Mezuzah: God's Word on the Doorpost
What is a Mezuzah?
A mezuzah (from the Hebrew for "doorpost") is a small parchment inscribed with short Torah passages in Hebrew. The parchment is rolled up, placed in a decorative case, and attached to the doorpost of Jewish homes.
The word "mezuzah" technically refers to the scroll only, but in common usage it means either the scroll, the case, or both together. Because the first passage written on the mezuzah is the Shema ("Hear O Israel..."), the mezuzah itself is sometimes also referred to as the Shema.
The practice of hanging mezuzot (the plural of mezuzah) on doorposts is mandated in the Torah and is observed by most Jewish families, even those who are not otherwise very observant or traditional.
Purpose of the Mezuzah
In Deuteronomy, after receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai, Moses tells the Israelites:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. ... Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-6,9)
The primary purpose of hanging a mezuzah is to fulfill this biblical command. The mezuzah also serves as a reminder of God's laws and presence and is a symbol of Jewish identity.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote in his Antiquities, "The greatest benefits of God are to be written on the doors... in order that his benevolent providence may be made known everywhere. According to Maimonides, the great 12th-century rabbi and philosopher, "By the commandment of the mezuzah, man is reminded of the unity of God and is aroused to the love of him."
Modern rabbi and author Joseph Teluskhin explains in Jewish Literacy, "When a Jew enters his house, he sees the mezuzah and is thereby reminded how he should act in his home. Likewise, when a Jew leaves the house, the mezuzah reminds him of the high level of behavior he is expected to maintain wherever he goes.
Some Jews have also regard the mezuzah as a protective amulet, while others discourage this interpretation as superstitious. This view of the mezuzah was popular in talmudic times, especially in the Middle Ages under the influence of the Kabbalists. Belief in the protective powers of the mezuzah continues to be common today, particularly within Orthodox Judaism.
The issue became a matter of controversy in 1974, when Arab terrorists murdered 25 Jewish children inside a school in Israel. After the tragedy, it was discovered that the 25 mezuzot hanging in the school were not kosher (see below), and some Orthodox Jews interpreted that and similar incidents as a lesson to all Jews to ensure their mezuzot were kosher. The implication that God will punish those who do not have proper mezuzot has been widely denounced and few Jews would agree with such a notion. However, the mezuzah is still generally regarded by many as having protective powers or treated as a lucky charm.
The Mezuzah Scroll
Rabbinic law has established special regulations for the preparation of the mezuzah scroll, which are the same as the rules for the Torah scroll. The scroll cannot be printed using your computer or handwritten with a Bic ballpoint. In order to fulfill the commandment of the mezuzah, an observant Jewish scribe (called a sofer) must painstakingly write the 22 lines of 713 letters on kosher parchment using a kosher quill.
The mezuzah parchment comes from the skin of a kosher animal, usually a lamb or a goat. The quill is taken from a kosher fowl like a goose or a turkey, and the black ink is specially prepared from vegetable ingredients. The text must then be written perfectly and in the correct order. Because of all these requirements, a mezuzah scroll normally costs around $30 to $80 depending on the store, the quality and the size.
The text inscribed on the mezuzah is the passages of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (some sources mention only the former). Translated into English, the mezuzah scroll reads:
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 resources. And these things that I command you today shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you go on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm and they shall be an ornament between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
And it shall happen, if you obey my commandments which I command you today, to love God within all your hearts and all your souls that I will give the rains of the land in its proper time, the light rains and the heavy rains, and you will gather your grain, your wine and your oil. I will give grass in your fields for your livestock. You will have enough to eat and you will be satisfied. Guard yourselves, lest your hearts lead you astray and you will serve other gods and you will bow to them. God will then become angry with you and will withhold the rain, and the land will not produce its bounty. You will quickly be lost from upon the good land that God has granted you. You shall place these words on your hearts and on your souls. You shall tie them as a sign on your arms and they shall be head ornaments between your eyes, and you shall teach them to your children to speak about them when you dwell in your house, when you travel on the road, when you lie down and when you arise. You shall inscribe them on the doorpost of your houses and your gates. So that you and your children may live many years on the land that God has promised to your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.
On the back of the scroll, the word Shaddai, the name of God, is written in Hebrew. The Zohar, the text of Jewish mysticism, explains that this is appropriate because Shaddai's three Hebrew letters - shin, dalet, yad - stand for the phrase shomer daltot Yisrael, "protector of the doors of Israel."
The mezuzah scroll is placed in the case so that the shin of Shaddai shows through a small window, or, more commonly, the shin is engraved on the case itself (see photo, left).
It is also customary to inscribe the words kozu bemuchsaz kozu on the bottom of the back side of the mezuzah scroll. These are cryptic, magical words that were added in the mystically-inclined Middle Ages.
The three mystical words are formed by replacing each Hebrew letter in the phrase Adonoy Elohaynu Adonoy ("the Lord our God is the Lord") with the letter that follows it in the Hebrew alphabet. Jewish scholars, including Maimonides, opposed this practice as sheer superstition, but the custom continues today.
The Mezuzah Case
In order to protect the mezuzah scroll, it became customary to roll it up and place in a small case that could be affixed to the doorway. Except for the custom of including the Hebrew letter shin near the top (see above), there are no special rules for the mezuzah case and there are a wide variety of styles available today. Many mezuzah cases are beautiful works of Jewish art. Some examples are shown below.
Where to Hang a Mezuzah
A mezuza must be affixed to the doorways of all permanent dwellings, which is generally defined as buildings in which people eat and sleep. The most common place to hang a mezuzah is on the doorway to one's home, but Jewish authorities generally teach it ought to be placed on all doorways of buildings (e.g. synagogues, schools) and rooms within buildings (e.g., the living room, dining room, bedroom; not bathroom, closet, utility room) where people eat or sleep.
Mezuzot are not affixed to the sukkkot, or booths, as these are only temporary dwellings. In Israel, it has become customary to affix mezuzot to the entrances of all public buildings, since parties and celebrations are often held there.
In addition to placing them on doorposts, many modern Jews also wear miniature mezuzot on necklaces, tie bars and cuff links. The mezuzah has become one of the primary symbols of Judaism, so this practice might be compared to the common Christian practice of wearing cross necklaces or other jewelry as a symbol of their faith. In addition, as indicated above, many Jews regard the mezuzah as a protective amulet or lucky charm.
Rituals and Practices Associated with the Mezuzah
A mezuzah is to be placed on the right side of a doorpost at or above eye level (defined as the upper one-third), which reflects its purpose of reminding Jews to remember and reach towards God. The mezuzah is hung in a slanting position (30°) with the top pointing towards the inside of the home or room. The general explanation for the slant is that there was a disagreement among rabbis as to whether it should be hung vertically or horizontally, which was resolved by placing it diagonally.
As with any Jewish ritual activity, there is a short prayer that should be said when affixing the mezuzah: "Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah."
A mezuzah can become invalid or nonkosher if it becomes cracked or faded, so Jewish families usually have a scribe check the mezuzah once every few years.
It is a general Jewish custom to kiss holy objects as a gesture of reverence, and this extends to the mezuzah. Commonly, a Jew entering her home or synagogue will touch the mezuzah with the fingertips and kiss the fingertips that touched it. This is often accompanied by the prayer, "May God protect my going out and coming in, now and forever."
Mezuzot are almost always removed when a home is sold to ensure the sacred objects are not desecrated. However, if the home is being sold to another observant Jewish family, the mezuzot are left up so that the new owners will not have mezuzah-less doorways before they have a chance to buy their own.
- Alfred J. Kolatch, The Jewish Book of Why (Penguin Compass, 2003), pp. 109-115.
- Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy (William Morrow, 1991; reprint 2001), pp. 698-99.
- Tracey R. Rich, Signs and Symbols: Mezuzah. Judaism 101 (2005).
More Online Resources on Mezuzah
- Signs and Symbols: Mezuzah
- Is Your Mezuzah a Blessing?
Chabad House, University of Texas
- Mezuzah: The Jewish Lightning Rod
- Mezuzah Cases
Books and Journal Articles on the Mezuzah
See books listed under Sources, above, and:
- Hayim Donin, To Be a Jew, pp. 152-55 describes the process for hanging a mezuzah.
- Martin Gordon, "Mezuzah: Protective Amulet or Religious Symbol?" Tradition 16:4 (Summer 1977) documents the tendency to regard the mezuzah as a religious amulet. Available online here.