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Mezuzot musings

August 18, 2011

I never lived in a home with mezuzot until college, when I had a roommate who was both Jewish and quite observant. In fact, her Israeli soldier boyfriend was the first (that I know of) un-Americanized Israeli-from-Israel I ever had a conversation with. Even then, I didn’t know much about mezuzot other than that many Jewish people put them on door frames.

Now I live in a building with a mezuzah at the entrance, a home with mezuzot at the entrance and on bedroom door frames, and I work in a building and an office with even more mezuzot. In fact, if I take no detours in the morning, I pass by, at a minimum — and yes, I counted! — seven mezuzot from the time I wake up to the time I sit down at my desk. Throughout the day, I repeatedly pass by a dozen more when going to meetings in other offices, visiting coworkers, or going to lunch.

Here is a brief sampling of mezuzot I’ve encountered in the past few days (I would have captured more if it wouldn’t have been too conspicuous):

Mezuzot in Israel

When thinking about writing about mezuzot, I started noticing them everywhere: at entrances to stores, where often they’re angled artfully on modern plate glass due to lack of traditional doorframes; at most places of business, including public buildings; and at friends’ and relatives’ homes, without exception (that I can recall, anyway). I researched their history, significance, the etymology of the word “mezuzah,” the varying customs associated with them in various Jewish communities, and what major scholars think about them. When preparing to sit down and write about what I’d learned, and after scrutinizing a diverse sampling of mezuzot, I started asking questions to family and coworkers. Why does the mezuzah at the entrance to our home, for example, say שדי instead of just ש like the rest in the house? Why are some mezuzot at work angled more sharply than others — or not angled at all — despite the door frames being the same size from office to office? Why can the scroll inside only be written in Hebrew, even though the Torah can be in any language?

My conclusion is this: no one knows, no one ever thinks about something so ubiquitous as mezuzot in Israel, and no one is intrigued enough by such questions to investigate with me or bounce ideas around. In short, this pretty much sums up responses to my general and seemingly very foreign curiosity about such basic Jewish matters.

Every time I see a mezuzah, I am reminded of how little I know about the culture I’m living in, and how hard it is to change that.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2011 3:36 pm

    Hey Katie! I just read this post and am a bit saddened that nobody had any good answers for you RE mezuzot. Having also lived abroad for a couple of years, I too have an inquisitive nature and am frustrated when people don’t have good answers for me! I’m always really happy to answer questions about this weird but wonderful country we live in, and I’ll do my best with the religious questions too. I’m a modern-orthodox/”flexidox” kinda Jewette, so I guess you should have that in mind when I respond 🙂

    So, to answer some of your Q’s: Some mezuzot say ‘shaddai’ – one of our names for G-d, which stands for ‘shomer daltot yisrael’ i.e. ‘guardian of the doorways of Israel’ and some only a ‘shin’. The shin is just an abbreviation for ‘shaddai’, just as you might wear the initial ‘K’ on a necklace instead of your whole name.

    As to the debate about the angle, in the Ashkenazi tradition the mezuzah will usually be slanted towards the room into which the door opens. The angle which mezuzot should be affixed is debated by two Rabbis in the gemara, and continues to be a source of debate! I think it’s to do with the respect we give to holy scripture. Just as we wouldn’t plonk a ‘sefer Torah’ upside down inside the ark in the synagogue, so the rabbis debated about the correct way to fix a mezuzah. Mostly, it’s just about good intentions, as far as I am aware there is no actual law/’halacha’ about slanting or not. Also, everybody is free to correct me on this one if they know better!!

    RE your last question, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘the Torah can be in any language’. We can certainly read Tanach/the Bible in any language, but when it comes to a text or scripture we are going to use for holy practice e.g. a sefer Torah to be read from in synagogue, Tefillin that a man makes blessings on, or in the case of a mezuzah – the text of the shema needs to be in Hebrew. I hope that’s a little bit helpful?

    Wow, sorry for this v.long response!!

  2. September 5, 2011 5:01 pm

    Wow, yes, this is great — thanks for taking the time to reply! It might be my persistence, or the sheer number of things I know nothing about yet find endlessly intriguing that makes people so quickly say they don’t know when I have yet another question about something mundane (to them).

    I didn’t know that the Torah used at temples is only in Hebrew, as I’ve never been to a service (is that even the right word?) outside Israel. I should have realized, as boys back home learn to recite in Hebrew for their bar mitzvahs. This makes a lot of sense and things are clicking into place a bit better now 🙂

    And your explanation about the “shin” abbreviation makes things much clearer. My best guess was that some schools of thought might think an abbreviation for an alternative name was more respectful than writing out the name in full. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  3. August 7, 2014 11:01 pm

    I can’t remember one rabbi’s name. The other was Hillel. Hillel said that the mezzuzah should be horizontal, reclining. The other rabbi, the hard ass, said that it has to be upright. The compromise is at an angle. In reality, neither is wrong.

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