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Mezuzah: The Inside Story

September 4, 2018 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Complete guide to making your doorpost Jewish. But will it protect your home?

On the doorpost of every Jewish home rests a mezuzah. Some may think it's a dainty decoration or a good luck charm. Put one up to keep the evil spirits away!

Actually, a mezuzah is a daily reminder – and a public declaration – of Jewish identity and faith.

Though mezuzah literally means "doorpost," it commonly refers to a scroll of parchment containing biblical verses, placed on the doorpost.

The mezuzah recalls the Exodus from Egypt, when the lamb's blood smeared on the doorpost "identified" the Jewish homes that God passed over during the plague of the first born.

In areas where Jews have been exiled, doorposts still bear the mark of a mezuzah removed.

From that day forward, the mezuzah has always identified a home as being Jewish. Travelling throughout the world, one can often seek out fellow Jews by looking for a mezuzah on the door. In areas where Jews have been exiled (e.g. Eastern Europe and Middle East countries), many doorposts still bear the mark of a mezuzah removed.

The scroll contains the first two paragraphs of the "Shema" prayer, declaring the oneness of God, and commanding us "to write [these words] on the doorpost of your house and on your gates" (Deut. 6:4-9). The second passage (Deut. 11:13-21) teaches that Jewish destiny, both individually and nationally, depends upon fulfilling God's will.

In Hebrew, the word for human dwelling is dirah, while the word for animal dwelling is dir. The difference between these two words is the letter hey – signifying the Name of God. The presence of God in one's home is what distinguishes us as ly human.

If we want our internal world to reflect Godly ideals, we have to protect it against the outside world at the point of interface: the doorway. This means monitoring the contents of books, games and video that we expose our children and ourselves to.

As well, having a mezuzah on each room means that whenever we move from one domain, one sphere of activity, to another, we must renew our consciousness of God's presence and act in a way that sanctifies His Name.

Once learned, the lesson extends beyond our home and into all areas of life. Just as a house has doorways, so too we have eyes, ears, nose, and mouth – portals to the external world. The values of the Torah call for our mouths to eat kosher food and speak "kosher" words; for our ears not to listen to gossip; for our eyes not to run after empty desires.

So there you have it. The mezuzah is there to keep away evil spirits. Not those that float around, the figments of Hollywood's rich imagination. But those that we can control, inside our doors and our hearts.

Guardian of Israel

On the reverse side of the mezuzah scroll is the Hebrew name of God, Shaddai. This name is an acronym for "Guardian of the Doors of Israel." (Shin, the first letter of this Name, often appears on the mezuzah case.)

In the time of the Talmud, a rich Persian King named Arteban boasted about his "unmatched wealth." One day he sent Rabbi Yehudah a pearl. Rabbi Yehudah sent a gift in return: a mezuzah with the following note: "Your gift of the pearl must be guarded from thieves who may harm you, but my gift is even more valuable because it guards us from harm!"

Most mitzvot have the power to protect while we are actively engaged in performing them, but mezuzah is in that it protects even as we sleep.

A story that I personally witnessed illustrates this point. My wife's grandmother had developed a numbness in her hand. She visited a variety of doctors and specialists, but no one could help her. The numbness persisted for months, and was getting progressively worse.

Finally, my wife's grandmother asked her rabbi for advice. "Check your mezuzah," he said.

The scroll was perfect―except for a missing letter yud, related to the Hebrew word for hand.

Left with no other "more practical" option, she took down the mezuzah and looked inside. The meticulously written scroll was perfect – except for one letter missing: a yud. Yud is related to the Hebrew word for hand, yad.

My wife's grandmother had the mezuzah replaced, and used this experience to "check herself" for any behaviors that might have been causing the pain. The mezuzah was a trigger toward introspection and self-improvement. And within days her hand returned to normal. True story.

It is a foundation of Judaism that the Almighty cares about us; He wants to give us long life and protection. And as in all relationships, the more we put into it, the more we get out of it. By declaring our loyalty to God and His precepts – i.e. by protecting the mezuzah and its ideals – God will protect us in turn.

"Kosher" Mezuzah

Though "mezuzah" refers to the actual parchment itself, "mezuzah" is colloquially used to also describe the decorative case the scroll is stored in. Unfortunately, many Jewish homes have ornate cases containing invalid scrolls – or no scroll at all! The internal depth of Judaism has been stripped away, leaving nothing more than a posh exterior.

Indeed, a xeroxed mezuzah is not kosher, and serves no purpose whatsoever.

Any mistakes or missing letters invalidates the entire parchment.

A "kosher" mezuzah is hand-written on genuine parchment, prepared from the skin of a kosher animal. A specially trained scribe, known as a sofer, carefully writes the words using special black ink and a quill pen. The letters must be written according to halacha (Jewish Law), and every letter and word must be correct. Any mistakes or missing letters invalidates the entire parchment.

It is not possible to know if a mezuzah is kosher just by looking at it, since part of it's being kosher has to do with the scribe who wrote it. It is for this reason that one should buy a mezuzah from a God-fearing person. Look for a scribe with certification from the Vaad Mishmeret Stam.

A kosher mezuzah should cost $30-40. You can purchase valid scrolls online at:
Aish Shopping

To protect the mezuzah from the elements, you should place it in a case. Jewish bookstores sell a wide range of mezuzah cases – from inexpensive plastic, to artistic porcelain, to elaborate silver. (If you're putting the mezuzah outside, be sure to buy a waterproof case.)

Because of humidity and natural aging, the letters on a mezuzah can become cracked or faded. For this reason, a mezuzah should be checked twice every seven years.

Which Doorway Needs a Mezuzah?

In practice today, the custom is to put a mezuzah on most doors that people use. Therefore, a Jewish home typically has mezuzot on the front and side doors, porch, bedrooms, living room, playroom, garage (if used for storage and not just cars), laundry room, etc.

A bathroom does not get a mezuzah. Closets and other small spaces that are not large enough to be used for normal living do not need a mezuzah. (Though some authorities require it.)

In Israel, all public buildings – restaurants, government offices, hotels, etc. – have a mezuzah on every door (except for bathrooms).

When a Jew and non-Jew share a house, each having his own designated room or area, then a mezuzah is not posted on the common doorway. (Rama Y.D. 286:1 with Pitchei Teshuva 3)

When moving into a new home, a mezuzah should be put up within 30 days.

When moving into a new home, a mezuzah should be put up immediately. If you're only renting, and the house or apartment is located in the diaspora, then the mezuzah can be put up within 30 days.

When moving out of a home – and the next occupant is also Jewish – it is considered disrespectful to remove the mezuzot. But since there is a significant expense involved (since one house could have many mezuzot), it is appropriate for the new occupants to pay for the mezuzot, or alternatively to offer to put up their own.

What are the technical specs? According to the Talmud (Yoma 11, Sukkah 3b), the following conditions obligate a room in mezuzah:

  1. The room must be at least 4 cubits by 4 cubits (about 4 square meters).
  2. The entrance must have two doorposts and a lintel, and the entrance should be at least 10 handbreadths high (about 80-100 cm.). If the right side of the opening is flush with the wall, or if the top of the opening is flush with the ceiling, no mezuzah is required.
  3. The room should be non-holy. This excludes a synagogue, which is holy. (Since our synagogues today also contain an office, social hall, etc,, a mezuzah is required.)
  4. The room should be intended for human occupancy (e.g. excluding a barn), and for permanent occupancy (e.g. excluding a sukkah).
  5. The room should be made for dignified occupancy (e.g. excluding a bathroom).

Ready to Roll!

Once you have a mezuzah, here's how to roll it up:

  1. Place the parchment in front of you so the text of the "Shema" is facing you.
  2. The mezuzah is rolled, not folded. Begin to roll from the left side (i.e. from the end of the Hebrew text), so that the words are on the inside.
  3. Be careful to roll smoothly and do not crease the parchment. Scratching off any ink renders the mezuzah invalid.
  4. The rolled mezuzah is then wrapped in a protective covering, with the wrapping only around the outside of the mezuzah (i.e. not in-between the rolling). It is best to wrap the parchment in a material that breathes, like wax paper. Plastic wrap makes the parchment sweat and could destroy the letters, especially if the mezuzah is placed outside. (Wrapping the mezuzah is not a requirement; for aesthetic reasons you may prefer to leave it unwrapped when the mezuzah case is a see-through material like glass.)

Perfect Placement

  1. When placing the mezuzah in the case or on the wall, be sure that the Hebrew word "Shaddai," which is written on the back of the parchment, is facing outward (i.e. toward the entrance once it is affixed). Also, make sure the mezuzah is not upside down!
  2. The mezuzah should be placed on the right-hand doorpost – i.e. on the right side of the door as you enter the room. The Talmud learns this from the word "your house" (beit'echa), which can be rendered "as you enter" (bi'atcha).
  3. How far up on the doorpost? The mezuzah should be placed on the lower part of the upper-third of the doorpost – approximately shoulder height. (The Talmud compares this to Tefillin, which is placed on the upper arm.)
  4. At which angle? The Ashkenazi custom is to position the mezuzah at a slight angle, with the top half pointing toward the room you are about to enter. The Sephardi custom is to place the mezuzah straight up vertically. (If the doorpost is too narrow to allow for a slant, Ashkenazim also place it vertically.)
  5. If the doorway is deep, the mezuzah should be placed on the doorpost within 3 inches of the entrance. If the doorway has little depth, i.e. it is not possible to place the mezuzah on the doorpost within the doorway itself, then the mezuzah is placed on the outer part of the doorpost, within 3 inches of the doorway.
  6. The mezuzah should be permanently affixed, with glue, nails or screws. Tape that would easily fall off if bumped into is regarded as too temporary to be considered "affixed." Similarly, velcro and magnets may not be used.
  7. The mezuzah must be affixed both on the top and bottom. When using double-sided foam tape, either use one long piece which reaches the top and bottom of the mezuzah case, or put two pieces – one on top and one on the bottom.
  8. A strong glue or double-sided foam tape is acceptable only if the case opens from the top or bottom. If the case opens from the back, then by using glue or foam tape, only the removable back of the cover will be "affixed to the doorpost," while the hollow section containing the mezuzah will not. Therefore, a case which opens from the back should be affixed with nails or screws. [If that option does not exist, one may use tape to seal the back of the case to the body of the case, and then post it as such.]

Reciting the Blessing

Before reciting the blessing, the case with the mezuzah enclosed should be held against the doorpost – ready to turn the first screw or tap in the first nail. If using glue or foam tape, be prepared to firmly affix the case on the doorpost immediately upon completing the blessing.

Once the mezuzah is in position, but before affixing it to the door, the following blessing is recited:

If you are hanging many mezuzot at the same time, only one blessing is recited on the first mezuzah – usually the front door. When making the blessing, have in mind the remaining mezuzot, and try not to make any interruptions until all the mezuzot are affixed.

Getting the Message

Once the mezuzah is up, are you done? Far from it...

Consider the fabled story of Bob Johnson, owner of Johnson's Widgets. Bob was known for running a profitable factory, and every day he followed a detailed management routine to ensure the utmost productivity and efficiency.

One day, Johnson decided to take a vacation, so he asked Jake the janitor to look after the factory while he was gone. Jake was a little skeptical about his own ability to manage such a complex operation. "Don't worry," said Johnson. "I've got it all worked out to a science. I've written down the instructions and taped them to the office wall."

Johnson, feeling assured that Jake would do everything according to plan, enjoyed a marvelous vacation. But upon return, he found the factory a complete shambles: Equipment was broken down, materials were strewn across the floor, workers were standing around idly, and worst of all the office area had been completely destroyed.

Jake was standing there, his clothes torn and his face charcoal black, with the taped instructions smoldering on the wall.

I put the instructions on the wall, but I guess I forgot to read them.

"What happened!?" cried Johnson. "I put all the instructions clearly on the wall!"

Jake looked down dejectedly. "I guess I forgot to read them."

So too, the Torah gives us instructions for living – how to actualize our potential, how to have a successful marriage, how to raise healthy children, and how to find happiness, meaning and fulfillment. God's got it worked out to a science.

God told us to put these verses on our doorpost, to remind us of His "instructions for living." Many people have the custom to touch the mezuzah when walking through the doorway, and then to kiss their hand. As we pass by, we focus on God's instructions posted on the wall.

The Torah demonstrates how to make Jewish values a permanent, everyday part of our lives. To help us remember the message, we repeat these verses when we arise in the morning, and just before going to sleep at night. And we make it permanent by affixing it to our doorpost. It's the original Jewish billboard.

But don't make the mistake of Jake in our story. Don't kiss the mezuzah by mere rote. Ponder these instructions, find time to study them, and live with them!

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