Upon approaching it, a Jewish home is instantly recognizable by the attachment at its right entry doorpost. Indeed, in foreign lands where Jews once heavily resided, many doorposts still bear faint markings of their vanished former presence. That attachment is a mezuzah (lit. ‘doorpost’), containing a parchment scroll on which are written two separate sections of Pentateuchal verses:
“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. Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you lie down and when your arise. Bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be tefillin between your eyes. And write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” (Deut. 6:4-9)
“And it will come to pass that if you continually hearken to My commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord, your God, and to serve Him, with all your heart and with all your soul – then you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. I will provide grass in your field for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware, lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve gods of others and bow to them. Then the wrath of the Lord will blaze against you. He will restrain the heaven so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce. And you will swiftly be banished from the goodly land which the Lord gives you. Place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul; bind them for a sign upon your arm and let them be tefillin between your eyes. Teach them to your children, to discuss them, while your sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you arise. And write
them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. In order to prolong your days and the days of your children upon the ground that the Lord has sworn to your ancestors to give them, like the days of the heaven on the earth.” (Deut. 11:13-21)
That the doubly prescribed commandment: “And write them on the doorposts of your homes and upon your gates” appears first only in the last of the Five Books of Moses seems highly significant. Deuteronomy particularly presents selected commandments from the previous four Books, plus newly enunciated ones, that relate to the coming conquest and settlement of Canaan. Instead of the tents of their wanderings in the Desert, the Israelites would thereafter be residing in permanent dwellings. Their doorposts would need prominently to proclaim that the permanence of their presence was strongly dependent on continued adherence to its Divine conditions.
The first set of verses begins with the succinct supreme expression of Jewish monotheistic faith. Its text further enjoins an all-encompassing God-centered lifestyle, one that is to be faithfully transmitted from generation to generation. The second set of verses presents promised generous rewards for faithful adherence to God’s above-stated commandments as well as the punishments awaiting their transgression.
No matter how simple or ornate, it is certainly not the container, but its contained rolled scroll, that is the essence of the mezuzah. As with a Torah scroll, its verses are written on parchment by a ‘Sopher’ (scribe). On its reverse side is written one of God’s names: ‘Shaddai” (the Almighty), formed by the three Hebrew letters: ‘Shin’, ‘Daled’ and ‘Yud’. Some cases have a round opening through which this Name is visible. More commonly, a ‘Shin’ will be prominently displayed on the mezuzah’s cover. A popular saying treats the Name’s presence on the mezuzah as an acronym: ‘Shomer Dalsos Yisrael’: Guardian of the Doors of Israel.
The commandment applies only to permanent dwellings, taking effect after thirty days of residence. Thus a Sukkah, used only for the eight days of its holiday, does not require one. Not only does the home’s main entryway display a mezuzah, but so does each exterior door and the doors of interior rooms, excluding bathrooms, other non-living spaces, or rooms without a complete defined doorframe. In Ashkenazic practice, a mezuzah is affixed at a slight angle, where possible, in the upper third of righthand doorpost of the more important room being entered. On doing so, the blessing “to affix a mezuzah”, is recited. A common custom, on leaving a house or synagogue, is to touch the mezuzah and then kiss those fingers. Since it is essential that the mezuzah retain its pristine perfection, it should periodically be checked to ensure that none of the letters have become defective, either through age or weather. Twice, every seven years, is
While the mezuzah is not an amulet, Biblical allusions do convey a notion of its protectiveness. In preparation for the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews were commanded to take a sheep or goat on the tenth of the month of Nisan, slaughter it on the fourteenth, and daub its blood on the doorposts and lintel of their homes. That onetime action afforded them Divine protection that night from the tenth and culminating plague, the Slaying of the Firstborn.
Whether or not mezuzahs have been physically protective, this much beloved commandment has certainly been spiritually so for successive generations from Sinai.