Dr. Yosef Rosen, Jewish Studies Teachers

Every morning, when I arrive at 1835 Ellis street, I pass through two types of energies, one protective and one inspirational. First, I encounter the layer of security that ensures our school stays safe by vetting who enters. But right after, I am warmly greeted by members of our professional community who remind me of all that is wonderful about our school. These two layers of entrance are not uncommon—almost any space will want to keep out bad forces and uplift those that enter. So universal is this trend that it offered Jews throughout the ages two ways to interpret the role of the mezuzah, that small ritual item that adorns the doorway of Jewish spaces. To uncover those interpretations we have to begin back in Egypt, at the cusp of the exodus, right in the middle of this week’s Torah portion.

Long before Jews began to create mezuzot and place them on their doorposts, the Divine instructs the Isrealites to take the blood of the paschal lamb and “put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house” (Exodus 12:7). On the surface, the blood simply operates as a sign of ethnic identity. The Divine will know which homes to passover, when They come to strike down each firstborn, on account of the paschal blood. The blood is a sign of an Israelite home. But the Midrash offers a more magical, protective read of the blood, one that links it to another marking Jews will make on their doorposts in future generation, the mezuzah: “Since the blood of the paschal sacrifice in Egypt, which was only practiced during that time and not for future generations, was said to bar the destroyer, how much more so will the mezuzah, then, which has ​ten unique names​ and is applicable day and night for all generations how much more so ​will it bar the destroyer​” (Mekhilta). Using a form of rabbinic logic known as “an argument a fortiori,” the Midrash seeks to show that the mezuzah, placed at the cusp of Jewish homes throughout time, is more of an amulet than an adornment or a sign of Jewish identity. The mezuzah, through the power of the divine names written in its scroll, creates a protective field that blocks destructive forces. 

Several centuries later, a classical Jewish debate emerged over the function of the mezuzah. In Ashkenaz, the mezuzah was treated as an amulet, and Jewish scribes were encouraged to add magical elements to boost its protective powers. For instance, the northern Frenchman, Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (1115-1198), writes: “It is a common practice to add seals and the names of certain angels at the end of the Biblical verses contained in the mezuzah for the sake of the increased security of the home. This is neither commanded nor prohibited; it simply serves as additional protection.” And his contemporary, Germanic Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, takes this to an extreme: “If Jews knew how powerful the mezuzah is, they would not lightly disregard it. They may be assured that no demon can have power over a house upon which the mezuzah is properly affixed. In our house I believe we have close to twenty four mezuzot.” Recent discoveries of mezuzah scrolls from the Cairo Genizah, decorated with magical symbols, demonstrate that this was not solely an Ashkenazi interpretation. 

Maimonides, ever the rationalist, could not stand this magical interpretation of the mezuzah. For him, the mezuzah does not protect from outside forces that may seek to enter and cause harm in the home: “Those who write upon the parchment the names of angels have no share in the world to come. Not only do these fools fail to carry out a divine precept, but they treat the religious duty of proclaiming the unity of God and acknowledging the love and service due to him, as though it provided them with an amulet for their own profit.” Instead, the mezuzah reminds those that enter the home that this is a sacred space where the Divine is present: “Whenever one enters or leaves a home with the mezuzah on the doorpost, he will be confronted with the Declaration of God’s Unity, blessed be his holy name, and will remember the love due to God.” 

Luckily us modern Jews can have it both ways. We can view the mezuzah as both an amulet that wards off negative energy and as a religious symbol that inspires us to act in a holy fashion. And this can inspire us to create spaces, just like JCHS, that both bar harmful forces and uplift the holy forces that already dwell in all that pass through the doorway.