One evening, we came home late and discovered that the mezuza glued to our front entrance was missing.
In the morning our neighbor brought over our missing mezuza, and explained that a pair of ultra-Orthodox men belonging to a well-known group had brought it to him, telling him they had removed it, examined it and found that – Heaven forbid! – it was faulty – and he should tell us that unless we fixed it, terrible things would happen to us.
I was appalled they had the nerve to tamper with our mezuza – I examined it, and it was as kosher as could be – but even if it was faulty, would that have put us in danger? Is that really how God works? Does a mezuza protect a house? If so, we could cancel our contract with an alarm system and save money on our house insurance. Since when does Judaism teach such superstitious nonsense? Yet I have discovered that many sincere Jews believe that this is the purpose of affixing mezuzot on our doorposts. I recently participated in a housewarming and when I explained the true meaning of the mezuza, I was amazed at the number of people who told me they had no idea it was not simply an amulet protecting against misfortune. After all, how many times had they read of prominent rabbis who explained terrible disasters as the result of faulty mezuzot?
As I explained, the Torah is very clear about the matter. In two passages in Deuteronomy, 6:4-9 and 11:18-21, Moses commands the Israelites to take to heart his teachings and impress them upon their children, reciting them when at home and away, morning and evening, binding them upon their hands and heads, and “inscribing them upon the doorposts (mezuzot) of your house and upon your gates.” These two passages are recited as part of the Shema prayer in the morning and evening, and are inscribed in our tefillin and mezuzot.
It is difficult to know exactly how these commands were carried out in early biblical days, although my friend, the archeologist Prof. Gavriel Barkai, tells me that ancient buildings have been found in which sacred writings were actually inscribed on the walls. Rabbinic Judaism determined that writing these passages in tefillin and in a case called a mezuza affixed to the doorways was the proper method.
It is clear that the Torah is not speaking of ways to protect the individual or the house, but of making certain that the words and teachings of the Torah would be remembered, internalized and observed. By seeing these words when entering and leaving the home, one would be reminded of the precepts taught by the Torah. Seeing the mezuza, one should remember what it written in it and the teachings of the Torah.
Nothing is said about protection.
That is what Maimonides taught in his Guide For the Perplexed. He includes the mezuza in a class of precepts that “serve to remind us continually of God, and of our duty to fear and love Him, to keep all His commandments, and to believe concerning God that which every religious person must believe” (III 44). The Talmud, for its part, says that the mezuza is one of the things that will keep a person from sinning, because it will remind them of God’s presence and His commandments (Men.43b).
That the mezuza is some sort of magic amulet which assures protection and whose absence will bring catastrophe never appears in the Torah or these later sources.
The Torah is opposed to anything of the sort. It eliminated magic and superstition. It is much to be regretted that such things as amulets and magic spells, incantations, curses and blessings have crept back into Judaism, and taken such a major role in the teachings of some Jewish sects. They do not belong there, and should be rejected by religious Jews as a corruption of the teachings of Judaism. We rely on God, not on amulets; we pray to God, and do not rely on superstition.
It is important to have mezuzot on our doorways, not to protect our homes but so that we will constantly remember the words and the teachings of the Torah, which form the foundation of a good and righteous life.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).