Inspirational anecdotes and stories from the Talmud, Midrash and modern times
about the mitzvot of Tefillin and Mezuzah

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Mezuzah: the Unusual Guard -Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avoda Zara 11a.

"Caesar is angry and wants to see Onkelos. Bring him here immediately!"

This was the order received by the soldiers from the Roman Emperor regarding his nephew Onkelos, the son of Kallonymos.

Onkelos, whose translation and commentary on the Torah are universally well known, became a proselyte - a convert to the Jewish religion. This angered Caesar who dispatched a company of soldiers to persuade Onkelos to give up his new religion.

But the soldiers never returned. Instead they were convinced by Onkelos to also become converts to Judaism.

Caesar dispatched another group of soldiers on the same mission, but decided not to take a second chance. He gave them this warning: "Bring Onkelos to me, but be careful not to engage in conversation with him."

The militiamen seized Onkelos and were about to take him from his home when he stopped at the door, put his hand on the mezuzah, and smiled. The soldiers couldn't help themselves but ask for an explanation of his actions. Onkelos told them "It is customary with a human king that whenever he is within his palace, his servants guard him from without. But our G-d, the King of the universe, has His servants sit inside their houses, while He guards them from outside."

Hearing his words, these soldiers also remained with Onkelos and also converted to Judaism.

Mezuzah: the Most Valuable Gift -Jerusalem Talmud, Pe'ah, Chapter 1 and Breishit Raba, Chapter 35

Once the great Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, "the Prince," received a splendid pearl as a gift from the Parthian King. Rabbi Yehuda responded by sending the Parthian King a gift of his own - a beautiful mezuzah. Outraged by the seeming mockery, the King angrily sent to Rabbi Yehuda: "You have insulted me! I sent you a precious gift, and you reciprocate with a trifle of no value!"

Rabbi Yehuda replied: "The gift you sent me is so valuable that it will have to be guarded carefully. But the gift I gave you will guard you, even when you are asleep and even when you travel! King David says in Psalms 121:8:

'G-d guards your going out and your returning home, now and forever.' Not only when you are at home, but even when you are away from your home, G-d guards you in the merit of the Mezuzah on your doorpost."

The Essence of Mezuzah

"And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Devarim 11:20)

The mitzvah of mezuzah teaches us unequivocally that not only is a synagogue or other place of worship and study holy, but also one's home can and should be a holy sanctuary. Fulfilling this mitzvah both develops within us and is an expression of some of the most basic principles and ideals of Judaism. It applies equally to those who dwell in the house as well as their visitors.

The mezuzah, handwritten in the specially prescribed manner and affixed to the right doorpost of every room in the Jewish home, contains the first two paragraphs of the Shema prayer:

"Shema Yisrael" (Devarim 6:4-10) declares the unity of G-d and our sacred, eternal duty to serve Him and only Him.

"Vehaya im shamoa" (Devarim 11:13-21) expresses G-d's assurance to us of the reward that will result from our observance of the Torah's teachings and warns us of the consequences for disobedience of them.

These biblical passages embody fundamental convictions of the Jew:

  • G-d exists
  • G-d created the world
  • G-d knows everything that goes on in the world
  • G-d participates and actively guides everything that occurs in the world

On the reverse side of the parchment G-d's name Shaddai is written. This name is an acronym for Shomer Daltot Yisrael: "Guardian of the houses of Israel." It symbolizes G-d's watchful care over the house and all that is in it.

Before reciting the blessing and affixing a mezuzah, one recites the preparatory "y'he ratzon" prayer requesting, "Master of the universe, look down from Your holy habitation and accept in mercy and favor the prayer of Your children who are gathered here to dedicate this dwelling and to offer their thanksgiving. Grant them that they may live in their home in brotherhood and friendship."

Many people kiss the mezuzah with their right hand each time to go in or out of a room or a house. The act of kissing the mezuzah is much more than a mere touch of the fingers and kiss of the lips. It is an act of faith: as you go into your home, which you might think is your very own, you are reminded that all that you have belongs to G-d and that your house must serve as a sanctuary of the Almighty. Similarly, when you leave the safety and protection of your home to face the outside world, you go forth with the kiss of the mezuzah on your lips. You take G-d along with you to whatever the day holds in store for you. It implies courage and determination, which is part of the Jewish way of life.

Are Women and Partners Obligated to have Mezuzot? -adapted from the Torah Temima by Rabbi Eliezer Chrysler

The Talmud in Yoma (11b) states in the name of Rabbi Meir that a synagogue, a house or room belonging to a woman, or one which is shared by a number of partners all require a mezuzah.

This statement is followed immediately by the question: why shouldn't each of these require a mezuzah? Why must we be told this law specifically?

In reply, the Talmud cites the verse: "And you shall write them on the door-posts of your house" (Devarim 11:20) in which the word "your" is written in the singular, masculine form. Thus, our sages were concerned that people might understand the commandment to apply only to "your house" but not a communal one, for example a synagogue, nor one that belongs to a woman; nor one shared by partners. So why then does the Torah write "your house", if not to preclude these from the obligation of mezuzah?

The Talmud replies that the Torah specifies "your house" to teach us something quite different: that the mezuzah must be affixed on the right doorpost and not on the left. How is this interpretation arrived at? Sometimes our sages interpret a word that does not contain the letter "aleph" as if an aleph were actually present, thus adding additional meaning to the verse. A well-known example of this is the verse in Devarim 10:12: "And now, what does G-d ask of you, other than to fear Him?" The Talmud in Menachot (43b) interprets the Hebrew word "what" as if it were written with an extra aleph thus having the meaning "100" and derives from this that it is a mitzvah to recite 100 blessings each day, a most definite expression of awe of G-d.

In a similar manner, the Talmud interprets the word "beisecho" your house as if it were written with an extra aleph "bi'os'cho" meaning "the way you enter." This interpretation is then combined with the obligation a person has to be right-minded and right-oriented as taught by the Talmud in Zevochim (62b): "Every turning that you make, always turn to the right." Thus a person is enjoined to place his right foot forward first whenever he starts out. Similarly it is with his right foot that he makes his entry into a house or a room and so it is on the right doorpost that he must place his mezuzah. (The Torah's instructions of course, are general, and include even someone who might perhaps tend to move off with his left foot - though that is not the case with Tefillin).

Why does Rabbi Meir prefer this complicated extrapolation to the simple explanation that would exclude women and partners? Says Rabbi Meir: "the Torah would never exempt women or partners from putting up a mezuzah. Immediately following the mitzvah of mezuzah, the Torah continues with the promise: 'In order that you and your children live long.' Mezuzah then, is a source of life, and surely women and partners need long life no less than individual men do! Therefore, the obligation to put a mezuzah on one's doorpost must apply equally to all."

The same principle is applied by the Talmud in Brachot (20b) when it explains why women, just like men, are obliged to pray despite the fact that prayer is a positive, time-related mitzvah; a category of mitzvot from which women are normally exempt. Impossible, states the Talmud! The Torah certainly would not exempt women from prayer, since prayer is synonymous with Divine mercy, and women need Divine mercy just as much as men.

Tefillin: Receptors of Holiness

The story is told of a young man studying in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem whose tefillin were found to be pasul, invalid. Greatly disturbed, he went to the rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, of blessed memory. How could it be, he asked, that a tiny, simple crack in a single letter, barely visible to the eye, could render an entire scroll - his entire tefillin - invalid? Why couldn't the sofer just put a dot of ink onto the crack and repair it?

Rav Chaim replied by asking him, "What would happen if I took a surgical knife and cut a fine line on the circuit board of a radio, a cut so tiny it could only be seen under a magnifying glass? The radio would certainly be unable to receive any transmission."

"Similarly," he continued, "tefillin are the Jews' receiver of G-d's transmissions to us. If a letter is cut, even so slightly, its ability to do its job is destroyed. Just as the circuit board cannot be repaired and made to work properly again, so the sofer is forbidden to repair the tefillin scroll, because unless it is fully complete and accurate from the time of its original writing it cannot fulfill its holy purpose.

Mezuzah: the Guardian on Your Doorpost -reprinted from The Mezuzah Gram of the Chicago Mezuzah & Tefillin Campaign

Dr. Yaakov Orlean, who is originally from the US and lived and worked in California before moving to Israel several years ago, recounts the following true story: One day I visited a well-known sofer STa"M in Bnei Brak and purchased three exquisite mezuzah parchments. I had business to take care of in the United States and planned to give the mezuzot as gifts to three former colleagues in California.

The first thing I did upon arrival was drive to my former colleagues' homes and catch up on old times. They all lived on the same street, so it was very convenient for me to visit them. All three were excited to see me, but their reactions upon receiving my gift were very different.

The first one, Jack, was horrified when he finished unwrapping the gift paper and realized what he was holding in his hands. "Why, thank you very much," Jack said, recovering somewhat from the initial shock. "A mezuzah! How unique. Yes, well, I will keep it right here in my desk drawer. Who knows? It may come in handy as a paperweight."

To say the least, I was not pleased by what I heard. "A paperweight?" I asked in astonishment. "Jack, for crying out loud, this is a mezuzah! You're supposed to attach it to a doorpost. You know, as in, "front door!?" "On my front door?" Jack asked with equal astonishment. "You've got to be kidding. Everyone will know I'm Jewish! No, no, that's out of the question. But thank you so much anyway. It's such a nice gift."

I said goodbye and went down the block to visit my second colleague, Steven. His reaction to the special gift from Israel was less severe. "Oh how nice, a mezuzah," Steven said after unwrapping the gift. "Just what I always wanted!" And he proceeded to slip it into his desk drawer.

"You know," I said as tactfully as I could, "the purpose of a mezuzah is to be placed on a doorframe. Actually, come to think of it, the bronze casing goes very well with the color scheme of your front entrance." Steven didn't look thrilled. He agreed to post the mezuzah on an interior room in his house, but said he couldn't quite imagine posting it on the front door.

Having failed twice in having my special gift used in the manner intended, I made one last attempt as I visited my third friend a few houses down the street. The third doctor, Michael, unwrapped his gift and was very excited to find the mezuzah and its beautiful case. He kissed the mezuzah, caressed the case, and reveled in the fact that his gift came from Israel, the Jewish homeland.

Then, without needing to be told what to do with it, Michael stood up, asked what bracha to say and affixed the mezuzah on his front door.

Upon my return to Israel, I heard that a terrible earthquake hit California just days after my visit. Numerous homes sustained damage, and some were demolished. I was very concerned about what had happened to my three friends. When I found out their fate, I was astonished by the news.

The massive forces had ravaged Jack's house, leaving it completely destroyed. Nothing remained, only the foundation. Steven's house also suffered immense damage, except for one room - the one where the mezuzah hung. And Michael's house, situated on the same street as my other two colleagues, remained standing - fully intact and undamaged!

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