By Harriet P. Gross
Where will you put your menorah when you light that first Chanukah candle tomorrow night? This matters, and to shed some light on the subject, it helps to know something more about the mezuzah.
If you never made that connection before — well, read on!
I thank Dallas Rabbi Shawn Zell for calling my attention to the true story of Helen Bloch, whose mother, Lynn, has lived for 30 years in Shoreline Towers, a Chicago lakeshore condominium. With some interior hallway improvements in the offing, its condo association demanded that all residents remove eveårything from their entrances, including mezuzot. Ms. Bloch decided to sue, citing as her reason: “There’s a lot of meaning in that box.”
In the course of legal preliminaries that led up to a Shoreline Towers policy change, everybody learned a lot about the contents of that little “box,” and its meanings.
The word “mezuzah” itself means “doorpost,” which is where the item is to be placed: on the side of the door’s frame (on your right as you enter the house, or the rooms within it), in the lower part of the doorway’s top third — “The better to kiss you, my dear,” which is done with a light touch of the fingers every time one passes through).
The rabbis who long ago ruled on such matters debated whether the meaning-filled little “box” should be hung horizontally or vertically, finally compromising on an inward slant, toward the place you are entering. (If your doorpost is too narrow to accommodate a slanted mezuzah, you may hang it straight up-and-down.)
These days, that simple little “box,” like so many other Jewish symbols, has evolved into an art form. But whatever the material it’s made of, or the way its outer surface is decorated, the contents are always the same: a klaf — a parchment scroll containing God’s command, as written in Deuteronomy, to observe all the commandments, one of which is to place this reminder on our doorposts.
Do you think Helen Bloch knew all this before she decided on legal action to preserve and protect the sanctity of her mother’s little hallway “box”? Most of us don’t. We know there’s a Hebrew letter that’s part of the mezuzah’s design — or peeking out at us from the parchment within. But we don’t all know that this letter, shin, is first in the word “Sh’ma” and the commanding phrase that opens the Deuteronomy passage included: “Sh’ma, Yisrael.” Hear, Israel! Listen to what we’re supposed to do! Or, as Rabbi Zell likes to say: “Witness.” Because “The mezuzah bears witness to the fact that this is a Jewish home.”
There are other rules, of course. We’re instructed as to what that scroll must be made of (specially prepared parchment), what is written on it (two Biblical passages, in Hebrew), who does the writing (a certified scribe) with what (a quill dipped in specially prepared black ink), and how to roll it for insertion.
And there are other things to know about the mezuzah, among them what it is not: It’s neither some kind of amulet, hung with the hopes of bringing good luck to the house, nor is it a symbolic reminder that God saved us from the 10th plague in Egypt when we put lamb’s blood on the doorposts of our houses. It is what it is: a little “box” to hold instructions for carrying out the eternal mitzvot with which we’ve been charged. And because of that, displaying the mezuzah as we’re instructed is a mitzvah itself.
So now: What about that connection to Chanukah? Well, since it’s also a mitzvah to light the holiday candles so that we spread the light of freedom to our immediate worlds, those wise rabbis of old who told us how to hang our mezuzot also suggested that we place our menorahs opposite them, on the other side of our doorways. That way, anyone who enters the home will be walking between two mitzvot, truly enveloped by God’s commandments. In these days of electric menorahs designed for safe outdoor use, this shouldn’t be too difficult to do.
Ultimately, Helen Bloch didn’t need to sue after all, since Shoreline Towers revised its rules so that Jewish residents like her mother wouldn’t have to disturb their little “boxes” filled with so much meaning. If you’d like to learn more about mezuzot and the rules governing them, go to www.judaica-guide.com. Then have a happy, mitzvot-blessed Chanukah!
By Harriet P. Gross