“The Magic of the Mezuzah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter the first of two textual references to the mitzvah of mezuzah that are found in the Torah.

In the final verse of the Shema prayer that is found in Deuteronomy 6:5-9, we read the following: “Ooch’tahv’tam ahl mezuzot bay’teh’cha oo’vish’ah’reh’cha,” and you shall write them [these words] on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. These exact words are repeated in the penultimate verse of the second paragraph of the Shema, known as “V’haya im sha’mo’ah,” which appears in next week’s parasha, Eikev, Deuteronomy 11:13-21.

The name “mezuzah” is a misnomer. Mezuzah literally means doorpost. Over the centuries, however, the parchment on which these two paragraphs of the Torah are written has taken on the name mezuzah.

It is a Torah commandment for Jews to affix a mezuzah, these two Torah portions written on parchment usually housed in a case or amulet, to the right-hand side of the doorpost of one’s home.

Maimonides lists 10 conditions that must be met for a mezuzah to be affixed: 1) The room must be 4 cubits by 4 cubits (approximately 8 feet by 8 feet); 2) There must be two doorposts, one on either side; 3) A lintel on top must connect the two doorposts to form a doorway; 4) There must be a roof on the house or above the room; 5) The doorway must have an actual door (the prevalent custom today is to affix a mezuzah to any doorway, even one without a door); 6) The gate or the door must be at least 10 hand-breadths high (approximately 40 inches); 7) The house should not be used for sacred purposes. Consequently, a synagogue does not require a mezuzah. However, in most cases mezuzot are affixed to synagogue entrances for symbolic reasons; 8) The house must be a dwelling, appropriate for living; 9) The room must be used for “respectable” purposes, not a toilet or a bathhouse; 10) The dwelling must be permanent, not temporary, such as a sukkah.

A mezuzah should be affixed in a more or less permanent manner, to the doorpost at the bottom of the top third of the doorpost’s height. Scotch tape is generally not considered sufficiently secure. With a few exceptions, Ashkenazic Jews generally affix the mezuzah on a slant, in order to resolve the rabbinic dispute regarding whether the mezuzah should be posted vertically or horizontally. Some say that the slant represents compromise, which is always necessary for peace and tranquility to prevail in one’s home.

Many Sephardim have a custom to affix the mezuzah vertically. When affixed on a slant, the top of the mezuzah should be tilted toward the inside of the room. In the case of a doorway that connects adjoining rooms, the mezuzah is placed on the right side of the doorway of the room that is most significant. Thus, a mezuzah on a doorway that connects a porch to a dining room would be affixed on the right of the doorway when entering the dining room, since the dining room is generally considered to be the more significant room. In the land of Israel, a mezuzah must be posted as soon as one moves into a new dwelling. Outside of Israel, residents of rental dwellings have 30 days to post a mezuzah, and property owners need to post the mezuzah immediately. It is more appropriate for all to affix the mezuzah upon moving into a new dwelling. (There are many websites that help neophytes to properly affix a mezuzah — Click here)

The decorative case that is used to encase the mezuzah scroll is really insignificant and has no intrinsic religious value. Homes in the Arab Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem that were formerly inhabited by Jews may be clearly identified by the groove in the stone doorway where mezuzot used to be affixed when Jews resided in those homes.

Before affixing a mezuzah, one recites the blessing, “Blessed art Thou, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us upon the fixing of the mezuzah,” in Hebrew, “lik’bo’ah mezuzah.” If one is posting more than one mezuzah, a single blessing may be recited for all of the mezuzot, as long as there’s no unnecessary interruption between the blessing and affixing the mezuzot.

It is customary for the three Hebrew letter name of G-d, “Shaddai,” to appear on the outside of the mezuzah parchment, indicating that G-d is watching over the dwelling. Some say that the three letters of “Shaddai,” shin, dalet, and yud, stand for the Hebrew words “shomer daltot Yisrael“, that G-d is the guardian of the doors of Israel. There is also a custom to write a series of Hebrew letters that spell out, “kozu beh’mochazaz kozu” on the back side of the mezuzah parchment. These letters are a surrogate for the Hebrew letters for “G-d, our G-d, is G-d,”–“Hashem Eh’lo’hay’noo, Hashem.”

The Chinuch and Nachmanides maintain that both mezuzah and tefillin serve as reminders of both the omnipresence of G-d and that all Jews are obligated to maintain faith in G-d. The Abarbanel says that the mezuzah serves to remind Jews of the gates and doorposts of their national homeland, Israel. The Alshich maintains that mezuzot should be affixed not only to the front door of a dwelling, but to all appropriate rooms within the home, to serve as a reminder that improper behavior is prohibited both in private and in public. This is the prevailing custom today.

There is a poignant story told of a young Jewish boy who spent a week with his observant grandparents while his more secular parents vacationed. Every day, upon leaving or entering his grandparents’ home, his grandfather would lift the child up to touch the mezuzah and kiss the hand that touched the mezuzah. When the little boy asked “Why?” the grandfather told him that G-d dwells in the mezuzah.

When the child’s parents returned from vacation, the child ran out to the car with his luggage and warmly hugged his parents. As the boy was about to enter his parent’s car, he suddenly returned to the house to ask his grandfather to lift him up so that he could kiss the mezuzah one last time. The child reached his hand to the mezuzah, touched his fingers to his lips, and said, “Goodbye, G-d.”

Affixing a mezuzah to a doorpost is one of the most widely known rituals of Judaism. It serves to strengthen Jewish identity. It is our unique good fortune that many Jews today reside in benevolent countries where freedom prevails, allowing us to practice our religious beliefs and rituals publicly. It is a great source of pride to see the numerous mezuzot affixed to the door-fronts of businesses, and even office buildings that are owned by Jews. Several years ago, when new owners purchased the office building at 989  Sixth Avenue, where the offices of NJOP are located, a large mezuzah was affixed to the front door of the building. It serves as a great source of pride.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Thursday night and Friday, August 2nd and 3rd. Happy Tu b’Av. (For more information, please click here)