Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mezuza's Magic

Raised by Communists, I knew little of the traditional Jewish culture, especially about its symbols and rituals. When I first saw a small, strange-looking trinket with Hebrew lettering on a doorjamb of our relatives’ house, I was curious.

“It’s a mezuzah,” my uncle explained, and added jokingly. “It’s a Jewish good luck charm. Keeps the evil energy away and brings good karma into the house.”

I liked the idea, but, raised by the same Communists, my uncle was wrong, which I found out years later. While mezuzahs are indeed placed on doorjambs symbolically, they don’t have anything to do with good luck. Nor do they bear any connection with the lamb's blood placed on the doorposts in Egypt. Rather, it is a constant reminder of god's presence and god's commandments.

In Hebrew, mezuzah (מְזוּזָה ) means doorpost . It is a piece of parchment called klaf contained in a decorative case inscribed with two sections of Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael,” from the Torah's Book of Deuteronomy, in which God commands Jews to keep his words constantly in their minds and hearts. The prayer begins with the phrase: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God," and goes on for quite a while. When passing through a door with a mezuzah on it, one is supposed to kiss thy fingers and touch the casing, expressing love and respect for god and his will.

The mezuzah should be placed on the doorposts of every Jewish home. Mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) should also be placed in every room within the home with the exception of bathrooms because bathrooms are unclean. According to the Jewish law, the mezuzah should also be affixed to gates leading to communal places, synagogues, schools, and even on city gates, symbolizing the sovereignty of the commandments over the Jewish social and communal life. In other words, you must not forget that god is watching over you – even for a split second.

A lot of work goes into making a simple mezuzah. It may seem that the most complex piece of it is the case (which can be a work of art in itself), but the real effort lays is the creation of the parchment. The scroll is prepared by a qualified scribe, sofer stam who has undergone many years of meticulous training. The verses are written in black indelible ink with a special quill pen. The parchment is then rolled up and placed inside the case.

And now, a trick question: why is that most mezuzahs are attached at a 45 degree angle instead of vertically or horizontally? The answer lays in the Jewish culture – notorious for their debating talents, surpassed perhaps only by Italians, Jews can argue forever. So did the two medieval Rabbis Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam; they could not agree whether the precious symbol should be placed horizontally or vertically. Finally, they compromised, settling on the golden middle. Ever since, Ashkenazi Jews tilt the case so that the top slants toward the room the door opens into.

Alas, my mezuzah is not affixed at any angle on my front door. I keep none. Once I learned it wasn’t an enticing good-luck charm that kept me safe from evil spirits, but a religious symbol designed to remind me of god every time I set foot outside the door or returned home, it lost its magic.

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