This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.
Siman/Chapter 11: Mezuzot
Chapter 11 of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch discussed when a mezuzah is required.
Background on the mezuzah:
Much like we discussed in yesterday’s post about tefillin, a mezuzah is much like tefillin for your house. The commandment originates in the same section of Deuteronomy 6, in which we are instructed to “…inscribe them (the commandments of the Torah) on the doorposts of your home and on your gates.” These tiny scrolls are attached to the right side of the doorways of homes firstly as a reminder of the commandments and secondly, as an indicator of a Jewish household.
There seem to be two possible disconnection points with this commandment to the average reader.
- Is this passage meant to be poetic or taken literally?
- Are we supposed to write the Torah literally on the doorposts?
On the first point, many argue that this verse is to be taken poetically or metaphorically — that these commandments should be discussed in your home so much that it’s as though they are written on your doorposts. While this is true, because of the ambiguity of the instruction and our ability to perform it (unlike circumcising your heart), we should lean on the side of diligence and aim to make this possibly-poetic statement literally.
On the second point, the command needs to make some kind of rational sense. One sign that we’re not meant to write the entire Torah on the doorpost of our house is that there’s no way the entire Torah would fit on the average doorpost. A Sefer Torah contains 304,804 letters. This can lead one to understand that a summary of the Torah should instead be used. The book of Deuteronomy is frequently thought of as a summarization of the Torah, making sections of it the most appropriate to fulfill this commandment. For this reason, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 are used. Still quite a lot to write on building supplies, these passages are handwritten on a very small piece of parchment, tightly rolled, and slipped into a small container that is “affixed” to the doorposts of a house. The scrolls are called “mezuzot”, which actually means “doorposts.” The containers/covers are often marked with the letter shin, the first letter of “Shaddai” — one of the Creator’s Names. The containers are not to be confused with the “mezuzah” (singular of “mezuzot”) scrolls anymore than a lunch box is to be confused with the actual lunch it contains.
What constitutes a house that requires a mezuzah? According to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (aka Maimonides aka The Rambam), it must:
- Be at least six square feet
- Have two door-posts
- Have a lintel
- Have a ceiling
- Have doors
- Have an opening at least 10 handbreadths tall
- Be used for secular purposes
- Be a dwelling place
- Be a place for dignified use
- Be a permanent dwelling (the text later states this include rentals with more than a 30-day period)
These requirements rule out bathrooms, tents, and many other places. (See the text for details.)
Yeah, but why?
It can be easy to get into the weeds on commandments that require us to incorporate certain spiritual objects into our lives. I feel that it is most important to share the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch’s purpose for the use of mezuzot.
“One must be very diligent to observe the commandment of mezuzah because it is the obligation of everyone at all times. Wherever you enter or leave your home, you will encounter the Oneness of Hashem, the Name of the Holy One, blessed is He, and recalling His love you will awaken from your lethargy and cease going astray after the vanities of the times. You will then realize that nothing endures forever except the knowledge of the Eternal One, and will immediately return to your senses, and walk in the path of the righteous. Our Sages of blessed memory say: “He who has tefillin on his head and on his arm, and wears tzitzis on his garment, and has a mezuzah on his doorpost, is sure not to sin, because he has many reminders and these are the guardian angels who save him from sin.”
Wait, you…kiss it?
In order to help keep the mezuzah pronounced in our minds instead of it becoming yet another decorative accessory, the text, as well as custom, recommend “kissing” the mezuzah anytime you pass through the doorway. This doesn’t mean to get on your tip-toes and plant one on your doorframe. Instead, simply touch the mezuzah case and then kiss your fingers where you touched it. Visiting a religious Jewish area, you will notice people doing the “tap-kiss” as they pass through most any doorway that contains a mezuzah. One of the things that stood out to me about my wife while we were dating was that she never passed by a single mezuzah without giving it a tap-kiss.
The chapter ends by recommending that the text on the scroll should be checked for damage “two times every seven years” a domestic mezuzah or “two times every fifty years” for an organizational one to keep it from being bothered too much. Modern authorities may recommend checking them every year before Rosh HaShanah, though I don’t personally know anyone who does.
In the more old fashioned Jewish world, there is an idea of the mezuzah possessing an abundance of spiritual power. Some claim this is legitimate while others write it off as folklore and superstition. Examples of this way of thinking may include someone experiencing a terrible illness, injury, or if children lose interest in being religious, an invalid mezuzah or tefillin may be thought to be the culprit.
I don’t personally believe that a few cracked letters can result in a few cracked bones. I do believe, however, that there is a more sensible and psychological connection to an invalid mezuzah and lapsed faith. Someone who hasn’t paid their mezuzah any mind in decades likely hasn’t paid any mind to other aspects of their Torah observance. Those mezuzot that have blended into the architecture of the house may belong to a family where the meaning of a mezuzah has faded from the consciousness of the home.
In this fast-paced world littered with constant distractions, taking the time to acknowledge a mezuzah upon entering or leaving a home can adjust how you view the world and your life within it.
As bonus material, enjoy a video I made many years ago about mezuzot for a now-defunct website.
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