Visit the home of an observant Jew, and as you enter, you will notice a small rectangular box attached to the outer doorpost. This object is a meZUzah (plural, mezuZOTE). Though it is small, it carries a big message.
The Word Mezuzah
In Bible times, mezuzah was simply the word for the doorpost of a house. The mezuzah was where the blood was applied at the first Passover (Exodus 12:7; 22, 23). The mezuzah was where a servant who wanted to serve his master for life would have his ear pierced (Exodus 21:6). We read that Eli, the priest, sat by the mezuzah of the sanctuary (1 Samuel 1:9). In a figure of speech found in Proverbs 8:34, blessedness belongs to the one who waits at Wisdom’s doorpost (mezuzah), eager for instruction.
Today the meaning of the mezuzah has been transferred from the doorpost to the box attached to the doorpost. Sometimes the word mezuzah refers even more specifically to the scroll of parchment inside the box, on which two Scripture passages are written. (Traditionally these verses are Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21, but possible variations will be discussed later.)
The Origin of the Mezuzah
The verses inscribed on the parchment scroll inside the mezuzah illuminate its origin and purpose.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 instructs:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD 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 might. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes [origin of phylacteries]. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 11:13-21 provides a similar message:
And it shall be that if you diligently obey My commandments which I command you today, to love the LORD your God and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul…I will give you the rain for your land in its season…that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil. And I will send grass in your fields for your livestock, that you may eat and be filled. Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, lest the LORD’s anger be aroused against you, and He shut up the heavens so that there be no rain, and the land yield no produce, and you perish quickly from the good land which the LORD is giving you. Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children…when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days…may be multiplied in the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, like the days of the heavens above the earth.
From Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:20, Orthodox Jews derive the obligation to affix to their doorposts a box containing these Scripture passages.
In examining this custom, one must ask: Is it a correct understanding of Deuteronomy to literally nail God’s Word to one’s doorpost? In ancient times, pagans would place protective magic amulets on or near their doors to protect their homes from demons. Some think that Deuteronomy 6:9 was meant to be literally observed, perhaps as a God-given alternative to that pagan practice. Others think it was merely a metaphoric use of the pagan custom to emphasize that God’s Word must thoroughly imbue the lives of His people. In either case it would seem that the passages in Deuteronomy are God’s way of saying to Israel, You shall not have magical amulets to guard you, but My Word will guard you.”
The History of the Mezuzah
Deuteronomy 6:9 was taken quite literally before and during the time of Christ. The historian Josephus described the use of the mezuzah as a well-known custom in his day:
They [the Jews] are also to inscribe the principal blessings they have received from God upon their doors. (Antiquities 4:8:13).
Archaeological excavations from Qumran–the ancient site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found–reveal the use of literal mezuzot. However, those contain different Scripture passages than the ones used today.
The Targums (paraphrases of the Scriptures in Aramaic dating from both before and after the time of Christ) render Deuteronomy 6:9:
…and you should inscribe them in mezuzot and affix them on the doorposts of your houses and of your gates.1
This literal understanding of the custom is at least as old as the first few centuries B.C.
Laws of the Mezuzah
As rabbinic Judaism developed after 70 A.D., certain laws were formulated concerning the religious duty of the mezuzah. This standardization prescribed everything: the kind of parchment upon which to write the verses, how they were to be written, where the mezuzah was to be placed (the kind of building and the specific place on the doorposts), and the differences in practice between Israel and the Diaspora (lands outside of Israel). The rules were first codified as standard practice in the Talmud (the discussions of Jewish law and lore that were written down a few centuries after Christ). Over the ensuing centuries, those laws concerning the mezuzah were further discussed and distilled, and various traditions arose.
Some Laws of the Mezuzah Followed by Modern Orthodox Jews
- The mezuzah text is to contain 22 lines of writing.
- Unlike a Torah scroll, which must be copied from another manuscript, a mezuzah may be written from memory by a scribe.
- If even one letter of the text is missing, the mezuzah may not be used.
- The mezuzah is to be affixed to entrances of all residential buildings and to the doors of all rooms used for living purposes. (It is not to be attached to the doorposts of bathrooms, schools, or houses of worship.) Since the verses in Deuteronomy not only declare “on your doorposts” but also “and thy gates,” mezuzot are also obligatory for apartment house entrances.
- The mezuzah is to be affixed at an angle to the top third of the doorpost on the right (as one enters), with the upper portion slanted inward and about a handbreadth from the outer edge of the doorpost.
- When the mezuzah is affixed, the following blessing is recited: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments and hast commanded us to fasten the mezuzah.”
- If one’s house is sold or rented to a Jewish person, the previous occupant must leave the mezuzah.
- The mezuzah in a private home must be inspected for legibility of the writing twice in every seven years.
- Shaddai, one of the names of God, is inscribed in Hebrew on the outer side of the top of the parchment. This word must show through the prescribed opening in the case so it can be read.
- When passing through the door, one must touch and kiss the word Shaddai and recite the following prayer: “May God keep my going out and my coming in from now on and ever more.”
Various Customs of the Mezuzah
The above laws are those that Orthodox Jews generally recognize and practice. Nevertheless, prior to the time of the Talmud, Jewish groups had a variety of practices, and those variations are still found to this day.
As mentioned, the mezuzot found at Qumran had different Scriptures in them from those in use today. Some of them contained Exodus 13:1-4, and others contained Exodus 13:11-16.
The Samaritans, a group surviving into modern times, place “mezuzah stones,” upon which the Ten Commandments are carved, at or near their doorways.
The Sephardim–Jews from North Africa and the Mediterranean lands–traditionally affix their mezuzot vertically, not at an angle.
Old Superstitions About the Mezuzah
In days gone by, superstitions arose concerning the mezuzah. Some thought the mezuzah would ward off evil spirits.2 In the Middle Ages under the influence of the Kabbalah, or mystical Judaism, names of angels and other symbols were added to the parchments. The medieval rabbi Maimonides spoke out against such additions, saying of those who added them that they had “no share in the world to come” because they misused the mezuzah.
Even in recent times, a small minority have taught that some Jewish people suffered tragedy because they did not have mezuzot that were properly prepared!
Modern Use of the Mezuzah
For most Jewish people the mezuzah has remained a repository and a reminder of the centrality of God and His Word.
- Many non-Orthodox Jews affix mezuzot to their doors as a means of affirming their Jewish identity or as the Jewish version of a “housewarming” ceremony.
- In Israel the mezuzah is affixed to entrances of all public buildings and synagogues, though it is only required for residences.
- Some Jewish people wear a mezuzah around the neck as an expression of Jewishness.
- The making of ceramic or other decorative cases for mezuzot has become an art form all its own.
Spiritual Lessons From the Scriptures Embodied in the Mezuzah
Christians are not directed in Scripture to affix mezuzot. Yet the Scripture passages inside the mezuzah provide abiding lessons for all. Deuteronomy 6:4-9, called in Jewish liturgy the Sh’ma, speaks of love for the one God; while Deuteronomy 11:13-21 speaks of the responsibility to obey God, the results of obedience and the consequences of disobedience.
Scripture may not be as clear as we would like as to whether or not a literal posting of God’s Word was originally intended. Nevertheless the spirit of the commandment is seen in that we believers infuse our homes with God’s Word. (Sometimes we literally post Scripture verses on our calendars, our refrigerators, or our walls.)
The two mezuzah passages in Deuteronomy remind us to love the Lord and to obey Him. When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment, He responded in words taken from those Scriptures:
Then one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question…saying: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment”
see also Mark 12:28-30
The big message in that little box called a mezuzah for us believers is this: Let us strive always to fill our homes and our lives with love for God and for His Word.
- Bernard Grossfeld, trans., The Targum Onkelos to Deuteronomy, The Aramaic Bible, vol. 9 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1988), p. 35. He notes that the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and Neofiti read the same, both for this verse and in Deuteronomy 11:20.
- Genesis Rabbah 35:3; b. Avodah Zara 11a.