What is up with mezuzahs?


By Rabbi Yitzchak Grossman

This week’s Torah portion is one of the places where we read about the commandment of mezuzah: “And you shall write them [‘these words of Mine’ referred to earlier] on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates” (Deuteronomy 11:20).

But what is the purpose of this practice? Is a mezuzah on one’s doorpost a Jewish version of a lucky rabbit’s foot or circle of salt?

Various Talmudic passages indicate that the mezuzah confers Divine protection. One passage relates that Rabbi Judah the Prince once sent a mezuzah as a gift to Artevan (apparently a Persian king or aristocrat) after Artevan sent him a precious jewel. Rabbi Judah the Prince said that the mezuzah was actually the greater gift, since “you have sent me something that I [must] guard, while I have sent you something that will guard you while you sleep, as it is written ‘As you go forth, it will guide you; as you recline, it will guard you’” (Proverbs 6:22).


Another Talmudic anecdote relates that when Onkelos, a convert to Judaism, was arrested by a troop of soldiers on the orders of the Roman emperor, he explained the mezuzah to them as follows: “The standard practice throughout the world is that a king of flesh and blood sits inside his palace, and his servants stand guard, protecting him outside; but with regard to the Holy One, Blessed be He, His servants, the Jewish people, sit inside their homes and He guards over them outside.” Upon hearing this, according to the story, the soldiers promptly converted to Judaism.

The medieval sage Maimonides, however, is not down with the idea of mezuzah as “an amulet of personal benefit,” i.e. a lucky charm, and has harsh words for people who treat the practice of hanging one on their door as anything other than following God’s instructions. Rabbi Moshe Hacohen of Lunel, a contemporary of Maimonides, suggests that Maimonides interprets Onkelos’ explanation of mezuzah (and presumably that of Rabbi Judah the Prince as well) as pro-Judaism hype rather than a serious treatment of the mitzvah.

Later commentators try to reconcile these views. Rabbi Yosef Caro, the sixteenth century author of the Shulhan Aruch, a compendium of Jewish practices, explains that one’s intention in affixing the mezuzah should be solely to fulfill God’s commandment, and not to protect the house – but the mezuzah will indeed consequently confer protection. Similarly, Rabbi Avraham ben Mordechai Halevi (seventeenth century) explains that it is not the mezuzah itself that protects us, but rather the doing of God’s will, in the merit of which He guards His nation Israel from all manner of evil.

So keep hanging those beautiful mezuzahs, but remember: You have more protecting you than a lucky charm.

Rabbi Yitzchak Grossman is senior lecturer at the Greater Washington Community Kollel.

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