The Mezuzah and the Home
V'etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 )
One of the many fundamental mitzvot that are taught in this week's Torah portion is the mezuzah. We are commanded to put up a mezuzah that contains section of the Shema on the doorposts of our homes. The Sefer HaChinuch1 writes that the basic reason given for this mitzvah is that we should think of God every time we enter our homes. The Sefer HaChinuch also brings the Talmud2 that cites Rabbah saying that it is mitzvah to put the Mezuzah in area facing the reshus harabim (public space) so that a person entering the house will be immediately met by a Mitzva.
These ideas teach that the mitzvah of Mezuzah teaches us that home must be a place that is infused with G-d awareness as much as any other place, including places of prayer and study. It is possible to expand on this concept through a number of fascinating observations on the Torah.
In the Torah portion of Balak, Bilaam unwillingly blesses the Jewish people with beautiful blessings and words of praise. One of the most famous of these are the words: “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha, Yisrael”3 – “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your sanctuaries, Israel”. In the first part of this verse, Bilaam praises the homes of the Jewish people. Rashi elaborates on the nature of this praise: Bilaam saw that the openings of each tent were not facing each-other in order to maintain the privacy of each tent. However, it is not immediately clear what the word ‘Mishkenotecha’ (which normally denotes a holy sanctuary) refers to at the end of the verse. Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky explains that this also refers to the homes of the Jewish people. Bilaam was saying that they treat their homes with such holiness, that their home is transformed into a Mishkan in its own right. Bilaam was conveying that by acting with modesty in one’s home, is home becomes elevated from being simply the mundane location where one eats and sleeps, to being a place of great holiness.
The person who is perhaps most associated with elevating the mundane aspects of life, including in the home, is Yaakov.4 The Sages tell us that the Patriarchs described the Temple, (and service of God by extension), in different ways. Avraham described the Temple as a mountain, Yitzchak termed it as a field, and Yaakov referred to it as a house. It seems that these various descriptions represent the different ways that the Patriarchs related to serving God.
Why does Yaakov describe it as a house? A house is the location of all the mundane activities that a person performs throughout his daily life, including eating, sleeping, and forms of work. Of all the Patriarchs, Yaakov was the one who was most required to be deeply involved in the daily vicissitudes of life such as dealing with dishonest people, spending long hours at work, and bringing up a large family. For many years he was forced to deal with mundane areas that are not in and of themselves Mitzvot and he was unable to devote all his time to learning and prayer. One aspect of Yaakov's greatness is that he was able to live in such an environment and elevate his daily activities into acts of holiness. This is what he declares to his brother, Esav, when he returns from his long years in exile. "I lived (garti) with Lavan". The Rabbis tell us that the word, garti, spells, taryag, which represents the 613 mitzvot. Yaakov was alluding to the fact that he had remained steadfast in his service of God, despite living in conditions that were not conducive to spirituality.5 Thus, Yaakov elevated all such activities because he saw them all as opportunities for holiness. Accordingly, he viewed the seemingly mundane home as a vehicle for Divine service.
We have seen the importance of elevating the home. This has been very pertinent over the past year and a half when many people throughout the world were confined to their homes, and the shuls and study halls were. During this time, an astonishing statement of a Rabbi who lived in the 19th century was publicized. This Rabbi said that if it was up to him, he would close the shuls for one hundred years. One would assume that the author of such a statement would not be well-accepted in Torah circles. Yet, it was revealed that its author was none other than Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the great Torah leader in Germany who played a massive role in saving Orthodox Jewry in Germany, and whose influence on the Torah world is still widely felt. So, how could he make such a seemingly controversial statement? He was talking in the context of his times where there was a very strong movement that broke away from the fundamental beliefs of Judaism and preached a new ‘Jewish lifestyle’. One important aspect of their belief was that religion should be confined to the synagogue, but in the home and other ‘mundane’ areas, a Jew should strive as much as possible to be no different from his non-Jewish neighbors. In this view, the home was to be a place devoid of holiness. It seems that Rabbi Hirsch’s seemingly outrageous assertion was said in reaction to this viewpoint. He was conveying that by closing the synagogues, then one would have to pray in his home, learn Torah in his home and so on, and thereby he would renew his focus on elevating the home.
The situation has changed drastically since the time of Rabbi Hirsch and he may well have not made the same point in such a strong manner in a different context, but nonetheless his point remains salient. There can still be the attitude that one learns and prays in shul and in the study hall, but when he gets home, he can relax and be generally involved in mundane activities. Rabbi Hirsch’s message reminds us that this viewpoint is against the Torah outlook that every aspect of one’s life must be infused with holiness. This is the lesson of the Mezuzah – it reminds us that God is not just in shul, He is everywhere and we are required to bring Him into our lives in every domain.
- Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 423.
- Menachos, 33a.
- Bamidbar, 24:5.
- Pesachim, 88a.
- Vayishlach, 32:5, Rashi, dh:garti