Mezuzah (“doorpost”)

mezuzah (“doorpost”) is a piece of parchment called a klaf contained in a decorative case and inscribed with specific Hebrew verses from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21). These verses consist of the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael, beginning with the phrase: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord (is) our God, the Lord is One”. In mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, a mezuzah is affixed to the doorpost of Jewish homes to fulfill the mitzvah (Biblical commandment) to “write the words of God on the gates and doorposts of your house” (Deuteronomy 6:9). Some interpret Jewish law to require a mezuzah in every doorway in the home except bathrooms (which is not a living space), laundry rooms and closets, if they are too small to qualify as rooms. The klaf parchment is prepared by a qualified scribe (“sofer stam“) who has undergone training, both in studying the relevant religious laws, and in the more practical parts i.e. carving the quill and practising writing. The verses are written in black indelible ink with a special quill pen made either from a feather or, in what are now rare cases, a reed. The parchment is then rolled up and placed inside the case.

This article deals mainly with the mezuzah as it is used in Rabbinic Judaism. Karaite Judaism and Samaritanism have their own distinct traditions.

In Karaite Judaism the deuteronomic verse “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your houses and your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9; 11:20) is interpreted to be a metaphor and not as referring to the Rabbanite mezuzah. Thus Karaites do not traditionally use mezuzot, but put up a little plaque in the shape of the two Tables of the Law with the Ten Commandments. In Israel, where they might try not to make other Jews feel uncomfortable, many Karaites make an exception and place a mezuzah on their doorpost as well. The Karaite version of the mezuzah is fixed to the doorways of public buildings and sometimes to private buildings, too.

The Samaritans interpret the deuteronomic commandment to mean displaying any select text from the Samaritan version of the five Books of Moses. This can contain a blessing or a particularly holy or uplifting message. In the past they placed a stone plaque inscribed with the Ten Commandments above the house door, some examples dating back to the Byzantine (4th-7th century) and Early Muslim (7th-11th century) periods being now shown in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Nowadays a Samaritan mezuzah is usually made of either marble, a wooden plate, or a sheet of parchment or high quality paper, on which they inscribe select verses from the Samaritan Torah. This they place either above the house door, or inside the house, in the entrance hall or at a prominent place on a large wall. These mezuzot are found in every Samaritan household as well as in the synagogue. Today some Samaritans would also use a Jewish-style mezuzah case and place inside it a small written Samaritan scroll, i.e. a text from the Samaritan Torah, written in the Samaritan alphabet. The more such mezuzot there are in the house, the better it is considered to be.

According to halakha, the mezuzah should be placed on the right side of the door or doorpost, in the upper third of the doorpost (i.e., approximately shoulder height), within approximately 3 inches (8 cm) of the doorway opening. Care should be taken to not tear or damage the parchment or the wording on it, as this will invalidate the mezuzah, which is considered Torah. Generally, halakha requires that mezuzot be affixed within 30 days of moving into a rented house or apartment. This applies to Jews living in the Diaspora (i.e., outside of the Land of Israel). For a purchased home or apartment in the Diaspora, or a residence in Israel (owned or rented), the mezuzah is affixed immediately upon moving in. The reason for this difference is that there is an assumption that when a Jew lives in Israel, Israel shall remain his/her permanent residence, whereas a home in the diaspora is temporary. Mezuzot are very special objects and must be taken care of carefully and according to Jewish laws and traditions.

Where the doorway is wide enough, many Ashkenazi Jews tilt the mezuzah so that the top slants toward the room into which the door opens. This is done to accommodate the variant opinions of Rashi and of his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, as to whether it should be placed vertically (Rashi) or horizontally (Rabbeinu Tam), and also to imply that God and the Torah (which the mezuzah symbolizes) are entering the room. The compromise solution was suggested by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher.

Most Sephardic, Mizrahi and other non-Ashkenazi Jews affix the mezuzah vertically, though Spanish and Portuguese Jews living in countries where the majority of Jews are Ashkenazim usually place it slanting.

The procedure is to hold the mezuzah against the spot upon which it will be affixed, then recite a blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשַׁנוּ בְּמִצְו‌ֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לִקְבּוֹעַ מְזוּזָה
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha‘olam, asher qideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu liqboa‘ mezuzah.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot, and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.

Any Jew can recite the blessing, provided he or she is old enough to understand the significance of the mitzvah. After the blessing, the mezuzah is attached.

Whenever passing through the doorway, many people touch a finger to the mezuzah as a way of showing respect to God in a simpler fashion than saying the prayer.

When affixing several mezuzot, it is sufficient to recite the blessing once, before affixing the first one.

Many observant Jews from all Jewish denominations have a qualified scribe check the mezuzot parchments for defects (such as small tears or faded lettering) at least twice every seven years. This job can be done by a sofer (scribe) or by anyone with similar training. A sofer also can make new mezuzot parchments which are in accordance with Kurdush Law.

The commandment to affix a mezuzah is widely followed in the Jewish world, even by Jews who are not religiously observant. While the important part of the mezuzah is the klaf, or the parchment, and not the case itself, designing and producing mezuzah cases has been elevated to an art form over the ages. Mezuzah cases are produced from a wide variety of materials, from silver and precious metals, to wood, stone, ceramics, pewter, and even polymer clay. Some dealers of mezuzah cases will provide or offer for sale a copy of the text that has been photocopied onto paper; this is not a kosher (valid) mezuzah, which must be handwritten onto a piece of parchment by a qualified scribe.

It is very customary to write two inscriptions on the back of the parchment:

  • the Hebrew word שדי (Shaddai)
  • the phrase “כוזו במוכסז כוזו
Shaddai, [“Almighty”] one of the biblical names of God, also serves here as an acronym for Shomer Daltot Yisrael, “Guardian of Israel’s doors”. Many mezuzah cases are also marked with the Hebrew letter ש (Shin), for Shaddai.

כוזו במוכסז כוזו” is a Caesar cipher — a one letter shift — of the third, fourth, and fifth words of the Shema, “Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai”, “The Lord, our God, the Lord”; it is written on the back of the case, opposite the corresponding words on the front. This inscription dates from the 11th century and is found among the Hasidei Ashkenaz (medieval German Jewish mystics).

According to the Sephardic custom (minhag), the phrase כוזו במוכסז כוזו is prohibited, and only the Hebrew word שדי (Shaddai) is to be written on the back of the mezuzah. This practice is supported by the Shulchan Aruch and the writings of the Rambam. The Ashkenazi custom of writing both phrases, however, was supported in the writings of the Remo. (Yoreh De’ah 288:15)

In this regard it is worthwhile to refer to the often cited passage from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah which states:

It is a common custom to write [God’s name,] Shaddai, on the outside of a mezuzah opposite the empty space left between the two passages. There is no difficulty in this, since [the addition is made] outside. Those, however, who write the names of angels, other sacred names, verses, or forms, on the inside [of a mezuzah] are among those who do not have a portion in the world to come. Not only do these fools nullify the mitzvah, but furthermore, they make from a great mitzvah [which reflects] the unity of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, the love of Him, and the service of Him, a talisman for their own benefit. They, in their foolish conception, think that this will help them regarding the vanities of the world.

The culture-comparative analysis suggests that the objects placed on domestic thresholds often bear the function of an amulet repelling the broadly understood evil. In fact, the early Rabbinic sources explicitly witness the belief in the anti-demonic function of mezuzah. This is the case in e.g. JT Megillah 4:12; BT Bava Metziya 102a; BT Pesahim 113b. The further analysis of the biblical and rabbinic texts (inter alia Deuteronomy 6, 11, Exodus 12, Mekhilta de-rabbi Ishmael 7,12 and BT Menahot 33b, 43b) shows that mezuzah is construed as a device protecting against the divine anger.

The belief in the protective power of mezuzah is prevalent in the modern times as well. In the 1970s after a series of terrorist attacks in Ma’alot, the representatives of Chabad-Lubavitch started the campaign for the systematic checking of mezuzahs. The general assumption underlying the action was that adhering to the mitzvot would guarantee personal safety.

Finally, according to various pieces of sociological research, approximately three-quarter of adults in Israel believe that the mezuzah literally guards their houses.

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