The mitzvah of mezuzah appears at the end of this week’s parasha in what we know of as the second paragraph of Shema: “And you shall write them (these words) on the doorposts of your house and of your gates.” (Deut. 11:20). This verse also appears earlier in the first paragraph of Shema (6:9), and it is these two sections of the Torah that are written in the mezuzah.
But what is the purpose of the mezuzah? Is it to remember God, or is to serve as some type of spiritual or even magical protection of the house? The idea of mezuzah as having protective properties is never stated in the Torah. To the contrary, the Torah juxtaposes the mitzvah of mezuzah with that of tefillin and of constant Torah study. The message is clear: learn Torah at all times, when you go to sleep and when you rise, when you sit in your house and when you go on a journey, and even when you are not actively learning Torah – have concrete reminders of God all around you so that you will think of God and God’s Torah.
Nevertheless, given that the mezuzah is placed on the doorframe, just as was the blood of the Pascal sacrifice, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be associated with powers of protection, for this is exactly how the Pascal blood functioned: “When the Lord sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not let the destroyer come into your houses to strike you.” (Ex, 12:23)
We can of course draw many distinctions between the two cases. The blood was that of a sacrifice, and there is no suggestion that it had protective powers per se; it is God who sees the blood, not the blood which operates on its own power. Nevertheless, the parallel to the blood of the original Pascal lamb, and the fact that the mezuzah was holy words written on a parchment, could easily suggest to the religious imagination of the masses that the mezuzah functions like a kemiyah, a magical amulet, and through its “power” the house is protected.
We thus find practices going back hundreds of years to write the names of angels on the backside of the mezuzah – a type of practice associated with charms and kemiyas. And this idea, or at least some form of it, is alive and well even today. It is common that when something bad happens in someone’s house, they will have their mezuzot checked. Clearly, this is not just any other mitzvah for these people, but something with protective powers.
This approach to mezuzah is alluded to in the Gemara Menachot (33b). Rava had stated that the mezuzah needs to be placed in the outermost handbreadth of the doorframe, and the Gemara asks why. One explanation the Gemara gives is psychological and religious: so that a person encounters the mezuzah as soon as she steps into the doorframe. This is in keeping with the simple goal in the Torah – to keep God and Torah foremost in our minds.
The other explanation, however, is more magical and metaphysical: “So that it will guard the entire house,” starting from the very beginning of the doorframe. This explanation – which is given in only one word in the Aramaic – reflects an understanding of the mezuzah as having kemiyah-like protective powers. Rashi even adds that the mezuzah will protect the house against demons, a standard function of kemiyot.
Not surprisingly, Rambam, the supreme rationalist, comes out strongly against this type of approach to the mitzvah of mezuzah:
… But those who write inside the mezuzah the names of angels or holy names or a verse or seals, such people are in the category of those who have no portion in the World to Come. For these idiots, it is not enough for them that they have negated a positive mitzvah [by invalidating the mezuzah], but they have turned an important mitzvah – that is, the unification of God’s name and the love of God and the worship of God – and made it like it were a kemiyah whose function is to serve their personal needs, as they tend to think in their foolish thoughts that this a thing that affords them benefit in meaningless worldly things.
Laws of Mezuzah 5:4
In line with this anti-protective-amulet attitude, when Rambam explains the significance of mezuzah, he focuses on the first explanation given in the Gemara, and the importance of what regularly encountering the mezuzah does for our religious frame of mind:
[Through its observance,] whenever a person enters or leaves [the house], he will encounter the unity of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and remember his love for Him. Thus, he will awake from his sleep and his obsession with the vanities of time, and recognize that there is nothing which lasts for eternity except the knowledge of the Creator of the world. This will motivate him to regain full awareness and follow the paths of the upright.
Laws of Mezuzah 6:13
After explaining the religious function of the mezuzah, Rambam elaborates on how the mezuzah, together with tfillin and tziztzit, work together to serve as regular, constant reminders of God:
Whoever wears tefillin on his head and arm, wears tzitzit on his garment, and has a mezuzah on his entrance, can be assured that he will not sin, because he has many reminders. And these reminders are the true angels who will prevent him from sinning, as [Psalms 34:8] states: “The angel of God camps around those who fear Him and protects them.”
In this passage, Rambam takes the “angels” that some people want to invoke with the kemiyah-like powers of the mezuzah, and turns them into the concrete mitzvot that serve as reminders to do God’s will and not to sin. If anything protects a person, Rambam would say, it is not some magical power of the mezuzah, but the impact that it has on a person’s religious psyche.
Rambam was not the first to have reworked the idea of “angels” and the protection-powers of the mezuzah. For right after the Gemara mentions “that the mezuzah will protect the house,” the Gemara continues with the following homily:
R. Hanina said, Come and see how the character of the Holy One, blessed be He, differs from that [of men] of flesh and blood. When it comes to flesh and blood, the king dwells within, and his servants keep guard on him from without; but with the Holy One, blessed be He, it is not so, for it is His servants that dwell within and He keeps guard over them from without; as it is said, “The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.” (Ps. 121:6)
For R. Hanina, it is not the mezuzah which protects through some magical powers, but it is God who protects. And it is not the house which is magically protected, but the person who does the mitzvot. The focus on God as the One who affords protection is repeated three times in quick succession: “He keeps guard… The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade.” The mezuzah, which is on the right hand of the one who enters the house, does not protect the house. It is rather God who protects the right hand of the one who does the mitzvot.
I believe that this type of reworking is not uncommon in the Gemara. Certainly, there were Jewish religious practices that existed outside the Rabbinic sphere of influence, and archeology and ancient texts attest to the extensive use of and belief in magical amulets at the time of Hazal. It only stands to reason that the amulet function of mezuzot that Rambam so derides was already an extensive phenomenon at the time of Chazal. So how did Hazal deal with this? Our Gemara is the answer – first and foremost, by ignoring it. Hazal deal with mezuzah through a halakhic lens, not through a magical or metaphysical lens. The best way to rob superstitions of their power is to ignore them. The other way that Chazal neutralized this approach was by subtly reworking it. In one word they allude to this power – “so that it protects the house,” and then immediately (re-)frame this as God’s protection of the people (who keep the mitzvah).
But that doesn’t mean that this belief just disappeared. Popular practices and beliefs are exceedingly difficult to change. And, ironically, because the Gemara gave voice to this understanding, it brought it into the rabbinic literature. To have ignored it completely would have been the best way to have made it disappear. By citing this attitude, even if only in one word, and even if only to debate or reframe it, the Gemara unintentionally raised its status and made it a part of the discourse.
In the age of the coronavirus, these two possibilities – divine protection or a shaping of our consciousness – take on special relevance. Our first move months ago in responding to the coronavirus was to make sure that we and those closest to us were safe. It was to do everything we could to bring protection – Divine or otherwise – to our homes. But what came after that? Have we remained in that state, or have we passed through the doorframe of our house, crossed our threshold, and gone out and engaged the larger world? Have the events, tragedies, and actions that have taken place these last few months – those reminders on our figurative doorposts – heightened our awareness of God, of people who are suffering and of our duty to make the world a better place? It is easy to remain indoors and to focus on our own protection. But the true message of the mezuzah calls upon us to remember, reflect, and engage.