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Artfully or plainly encased, mezuzot provide a mitzvah at your door

Dichroic glass mezuzot cases by Tucson artist Daryl Cohen (www.glassdesignbydarylcohen.com)

Surfing the Internet you find the darndest things, including a mezuzah and scroll “box” you can download to your computer screen. According to the eMezuzah sales pitch (at http://download.cnet.com/ eMezuzahh/3000-2135_4-10170822.html) the scroll is available in both English and Hebrew.

When you think about it — since the Internet has become a very real doorway to the world, and Torah commands us to place a mezuzah on the doorway into our home to remind us, among other things, to bring only good and honorable things into our home — it makes a kind of why-not? sense to “affix” a mezuzah to the door into cyberspace.

I mention this cyberspace mezuzah because the mezuzah is one of our oldest ceremonial objects. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, mezuzot date back to our days of bondage in Egypt, and probably evolved from the Egyptian custom of placing or carving sacred inscriptions into the doorposts of homes. By the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE/AD), however, mezuzot had become a permanent and unique part of Jewish culture and tradition, though they were not usually affixed to doorposts. Rather, they were “buried” inside them (which, by the way, was the custom in many areas of Europe till around 1800).

In the late Middle Ages, as the religious fanaticism and economic instability generated by the Crusades began turning much of Southern Europe and the Middle East into witch hunt and war zones, many Jews began adding extra verses, angels’ names, and symbols, such as the Star of David, to mezuzot.

The 12th century physician-scholar Moses Maimonides campaigned vigorously against this kabalistic use of mezuzot. In his writings he lamented: “Those fools defeat … a great commandment … [by] turning the mezuzah into an amulet for their selfish interest …[which is] the preservation of transitory worldly goods.”

Eventually Maimonides’ arguments prevailed. Today mezuzot contain only text.

Most of us think of a mezuzah as a package deal: a mezuzah box and the scroll it contains. Most of us are wrong.

A mezuzah — which literally means doorpost — is just the scroll, which is usually a piece of parchment between three and six inches square with 22 lines of Torah text (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (Sh’ma) and Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (V’ahavata)) inscribed upon it. Technically this parchment could be tacked or glued to the right-hand doorpost of a home’s entry and/or the right-hand doorpost of a home’s interior rooms and the commandment to “inscribe these words upon the doorposts” would be fulfilled.

However, because mezuzot are often placed outside where the elements could destroy them, and because ­acknowledging them means touching them with fingertips that are often dirty, and because they are costly (depending on the skill and artistry of the sofer, or scribe, who creates it), they have traditionally been stored, rolled from left to right, in a mezuzah box or case.

These boxes and cases, which serve holy, practical, and aesthetic purposes, can be made by non-Jews and they can be made of anything — wood, stone, clay, porcelain, silver, brass, pewter, copper, aluminum, glass, plastic.

However, the nicer the protective case or box the more honor it shows to the scroll within. Reflecting this fact, since the late 1940s, mezuzot boxes/cases have become both more artistic and individualistic in design. Indeed, there are highly competitive contests today — masquerading as art exhibits — dedicated to the promotion of box and case design.

While boxes and cases can be made of anything, mezuzah scrolls can be made of only one thing, klaf, parchment made from the split hide of a kosher animal.

And they can only be written, with a special quill pen and special black ink, by a sofer trained to write in the Assyrian-style characters used for both mezuzot and Torah scrolls. The characters must be so legibly written that a child can read them easily and the mezuzah must be error free. Even one mistake — an ink blot, a mis-shaped letter, a mis-spelled word — renders them invalid. The mindful vigilance necessary to produce mezuzah text is probably a major reason that the sofer must recite each word as he copies it onto the parchment.

Vigilance is also necessary in the care of a mezuzah. Before it is placed in its box or case, it should be wrapped in protective paper that breathes, such as acid-free tissue paper. Once a box or case has been affixed to a doorpost, two times in every seven years all mezuzot boxes or cases in a home must be taken down and the scrolls inside unrolled and checked for damage by a sofer.

Tears, foxing (discoloration due to mold), water spots, or deterioration of the parchment due to seasonal climate changes can make a mezuzah invalid and require its replacement. However, cracked or peeling ink can often be “repaired” by the sofer so that the mezuzah can be returned to its place of honor on the home’s doorposts.

Eileen Beal, a freelance writer, is a former associate editor at the Cleveland Jewish News.

‘Inscribe these words upon the doorposts’: how to hang a mezuzah

When you move into a new home or apartment, you are commanded to install mezuzot within the first 30 days.

A mezuzah is always affixed to the main entrance doorway(s). However, if you choose, you can also affix them to the doorways of the home’s main rooms (i.e. living room, bedrooms, but not bathrooms, storage rooms, etc.).

To affix a mezuzah use either double-sided tape, screws, or nails. The first two methods are recommended because it’s difficult to damage the box/case with them, and they make removal easier.

Place the mezuzah only on the right-hand doorpost (as you enter), and as close to the outer edge of the doorpost as possible. If there are small children in the house, position it within their reach.

Position the mezuzah in a slanted position (about 45 degrees) so the top points toward the inside of the house or room and so that the Hebrew word Shaddai (Almighty), which is written on the back of the parchment, is facing outward (e.g. toward the other doorpost). If slanting is not possible, due to the narrowness of the doorframe, vertical positioning is acceptable.

While the mezuzah is held in place recite: Baruch ata Adonai, Elo-heinu Melech Ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitz’v-tav, vi’tzivanu lik-bo-a mezuzah (Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot, and commanded us to affix a mezuzah). Then “fix” the mezuzah box to the doorpost.

If other mezuzot are to be placed throughout the home, recite the blessing when the first one is placed, then put up the rest as quickly as possible without saying another prayer. —E.B.

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