Shabbat V’etchanan, 1st August 2020 – Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11, Hanna Hazi

Shabbat shalom everyone! I’m spoiled for choice regarding what to talk about with today’s parsha, it’s an embarrassment of riches. We have everything from the Ten Commandments to the beginning of the Sh’ma to that fascinating aside about King Og of Bashan’s giant bed – how tall was he, exactly?

But what I’d like to focus on today is the Sh’ma. It defines some of the most vital foundations of Jewish life – the unity of the Divine, our commitment to study and follow the Torah and to bind its words to our lives in concrete ways. Moses knows that he can’t enter the promised land. He’s reaching the end of his life. So he lays out an ethical framework to guide the people of Israel into the distant future, along with some physical things they should do to keep it in mind:

We read:

וְהָי֞וּ ַה ְדּ ָב ִר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃֣ים עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ הָ ֵא֗לֶּה ֲאשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ ָא ֹנ ִ֧כי ְמ ַצוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ ַהיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ ַעל־לְ ָב ֶֽבךָ׃

Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.

וְשִׁנַּנְ ָּ֣תם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ לְ ָבנֶ֔יךָ וְ ִד ַבּ ְר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ ָּ֖ת ָ֑בּם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ ְבּשִׁ ְב ְּתךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃ ְבּ ֵבי ֶת֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃ וּ ְבלֶ ְכ ְּתךָ֣ ַב ֶ֔דּ ֶר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ךְ וּֽ ְבשָׁ ְכ ְבּךָ֖ וּ ְבקוּ ֶֽמךָ׃

Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.

וּ ְקשַׁ ְר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ ָּ֥תם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ לְ ֖אוֹת ַעל־יָ ֶ֑דךָוְהָי֥וּ לְטֹ ָט ֖פֹת ֵ֥בּין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃ עֵינֶֽיךָ׃

Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead;

וּ ְכ ַת ְב ּ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ָתם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ ַעל־ ְמזוּזֹ֥ת ֵבּי ֶ֖תךָ וּ ִבשְׁעָ ֶֽר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃יךָ׃ (ס)
inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Bind them as a sign upon your hand and forehead is understood to refer to tefillin, those black boxes with the leather straps worn during weekday prayers. Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates is understood to refer to mezuzah scrolls, which are what I’d like to focus on today. You see a mezuzah fixed to the doorpost of pretty much every Jewish home, often even folks who don’t consider themselves at all religious. What are they all about? Let’s have a little whistle stop tour of some of the halacha, superstitions and the customs surrounding mezuzot!

Here’s a mezuzah that we have spare at the moment – we got quite a few as wedding presents. I thought I’d get it out to show you. A lot of people think ‘mezuzah’ refers to the beautiful cases, which can come in many different colours and styles, but actually the case doesn’t really matter. It just needs to be something that will protect the scroll. Often, it has the letter “ש” but it doesn’t even need that.

The scroll is the important part. Each case contains a scroll which has the text of the Shema prayer, ie Deuteronomy 6:4 – 9 and 11:13 – 21 handwritten on it. On the reverse is the word “שדי” shaddai, one of God’s names, which here is said to stand for “Shomer daltot Yisrael” – Guardian of Israel’s Doors.

There is a custom for some Ashkenazim of adding extra text to the Shaddai on the back of the scroll – an unpronounceable caesar cipher with other names of God. But Rambam heartily dislikes this:

Those, however, who write the names of angels, other sacred names, verses, or forms, on the inside [of a mezuzah] are among those who do not have a portion in the world to come. Not only do these fools nullify the mitzvah, but furthermore, they make from a great mitzvah [which reflects] the unity of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, the love of Him, and the service of Him, a talisman for their own benefit.

So Sephardic authorities do not allow it, and the scrolls of Sephardim only have ‘shaddai’ on the reverse.

The scroll is written in black ink on parchment made of the skin of a kosher animal. It has to be written by hand by a scribe and can’t be corrected after it’s written – it has to be written out once perfectly. There is a long tradition of ruling lines with a stylus on the parchment, again to help the scribe form their letters in the right places. The modern method to help further is for scribes to trace the calligraphy out over a light box, following a template scroll underneath the parchment to reduce the likelihood of mistakes. Photocopied scrolls are not useable – the process of hand-writing the words, just like with a Torah scroll, is considered vital.

There is of course some controversy over who the scribe can be! Traditionalists would say that only an observant Orthodox Jewish man can do it, after he has an apprenticeship training to become a sofer StaM. But the sources preventing women from becoming a scribe are quite interesting. The actual source-text for banning women from writing a mezuzah scroll is Gittin 45 B in the Talmud, and links mezuzah to tefillin:

דתני ר, עובד ב ה דרבא מפשרוניא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד מנונא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד בר, עובד יה דרבא מפשרוניא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד דר, עובד בא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד מפשר, עובד וניא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד : ס”ת, תפלין) ומסור, עובד ומזוזות שכתבן) ומסור, עובד (מין) ומסור, עובד ) ומסור, עובד , עובד כוכבים י”א] ועבד, א: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד שה דרבא מפשרוניא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד וקטן) ומסור, עובד , וכותי וישר, עובד א: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד ל מומר, עובד – פסולין) ומסור, עובד , שנא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד מר, עובד : [דבר, עובד ים י”א] י”א: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד ] ;וקשר, עובד תם י”א] … וכתבתם י”א] , כל שישנו בקשיר, עובד ה דרבא מפשרוניא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד ישנו בכתיבה דרבא מפשרוניא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד , וכל שא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד ינו בקשיר, עובד ה דרבא מפשרוניא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד א: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד ינו בכתיבה דרבא מפשרוניא: ס”ת, תפלין ומזוזות שכתבן (מין) ומסור, עובד

Rav Hamnuna the son of Rava from Pashronia taught: sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot written by (some editions: a heretic,) an informer, a non-Jew or a slave, a woman or a child, a Cuthean [a particular group who were converted under duress and were therefore suspected of not being entirely punctilious in their Jewish observance] or an apostate Jew, are invalid, as it is said, [Deut 6:8-9] ‘Bind them…write them’ – anyone who is commanded to bind is commanded to write, and anyone who is not commanded to bind is not commanded to write.

The verse linking writing a mezuzah to binding tefillin is of course the one we’ve just read in our parsha:

Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

There are a couple of halachic arguments we can use as egalitarian Jews to free ourselves from this quandry:

– Women aren’t obligated naturally (the egal-Orthodox approach) but can take on obligations and so if she lays tefillin regularly and considers herself obliged to do so, she can then write a kosher scroll.

– We in the Reform movement of course DO consider women to be obligated in these mitzvot, just as much as men, so after the right training female Jews should then be able to write a kosher scroll regardless of their behaviour with tefillin, just like men can.

Jen Taylor Friedman, a female scribe based in New York city, has a whole guide on how to learn to write a mezuzah scroll yourself. (She is a remarkable person who has written five Torah scrolls!) You’d need to find a mentor who can check your work in person, of course.

You’re supposed get out your scrolls and check them (or even better, have it checked by a professional) twice in every 7 years, because of the possibility of the ink or parchment getting damaged by weather or the passage of time – if a letter is erased or touches another, the scroll’s not kosher any more. Old scrolls are buried in a graveyard, like Torah scrolls and other sacred writings.

A lot of folk stories and superstition surround the mezuzah. For example, there’s a common idea that in times of trouble you should check your mezuzah because there might be something wrong with it that has led to bad luck. I’ve heard it called “the best alarm system” for the house and “the ultimate home security system” for a Jewish home.

If you look at articles from Chabad, Aish, and other places online, you’ll find stories with everything from mezuzah repair fixing a child’s fever to curing a grandmother’s hand numbness . The common thread in these tales is that the mezuzah is defective in a way that corresponds to the ailment – the scroll has a missing letter ‘yud’ so replace it and the problem with the grandmother’s yud (hand) went away. A woman struggles with infertility and finds her mezuzah case is empty – she fills it with a scroll and becomes pregnant – etcetera. I think many of us like the idea of control these superstitions can give to us – the sense that things happen for a reason, or that you’re doing all you can to prevent disaster. Checking the mezuzah can feel comforting.

But Adina Climent in Kveller magazine recounts how a medical diagnosis changed her view of checking mezuzahs:

I had called my husband from the hospital with news that the PET scan had lit up where it wasn’t supposed to and that we needed to follow up with more tests. Either everything was fine, or everything was not fine; there was no in-between. Before he responded, I warned him: “If you take one mezuzah down from any doorpost, I’m divorcing you.”

I could not take down those mezuzahs again because I could not believe that a letter scratched out had cursed us in some way. I would not buy into the idea anymore that God would choose to punish us over something so small…

I decided right then that I couldn’t believe in that God of superstition and amulets and magical talisman. That isn’t my religion. That isn’t my God.

My friend Rachel said it best. When I told her a bit of what was happening, and my changing feelings about the protection those mezuzahs were supposed to give, she agreed. Not everything has a clear reason. We don’t know why bad things happen. And more importantly, she explained, “The God I believe in is crying with me. He’s sad, too. And He certainly isn’t blaming me.”

People really shouldn’t treat it like an amulet or magical charm, agrees Blu Greenberg in ‘How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household’. She explains “A mezuzah is not meant to be a protective device, nor lack thereof a source of direct punishment. A mezuzah is a sign and reminder of the Covenant, of our love and commitment and our willingness to create a Jewish household. That, in itself, is sufficient!”

Where do you hang a mezuzah? The rule is that it goes up where you live, not in a place where you only work. There’s one exception: synagogues tend to have a mezuzah. Not because someone necessarily sleeps there (although with the Cambridge Churches Homeless Project that’s now happened many times at our shul!) but because it’s a place of Torah study as well as prayer, and because the mezuzah is an educational tool.

In your own house, the ideal is to put one on every door, but not the cupboards (too small) or your toilet. A lot of people, if they have only one mezuzah, will put it up on the front door. But there’s an argument that it’s more important to put it on the door of your bedroom because that’s your true dwelling place, where you sleep. If you’re in a house-share with non-Jews or in student halls, you just need to put one up on your own bedroom door. You can take it with you when you move, but only if a non-Jewish person is moving in after you. Otherwise you’re supposed to leave it behind for them to use (you can keep the decorative case, though!)

Mezuzahs belong anywhere that’s considered your permanent home – so you don’t need to worry about mounting one in every hotel room you occupy! If you’re there less than 30 days it’s not considered your home in that sense. UNLESS it’s in the land of Israel in which case everywhere is permanent because it’s our Home in a spiritual sense. Don’t worry though, pretty much everywhere will have one there already.

One final mezuzah fact I’d like to share is that the orientation we hang a mezuzah in is actually a compromise! Rashi thought it should be vertical, but his grandson Rabbenu Tam his grandson thought it should be horizontal. Rabbi ben Asher (‘the Tur’) suggested the tilting compromise, which would perhaps not have satisfied either man! We hang ours vertically because our doorway is narrow and were happy to discover this is actually the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic Jewish custom.

There’s some really interesting commentary on verse 4. 29 of our parsha –

וּ ִב ַקּשְׁ ֶּ֥תם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ ִמשָּׁ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ ֶאת־יְהוָ֥ה ֱא ֹל ֖הֶיךָ וּ ָמ ָ֑צא ָת ִכּ֣י ִת ְד ְר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃שֶׁ֔נּוּ ְבּ ָכל־לְ ָב ְבךָ֖ וּ ְב ָכל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

But if you (plural) search there [in exile] for the LORD your God, you (singular) will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul—

Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher points out that the seeking is done communally, but it switches to the singular when talking of finding God.

Seeing that the previous verses addressed the people en masse, as a plural, we would have expected Moses to write this verse also in the plural instead of switching to the singular, “you (individually) will find.” Had Moses continued in the plural the impression would have been created… It would have sounded as if G’d responds only to communal prayer, communal requests and not to that of the individual… For these reasons Moses made a point of telling us that G’d does respond to individuals who seek Him out.

Perhaps there are parallels with the custom of mezuzah? There are a lot of different ways to approach it – as a community, we can agree that they are important to us, but the exact form that mezuzah takes in your household is something for you to decide individually, based on your background, your aesthetic taste and your own circumstances.

Hopefully you’ve learned a little more about the options today!