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April 13, 2015 2:15 pm

Examining the Mezuzah

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Mezuzah. Photo: Wikipedia.

According to the Biblical narrative, when the Children of Israel were still in Egypt they were commanded to prepare in various ways for the Exodus (Chapter 12). They had to set aside a lamb to be killed and eaten. That in itself was an act of defiance. Egyptians revered sheep and would have been insulted by such a flagrant breach of their customs. All the more so because it was being perpetrated by their slaves and, even worse, the animal was selected and tied up in preparation three days beforehand, as if to dare the Egyptians to do something.

After having killed the animal, the Israelites were instructed to daub some of its blood on their doorposts (Exodus 12:21) to ensure that the imminent destruction of the firstborn Egyptians would not strike them too. What was that act meant to signify? Was it an ancient pagan custom to keep evil spirits away? Would the act in itself protect them? Around the Middle East, even today, blue is the favored color to protect homes from evil. Similarly the red band is a very common charm to ward off evil spirits.

It seems to me that the real purpose was to evince a sense of identification. One rabbinic tradition has it that many Israelites assimilated or were ambivalent about leaving Egypt. Which is hardly surprising given the record of biblical Israelites to be incredibly fickle about which gods they worshipped. Now they would have to decide by taking a positive act of commitment.

Many of the actions taken in Egypt at the first Passover were never replicated again. There is no obligation nowadays to sit at the seder in our traveling clothes with our shoes on our feet and our staves and wallets at hand (Exodus 12:11), and we no longer daub blood on our two door-posts (shtey HaMezuzot). But the actual word used in Exodus, mezuzah is used again, twice, later in the Torah (Deut. 6 and 11) in what we now call the Shema. There it says that we should write, not daub, the words of the Torah on the doorposts (mezuzot) of our houses and gates. The connection strikes me as obvious.

The Samaritans and the Kaarites did not take this command as literally as we do. For them it was figurative. The command was that our homes and cities would be committed to Torah and its values. But the Judaism we have today does indeed take it literally. That is why every Jewish home has a mezuzah on its front door and every other room for living in a house or apartment.

Nowadays it is common to see Jews touch or kiss a mezuzah that they pass by. The question is why? You can respect and value something without kissing it. Yet many Jews kiss the Torah or a siddur. And kissing, particularly in the Middle East, is a sign of respect. Is this superstitious?

There are two very different kinds of interpretations as to the function of the mezuzah. The simple rational one is, whether one takes the mezuzah as an object or not, that its function is simply to remind us of the Divine commandments. As Maimonides says in his “Guide for the Perplexed”:

There are some actions prescribed (including the mezuzah) which serve to remind us continually of God and of our duty to love and respect Him and to keep His commandments (Divine Commandments Chapter XLIV).

The non-rational explanation is to suggest that somehow the mezuzah automatically protects the home. This is emphasized particularly by those rabbis who make a living checking mezuzot and assuring the credulous that if things do or have gone wrong it is because their mezuzot were not checked and were faulty. The very idea of a mezuzah as a protection in itself makes no logical sense. Otherwise one should be able to discern a very clear distinction between homes with a mezuzah and those without. Nowhere does the Torah say that protection is automatic simply by fixing it on a door. Much later the rabbis did indeed give a list of things that might avert an evil decree: repentance, charity, and prayer. They did not include the mezuzah in that list.

If anything, it is living a good life and following the commandments that gives one a sense of meaning and the confidence to deal with the challenges one faces. A life that is full of spiritual significance. It is true the Torah says in the Shemah that if we behave correctly “the rains will fall in their time.” This does imply a very definite quid pro quo. Nevertheless the rabbis tended not to take this literally or as applying to this world. Quite the contrary, the traditional view is that there is no causative reward and punishment in this physical world; it is all on a spiritual level beyond the material.

The West I was born into was one in which difference was scorned. Minorities tried to hide their marks of identification. Things have changed dramatically. Now differences and ethnic religious signs of identification have become badges of honor. Blacks, native peoples, Sihks, and Hindus do not try to hide their identities or affiliations. Yet so many Jews still do.

Having a mezuzah on one’s doorposts is indeed a sign of commitment, of belonging, as it was in Egypt. We are given the choice to make public our affiliation or to hide it. The mezuzah serves this purpose. We may kiss the mezuzah, if we feel so inclined, out of love or respect. There is no law that we must. But to suppose it is some magic talisman, an automatic kind of protection, regardless of who we are and how we behave, is indeed pure superstition. It might be comforting, and it might be (sometimes) a courageous act of identification, but it is not magic.

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  • Sarah R

    Thanks for this. Veneration of physical objects is something I struggle with. I agree with the 16th century humanists and reformers who said that to attribute magical agency to human expressions of even the most sacred words was both idolatry and an attempt at a kind of sorcery! Therefore I won’t kiss the Torah in shul (which gets me some surprised looks, but fortunately no requests for an explanation). At the same time, it doesn’t feel right that my only interaction with a mezuzah is to point to it when shooing away Mormons and Witnesses. As usual my instincts are far more traditional than my principles. Thanks for suggesting an accommodation for both.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Glad we agree ! Accommodating both is the way to go.

  • Jeremy Rosen

    “These words on your hearts” as the Shema says surely cannot be literal!
    Neither is ” binding them on our “hands.” Similarly “frontlets between your eyes” is taken to mean on our foreheads.
    Our tradition understand these to refer to tefillin. Kaarites do not.
    But remember RAMBAN in his commentary on the Torah questions whether the pshat of the Torah in these paragraphs are figurative rather than literal.
    That of course has nothing to do with our obligation to keep these mitzvoth the way we always have.

  • Elisheva Barre

    I don’t see the point of this article, but one sentence is interesting: “The Samaritans and the Kaarites did not take this command as literally as we do”.
    The Karaites are scripturalists who do with the Scriptures want they want – but what does “as literally as we do” mean?

  • mjazz

    None of the bones of the Passover lamb were to be broken.
    John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world”.
    They broke the legs of those crucified with Jesus, but they didn’t break His because He was already dead.