of confusion around this because we have a lot of holy books! The Bible, the Talmud, the prayer books, and a whole slew of rabbinic literature from throughout the centuries.

So in this letter we’re going to make some order in this chaos.

The Torah

This is kind of confusing because the word “Torah” is used to refer to a few different things. It literally means “instruction”, and for the most part, when we use it, we’re referring to the entire body of teachings and Jewish law, starting with the Bible and all the way down to the rabbinic literature being written at this very moment. When we say that we believe God gave us the Torah at Sinai, what we mean is that He gave us the Written Torah (which is the first five books of the Bible), and also an Oral Torah, which is meant to be taught from teacher to student and father to son. We’ll elaborate more on the Oral Torah later.

As I mentioned, though, sometimes the word “Torah” is referring to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is also called “the Chumash”, which translates well as “the Pentateuch”. The Torah was first written down as scrolls. During the beginning of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in Judea, the leaders of the reestablished Jewish community, Ezra and Nehemiah, established a law that the Torah scroll should be read publicly three times a week. They divided the Torah into weekly portions for this purpose. They did this because Jews at the time were poorly versed in Torah and were forgetting how to speak Hebrew. (They spoke Aramaic.) That custom stuck and is still practiced in every observant Jewish community today. The weekly portion is read from the Torah scroll on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, during prayer services. This is how it looks in an American Ashkenazi synagogue:

This is how it looks at a Sephardi service at the Western Wall:

Ashkenazi scrolls, as you see in the video, are generally wrapped around two handles, and covered with a decorative cloth when not in use. Sephardi scrolls are kept in a special case of wood or metal, wrapped around rods that are turned while the scroll is still in the case.

Sephardi style Torah case "SilverTorahCase" by http://hadadbros.com/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 il via Wikimedia Commons.
Sephardi style Torah case.

SilverTorahCase” by http://hadadbros.com/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 il via Wikimedia Commons.

Ashkenazi style Torah scroll גמלאי עיריית טבריה [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Ashkenazi style Torah scroll
גמלאי עיריית טבריה [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
You will notice that they are chanting the words of the Torah in a kind of singing way. This is called “cantillating”. There is a very specific system of notes designated for this purpose, which is marked in the Chumash when it is in book form.

Like this one. This is the book of Genesis, with English translation and rabbinic commentary.
Like this one. This is the book of Genesis, with English translation and rabbinic commentary.

In scroll form, it must be written using the same special calligraphy and parchment that we use for the mezuza.

The Tanakh

The word Tanakh is a Hebrew acronym for the words Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), which essentially make up the Jewish Bible or as y’all prefer to call it, the Old Testament. This is the hardcover book I gave you.

Don't worry, we're still covered. ;)
Don’t worry, we’re still covered. 😉

I should mention here the other important scroll in Jewish life: Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, often referred to as simply “the Megillah”. It appears in Writings, and is read from the scroll during the holiday of Purim, which is coming right up. 😉

The Talmud

So remember this Oral Torah I mentioned that was supposed to be passed orally from teacher to student? The reason we needed it was that we needed a system to interpret the Written Torah. There are places in the Torah where God says “do X as I have described to you”, and there is no description in the text. That is referring to this Oral Law. In fact, there is a law that we are not supposed to write down this law, because it is meant to be a “living Torah” that is dynamic and shifts with the new needs and issues of each generation.

But, there was a problem. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the great Torah scholars were being killed and teaching Torah was illegal under the Romans. Under these circumstances, it was decided that the Oral Torah must be written down to preserve it for future generations. Rabbi Judah the Prince, an important figure at the time, compiled the teachings into a volume that was completed around the year 200. This book was called the Mishna (which means “teaching”).

Another volume was eventually compiled of analysis and commentary on the Mishna, and this was called the Gemara (which means “study” in Aramaic). These two volumes together, the Mishna and the Gemara, comprise the Talmud (which means “study” in Hebrew).

There are two versions of Gemara; one was compiled in Israel and completed around 350-400. This is called the “Talmud Yerushalmi”–the Jerusalem Talmud. Another was compiled in Babylonia, where the biggest and most important Jewish community was at the time, and it is called the “Talmud Bavli” (the Babylonian Talmud). The latter is the one most widely studied. It is also much longer and more comprehensive.

Yup. Allllll that is the Babylonian Talmud. This is why Jews spend their entire lives studying this thing... By אני (אני) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Yup. Allllll that is the Babylonian Talmud. Jews spend entire lifetimes studying this thing…
By אני (אני) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The rest of rabbinic literature is basically analysis and interpretation of the Talmud. Except….

The Siddur

The Siddur (which means “order”) is the Jewish prayer book, which you have seen yourself at least twice. 😉

This is an extra one I have lying around that happens to be the one I brought with me to Barcelona. You found it lying around in the office somewhere and handed it to me, and I remember having half a mind to let you keep it. ;)
This is an extra one I have lying around that happens to be the one I brought with me to Barcelona. You found it lying around in the office somewhere and handed it to me, and I remember having half a mind to let you keep it. 😉

It has been compiled over a long period. Formal prayer was institutionalized by Ezra and Nehemiah for the same reasons mentioned above–mostly to preserve the Jews’ Hebrew. All traditional Jewish prayer is in Hebrew. The prayer they wrote was the Shmona Esrei, a collection of eighteen blessings that we are supposed to say three times a day. Over time a lot more was added onto it; we read the Shema prayer (discussed in the letter on mezuzot) with blessings before and after, and before that, more blessings, poems, and Psalms. There is a different order of prayers for the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, and additional or alternative prayers for Shabbat and holidays. The High Holiday prayers are so different and long that we have a separate book or books for that, called the Machzor (which means “cycle”, referring to the annual cycle of the holidays).

It is also very common to find a book of Psalms on the shelf or in the pocket of an observant Jew. It’s part of the Tanakh (in Writings), a collection of poem-prayers traditionally attributed to King David.

The Haggadah

The Haggadah (which means “telling” in Hebrew) is a book exclusively read on the first night of Passover during the Seder (the Passover ceremonial meal; I’ll elaborate in a later letter). It was compiled during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, and the text has remained the same for hundreds and hundreds of years. There are a number of precious ancient Haggadot that were created hundreds of years ago and still have the same text we use today.

Such as.... the Barcelona Haggadah. :) This beautifully illuminated volume was created in 14th-century Barcelona. The text here is clearly legible and recognizable from the Haggadot we use today.
Such as…. the Barcelona Haggadah. 🙂 This beautifully illuminated volume was created in 14th-century Barcelona. The text here is clearly legible and recognizable from the Haggadot we use today. It is a passage from the Talmud telling the story of several rabbis who stayed up all night to discuss the exodus from Egypt on Passover.

Turns out, we are known as the People of the Book for a reason… 🙂



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.




*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?