By Rabbi Shohama Wiener
Rabbi Israel Moshowitz of blessed memory used to tell a Mark Twain story that is a propos for Yom Kippur. One day a businessman said to Mark Twain, “before I die, I want to climb to the top of Mt. Sinai and read the Ten Commandments.”
Replied Mark Twain, “I have a better idea. Why don’t you stay home and keep them.”
While it is possible to have a great spiritual experience on top of Mt. Sinai, our tradition shows us that it is even more important to have spiritual experiences at home.
This shul is our spiritual home. Many of us feel, when we walk through the door, that we have come into a sacred space. Our tradition calls it a mikdash m’at, a small sanctuary.
The Jewish home is also designated as a mikdash m’at, a small sanctuary. But how many us feel, when we walk into our home, that we have also walked into a sacred space? A place where the prayers of our heart are heard and answered? A place where we can have menuchat nefesh, peace in our soul? Jewish tradition gives that possibility — to create a house, or an apartment, or even a room, into a place of holiness.
Our Jewish heritage teaches us that we can do this through conscious use of the mezuzah.
The mezuzah is a box that contains a parchment scroll handwritten with words from the book of Deuteronomy that are in the Shema:
“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words that I command you this day, shall upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be fore frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts (mezuzot) of your house, and upon your gates (Deut. 6:4-9).
It is customary to write two inscriptions on the back of the parchment: the Hebrew word שדי (Shaddai), and the phrase “כוזו במוכסז כוזו.”
Shaddai, one of the Biblical names of God, also serves here as an acronym for “Shomer Delatot Yisrael” (“guardian of the doorways of Israel”). Many mezuzah cases are also marked with the Hebrew letter ש (Shin), for “Shaddai,” a name of God that indicates protection.
“כוזו במוכסז כוזו” is a Caesar cipher — a one letter shift — of the third, fourth, and fifth words of the Shema, “Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai”, “The Lord, our God, the Lord.” This phrase is written on the back of the mezuzah, opposite the corresponding words on the front. This inscription, Kabbalistic in origin, has appeared on mezuzot since at least the 11th century.
What is it about the mezuzah that makes it so special?
My colleague, Rabbi Goldie Milgram, shares a teaching that came to her when she was in the Ukraine, trying to explain to the people that the mezuzah wasn’t just an amulet for superstitious people. She said:
“When we Jews come to the doors of our homes, we aren’t meant to run right in and spill the garbage of the day out onto those inside. Instead we are taught to pause before entering our homes and to notice that little box on the doorpost called a mezuzah. Inside that little box is a tiny scroll with some words from Torah written upon it. The words include the prayer we know as the Shema and the V’ahavtah; V’ahavtah means “you shall love.” So Shema and v’ahavta can mean, “Listen SO that you can love.”
Understood this way, the mezuzah is actually a Jewish consciousness-shifting tool, reminding us to pause at the doorways of our homes, to pause and remember to listen, to those inside, and to our inner self, so that we can love more fully.
The parchment inside the mezuzah is written by hand by a sofer, a scribe, just as a real Torah is. The sofer has undergone many years of meticulous training, and the verses are written in indelible black ink with a special quill pen. The parchment is then rolled up and placed inside the case.
According to halakha, Jewish law, the mezuzah should be placed on the right side of the door, in the upper third of the doorpost (i.e., approximately shoulder height), within approximately 3 inches of the doorway opening. It should tilt towards the center of the door. Why? Because it was a rabbinic argument over whether the mezuzah should be vertical or horizontal. And guess what? They compromised.
The commandment to affix a mezuzah is widely followed in the Jewish world, even by Jews who are not religiously observant. While the important part of the mezuzah is the “klaf,” or parchment, and not the case itself, designing and producing mezuzah cases has been elevated to an art form over the ages. Mezuzahs are produced from an endless variety of materials, from silver and precious metals, to wood, stone, ceramics and pewter. In fact, the beauty of many of these cases has led some to forget that the important part of the mezuzah is the parchment. Some dealers of mezuzah cases will provide or offer for sale a copy of the text that has been photocopied onto paper; this is not a valid mezuzah, which must be handwritten onto a piece of parchment by a qualified scribe.
Having a mezuzah is like owning a little Torah. The same energy, divine words inscribed, are meant to be within the reach of every Jewish household.
We capture that energy by touching the mezuzah before we enter the doorway. We touch it and then kiss our fingers. For those of us concerned with germs, I suggest touching it and giving an air kiss to our fingers. The energy transfer will still happen.
The mezuzah can be a life-shifting tool. A tool to help us remember that our home can be a sacred space. A place of caring and contentment. A place for love and for satisfaction. On Yom Kippur we make our promises for the year to come. While we cannot control what happens in the world at large, we can effect what happens in our dwellings. They can be a mikdash m’at, a small sanctuary.
We know that this year will bring challenges to all of us. May we find comfort in our tradition, our shul and our homes. May it be so.