In my research for this book I was surprised to discover that, to my knowledge, not only there was no general and comprehensive book on the mitzvah of mezuzah, but in fact, except for a beautiful recently-published volume on mezuzah art and a few booklets on the laws of mezuzah, there was not much written about it at all. Yet the mezuzah is and has always been one of the most popular Jewish symbols. Beyond the legal (halakhic) treatment of the commandment and its requirements, this mitzvah is shrouded in mystery. An extensive amount of Jewish literature has been surveyed in search of commentaries that would shed light on this very popular but much-misunderstood mitzvah.

I also became aware that most scholarly as well as popular works make the common mistake of considering the belief in the protective powers of a mezuzah to be a relic of the primitive superstition of the Dark Ages. It is my intent to demonstrate here that in fact, this belief is intrinsic to mainstream Judaism and rabbinical thought throughout Jewish literature from Biblical to contemporary sources.

This small book does not purport to present an exhaustive treatment of the topic of mezuzah. It excludes detailed coverage of the laws of mezuzah, since there are a number of accessible sources in English dealing with that subject. Only a brief overview of these laws is included for the benefit of the reader. The goal of this book is to explain the inner meaning of this commandment and to promote its observance in a meaningful way.

It has long been a tradition of Jewish writers not to entertain new interpretations, but rather to rely on the authority of the Sages of the past. Being unable to find exhaustive treatment of this topic in the traditional sources, with great trepidation I ventured to make interpretations that I did not see expressed by the great minds of the past. I endeavored that this process be one of interpolation and not extrapolation and thus hopefully less prone to error. In either case, wherever there is no source appearing in the text, I take sole responsibility for any possible error in the interpretation of various aspects of this precept. It is my fervent prayer that none of the content of this work proves to be misleading in any way.

Any Jewish author who writes in English (or any other non-Hebrew language) is faced with a dilemma: how to transliterate the Hebrew words. As is well known, there are two main Hebrew dialects: Sefardic, used by the Spanish and oriental Jews, and Ashkenazic, used by central and eastern European Jewry.

The difference between these two dialects is two-fold. Firstly, the Sefardim pronounce the vowel kamatz as “ah”, while the Ashkenazim pronounce it as “aw” (thus kamatz becomes komatz.) Since the Hebrew alphabet does not contain any vowels, this difference becomes nonessential, subject to local custom. It has become an accepted practice to follow in this instance the sefardic custom, and we are going adopt it in this work as well.

With respect to the consonants, however, the difference in pronunciation becomes more apparent. The Sefardim do not differentiate between the letter Tav with the dagesh (a dot inside the letter) or without it, pronouncing it in both instances as the hard sound “t”. Ashkenazim, on the other hand, do differentiate between these two instances and pronounce the letter Tav without a dagesh as a soft sound “s”. Thus, Sefardim would pronounce, for example, the phrase “Torah of Truth” as Torát Emét, while Ashkenazic Jews would pronounce it as Tóras Émes.

Authors are divided on this subject. Some use the Sefardic pronunciation because it was adopted in the State of Israel. Others, (predominantly religious authors in the Diaspora) use traditional Ashkenazic pronunciation. The former transliterate the Hebrew letter “Tav” as the English letter “t” and the latter transliterate it as the letter “s”.

We adopted for this book a third way, the old English tradition of transliterating the letter “Tav” as “th”. Thus, the expression in our example would be transliterated as Torath Emeth. While it may look and sound somewhat awkward, we had compelling reasons to choose this old-fashioned style. Some of these reasons are:

  • The author felt obliged by the instruction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to follow pronunciation accepted in the country for which the book is intended. The traditionally predominant pronunciation in North America and in the English-speaking countries has been that of Ashkenazic dialect. While our transliteration is a compromise, it certainly gravitates towards Ashkenazic pronunciation since we do differentiate between the letters with or without dagesh, using a softer sound “th” for the letter “Tav” without the dagesh.
  • This is a time-honored English literary tradition, as was already mentioned.
  • This transliteration may, in fact, more closely resemble the authentic Biblical Hebrew pronunciation, as has been noted by many linguists (even though we are not entirely consistent in applying this approach to other double consonants – gimel-dzhimel and Daleth-thalet as these differences survived only in the community of Yemenite Jews).
  • There are esoteric consideration as well, based on a Kabbalistic view that the choice of soft consonants elicits the flow of the Divine Love-Kindness (Chesed), while the hard consonants are associated with the Divine attribute of Judgment (Gevurah) (the Hebrew letters are characterized in Kabbalah as channels for Divine energy and creative life-force).

The compromise approach is particularly appropriate for a book about the mezuzah. There are two basic opinions in Jewish Law as to how a mezuzah is to be affixed to a doorpost. According to Rashi, it must be affixed vertically, while according to Rabbeinu Tam, it must be affixed horizontally. The accepted custom is to compromise and affix the mezuzah diagonally. Thus, we follow in this book the way of the mezuzah – the way of compromise.

A few words on style: I, first of all, must beg forgiveness from my readers for the chutzpah of writing in English, which is not my native tongue. I am reminded of the words of Leo Rosten, who wrote:

I have the greatest sympathy for immigrants who had to learn English, a most difficult and perverse tongue, in their adulthood; but just as my sympathy turns sour when a tone-deaf fiddler plays Mozart, my patience runs out when an inveterate bungler commits a translation1.

I am grateful to all those who labored hard to make my awkward speech more palatable. Among them are Rabbi Chaim Zalman Levy, Mrs. Zipora Reitman, Mr. Andy Heimer, Mr. Kalman Serkez and Mrs. Naava Cooper. The corrections are thanks to them, but the errors are all mine. If my attempt at English tea tastes at times like Russian borscht, I alone am to blame.

I owe a profound debt of gratitude to many people without whose help this work would have never appeared. Among them first and foremost are Rb. Benzion Feldman and Rb. Hirsh Rabisky. I am also thankful to Rb. Herbert Weiner, Rb. Sander Babayov, Dr. Leonard Weiner, Dr. Chaim Schild, Prof. Herman Branover, Mr. Kurtzweil and Rabbi Dr. Norman Strictman.

It gives me a particular pleasure to thank my son, Moshe, a rabbinical student, who helped prepare the Bibliography for this book. I also thank all my other children, Elie, Ruth, David and Chanah, who patiently put up with their father spending Sundays and evenings at the computer. The time I spent working on the book belonged to them.

Acharon, acharon Chaviv2 – the one who is mentioned the last is most beloved. My dear wife, Esheth Chayil 3, Leah, Shetichiyeh – may she be well – deserves special thanks. She has been the first editor, most ardent critic and patient listener. Without her cooperation, encouragement and active help and participation this work would never be finished.