What is a Mezuzah?

Daphne Fautin, LJCC Board President

I recently found among the belongings of my late cousin Shirley, of blessed memory, an attractive but cheap flattened metal tube in the form of a Torah scroll that contained a piece of paper. I identified it as what I have (erroneously) been calling a mezuzah; I was most puzzled by the piece of paper it contained. It was the Ten Commandments – in English. I thought that was not what belonged there so I was inspired to do some research.

A recent newsletter column by the Rabbi enumerated some books that every Jewish household should possess, among them guides to Jewish living. We have several; I consulted The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion (edited by Werblowsky and Wigoder), To Be a Jew (by Donin), and Guide for the Jewish Homemaker (by Levi and Kaplan). I also looked at what is perhaps the first book of this sort I owned, and is still a sentimental favorite, Herman Wouk’s This is My God, and, of course, I visited the Chabad website and the ever-popular Wikipedia.

They all confirmed my understanding that a mezuzah is to be posted on the ‘doorpost’ of a house in fulfillment of the commandment ‘Thou shalt write them upon the doorposts of thy house and upon thy gates.’ But the real question occasioned by my discovery is what it is that ‘thou shalt write.’ And in the course of finding out that, I learned a lot!

First I learned that what I have been referring to as a mezuzah is not. Wouk’s glossary contains a concise definition of a mezuzah, ‘A doorpost; by extension the boxed scroll containing the Sh’ma with other Bible passages fastened on the doorposts of Jewish homes.’ Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mezuzah) explains more: ‘A mezuzah (Hebrew: “doorpost”; plural: mezuzot), is a piece of parchment (often contained in a decorative case) inscribed with specified Hebrew verses from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21). These verses comprise the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael” … A mezuzah is affixed to the doorframe in Jewish homes to fulfill the mitzvah (Biblical commandment) to inscribe the words of the Shema “on the doorposts of your house” (Deuteronomy 6:9). Some interpret Jewish law to require a mezuzah on every doorway in the home apart from bathrooms and closets too small to qualify as rooms.’

So mezuzah means doorpost but refers to a piece of parchment. Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin alone (of the authorities I consulted) gives the parchment scroll its own name – klaf. And he is alone in stating that one of those fancy boxes is unnecessary — you can carve out a place directly in a doorpost for the klaf. The parchment is written, according to Wikipedia, ‘by a qualified scribe (a “sofer stam“) who has undergone many years of meticulous training, and the verses are written in black indelible ink with a special quill pen. The parchment is then rolled up and placed inside the case.’ Werblowsky and Wigoder explain that the writing of the mezuzah ‘is to be executed with the same care taken in the writing of a Scroll of the Law.’ I also learned (from Wikipedia) that an observant Jew will have the parchment checked for defects by a sofer at least twice every seven years. So, my feeling was confirmed that a piece of paper with the Ten Commandments was not appropriate for the vessel.

Wikipedia states that commonly two inscriptions are written on the back of the parchment, shaddai (“Almighty”), and ‘the third, fourth, and fifth words of the Shema … opposite the corresponding words on the front,’ but that the latter is prohibited in Sephardic tradition. According to Werblowsky and Wigoder, the word shaddai should be seen through an aperture in the holder. Most mezuzah cases have the letter shin (the initial of shaddai) on the holder itself; the object from Shirley that provoked this search has the entire word shaddai (in Hebrew) within the magen David on the front.

The Chabad site (www.chabad.org/generic_cdo/aid/278476/jewish/Mezuzah.htm) seems to regard a mezuzah as a sort of talisman, stating ‘The name of G‑d, Sha-dai, which appears on the reverse side of the parchment, is an acronym for the Hebrew words which mean “Guardian of the doorways of Israel.” The placing of a mezuzah on the doors of a home or office protects the inhabitants — whether they are inside or outside.’ The banner for the Chabad site in a Google search is: ‘Mezuzah – The Jewish security system – Chabad.org’. But the Chabad site begins by stating ‘A mezuzah mounted on the doorpost designates the home as Jewish, reminding us of our connection to G‑d and to our heritage … The mezuzah is also a symbol of G‑d’s watchful care over the home.’ Lest the symbolism be misinterpreted, Levi and Kaplan, who begin their book with a discussion of the mezuzah, state ‘the mezuzah is intended as a lesson, not as a charm,’ preceding that remark with the assertion that the ‘contents [of a mezuzah] are teachings of Judaism.’

Levi and Kaplan, Rabbi Donin, and the websites I consulted provide guidance on affixing mezuzot, and the prayer to be recited when doing so. Wikipedia makes the interesting point that one must affix mezuzot to the doorposts of a purchased residence immediately on moving in, as is also true of a rented residence in Israel, whereas, in the Diaspora, one has 30 days to affix a mezuzah in a rented residence.

At the other end, of the authorities I consulted, only Rabbi Donin provides guidance on what to do when moving from a house – leave the mezuzah if the next resident is Jewish but remove it if not. If the non-Jewish next resident ‘request[s] that the mezuzah be left on since he regards it as some sort of “lucky charm” that might bring him good fortune, this is an unworthy attitude toward the mezuzah and the mezuzah should still be removed … but it may be left on as long as the sacred parchment scroll (klaf) is removed.’

In summary, I learned that a mezuzah is the text itself of the entire Shema, which also includes the commandment concerning t’fillin: ‘Thou shalt bind them for a sign upon they hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes.’ Both the t’fillin and mezuzah fulfill the commandment to recall and recite the Shema. And I learned that ‘A mezuzah is not, contrary to popular belief, the outer container. The mezuzah is actually the parchment scroll within.’ This evidence that my misapprehension is widely shared comes from the Chabad site.

With deep gratitude to Herb for giving me a Kosher klaf for my cheap little case.

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