To understand the significance of the mezuzah, we must first explore the text written in it. As we have said before, these are the two Torah portions: Shema and Vehayah. These two portions, along with a third, comprise the prayer Shema Yisrael... – “Hear, O’ Israel...”– which every observant Jew recites every day at least twice, in the morning and in the evening. This is the main Jewish prayer, the first a child learns and the last a Jew utters before returning his soul to the Creator. Let us look closely into these portions of Torah.

Text of Shema

Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G‑d, the L-rd is One.

And you shall love the L-rd your G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be tefillin between your eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the doorposts (mezuzoth) of thy house and upon thy gates. (Deuteronomy VI, 4‑9).

The Content of Shema

The first paragraph of the mezuzah, Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel, contains several important principles:

Belief in the unity of G‑d.

Commandment to love G‑d.

Commandment to recite these passages every morning and evening.

Commandment to teach these words to our children - the mitzvah of Chinukh.

Mitzvah of tefillin shel yad (arm phylactery).

Mitzvah of tefillin shel rosh (head phylactery).

Mitzvah of mezuzah.

Let us examine these principles.

The Unity of G‑d

The first principle constitutes the credo of monotheism. The words, “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is One” express the very foundation of the Jewish faith – the belief in the Unity and Oneness (singularity) of G‑d. In Hebrew, this passage reads:

Shema Yisrael YHVH Elo-heinu YHVH Echad.

The Hebrew word Echad – One– is replete with meaning. Besides “one”, it also means “the first,” as in the Biblical verse from the story of Creation: Yom Echad – day one (first) (Genesis I, 5). It also means “unique”, unlike anything that He created. It may also mean “united”, i.e., simple and undifferentiated, not corporeal. Therefore, when saying Shema we are proclaiming that G‑d is the First Cause (the Creator), that He is the only G‑d (rejection of polytheism - idolatry), that He is Absolute Unity and Simplicity (rejection of any plurality or corporeality, such as Trinity, for example, in G‑dhead). Chasidic philosophy interprets the word Echad to mean “the only One,” that there is, in fact, nothing but G‑d alone, and the whole Universe exists within G‑d.

The word Echad consists of three letters: Alef (1)1, Cheth (8) and Daleth (4). According to Rashi2, these letters allude to the concept that G‑d is One (Alef = 1) in the seven heavens3 and the Earth (Cheth = 7 + 1) and in the four directions (Daleth = 4).

The word Echad has the numerical value (gematria4 ) of 13, which alludes to the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy, thus describing the Creator further as the Merciful One.

According to Abudraham,5 the word Israel in this verse refers to one’s fellow Jew. According to the Midrash, it refers to the Patriarch Jacob to whom we reaffirm our faith. Chasidic philosophy interprets Israel as referring to the essence of one’s Jewish soul, the G‑dly spark within, the pintele Yid.

The Love of G‑d

Next, Torah commands us to love G‑d. We may question, how can a person be commanded to love? We may be forced to fear, we can be convinced to respect, but love is a basic emotion that defies reason. If you can explain why you love someone, in all likelihood it is not love, but a relationship contingent on certain conditions that one perceives as the reason for love. It is not coincidental that when one is truly “in love,” one is said to be “madly in love,” because this feeling is beyond reason, though not necessarily above it.

The sages of Kabbalah and Chassidic philosophy explain that the emotive attributes of the soul,6 such as love, fear, etc., stem from its intellectual faculties. Maimonides explains that the commandment to love G‑d is actually a commandment to meditate upon the infinite loving-kindness of G‑d, as revealed to us through His prophet:

I have loved you with an infinite world of love. (Jeremiah XXXI, 3).

Meditating deeply on G‑d’s love will, in time, evoke a reciprocal feeling of love towards our Heavenly Father. Torah thus actually promises (rather than commands), “And you shall love the L-rd your G‑d...”

Why is it so important to meditate upon G‑d’s love and to love G‑d in return? The answer has its root in the most fundamental of all questions: why did G‑d create the world? Realistically, we cannot expect to find the ultimate answer to this question for G‑d’s intellect is infinitely beyond ours, and, as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe)7put it, one cannot question a desire 8

Nevertheless, to the extent that we may understand it, the Creation was an act of love. As the Scriptures say:

To Him Who made the great stars, for His love is infinite. (Psalms CXXXVI, 7).

The Reason for Creation

The rationale for creating the physical world can, perhaps, be explained with the following parable: Once the Attribute of Love rose to the throne of G‑d and asked, L‑rd, why aren’t you kind? G‑d agreed and chipped off Divine sparks from His Infinite Light, thus creating souls. He placed these souls in the Heavenly Paradise, where they basked in the rays of G‑d’s glory. Once again the Attribute of Love rose to the Divine throne and asked, L‑rd, why aren’t you yet kind? G‑d agreed and took those souls from the Heavenly Paradise and placed them in human bodies on Earth. Now the Attribute of Love was satisfied.

What does this beautiful parable mean? Needless to say, there is no Attribute of Love separate from G‑d. This parable is poetic allegory. As is unequivocally stated by the Prophet Elijah, the Divine emanations, Sefiroth, which we call G‑dly attributes, are utterly one with and inseparable from the Creator. This story teaches that G‑d, who is the ultimate source of love and kindness, had unrealized potential to be kind, to love. Of course, loving oneself is not exactly what we call love. One needs someone other than himself to love, to whom to be kind. Just as a woman has a motherly instinct that drives her to give birth and nurse a child, so every potential, every talent, begs for fulfillment, for realization. Similarly, G‑d created souls to love them and bestow on them His infinite benevolence. G‑d thus expressed His kindness by placing the souls in the Heavenly Paradise, the world of bliss and eternal joy.

The problem was that G‑d had created these souls from His very Self, as there was nothing else. Therefore, the souls, who were thus actually G‑dly sparks, also inherited from their Creator the talent for love, the desire to be kind. They did not lack to whom to be kind as they had their Creator, their Father. They wanted to be kind to G‑d. They were, therefore, not happy in Paradise receiving free gifts from Him. The very nature of the one-way relationship with G‑d intrinsic to Paradise did not allow the souls to reciprocate. Their innermost wish was to be as their Creator, to love and be kind. G‑d, however, is perfect, and so, too, must be His love. For G‑d to be truly kind to the souls He had to make them happy. Therefore, He created this lowest of worlds, placed the G‑dly sparks in human bodies, gave them freedom of choice, and placed their fruition in their own hands. G‑d told the sparks to perfect this imperfect world, thereby becoming co-creators. He told them, as it were, “Make Me happy, then you will be happy, and thus I will be happy!”

We see now that, as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan put it, the whole drama of the Creation is about love. It is about G‑d loving us and us loving G‑d. Thus the main Jewish prayer, Shema, brings to the fore the commandment to meditate upon G‑d’s love, to bring oneself to love G‑d.9

This portion is the foundation of Judaism, as it is stated:

These words [“And you shall love the L-rd, your G‑d...”] are the epitome of the Torah, since the Ten Commandments are summed up here.

Torah does not just vaguely command us to love G‑d, but delineates: “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” These three modes of expression of our love for G‑d parallel the three Patriarchs of the Jewish nation: Abraham (Avraham), Isaac (Yitzchak) and Jacob (Yaakov), as hinted in the fact that the word VeAHaVTa (And you shall love) has the same letters as the word HaAVoTh - the Patriarchs.

The Torah further delineates the commandment to love G‑d, translating it into three specific mitzvoth: hand tefillin (shel yad), head tefillin (shel Rosh) and mezuzah. Mezuzah thus parallels the mode of loving G‑d “with all your might (wealth, possessions).”10 Indeed, the house is the most prominent of one’s personal possessions, and affixing a mezuzah to its doorposts symbolizes their submission to the service of G‑d. Commenting on this passage, Rashi quotes the Talmudic statement that there are men who love their possessions more than they love themselves. Thus, every time one enters and leaves a room, he should recall the One to Whom all property belongs, and realize that all is His, that man should not take pride in his own wealth since all that he has is merely that which is granted him by G‑d.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech writes:

That phrase [“Hear O Israel...”] cannot remain a mere verbal affirmation. It is always followed by a magnificent paragraph explaining the deed implicit in the creed. To love G‑d is to imitate Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is to put phylacteries on the hand, phylacteries on the head, and to attach a mezuzah to the doorpost. It is a total commitment of belief, a willingness to offer our wealth and possessions, and a readiness to give up our lives rather than forsake our L-rd.

Physics of the Spiritual World

One may wonder why such an exalted principle as the love of G‑d need be reduced to a ritual. How can a mere physical act such as donning tefillin or affixing a mezuzah add anything to a deep meditation and sincere feeling?

To understand this, it will help to make an excursion into what we might call the physics of spirituality. Firstly, how do the material and spiritual worlds differ? The principal difference is that the material world exists within physical space. In the spiritual universe, there is no space, as we know it. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman states in Tanya:

…In spiritual matters, the category of space is in no way applicable.

Spiritual worlds are therefore intangible. Nevertheless, we speak of being “close” to G‑d. Spiritual “space” in fact possesses certain geometrical characteristics. The spiritual world is a conceptual world; thus, “distance” there is measured by the similarity of the objects. The more two objects resemble one another, the “closer” they are said to be, and vice versa. Identical objects occupy the same “place” in this conceptual space, and opposite concepts are on opposite poles, infinitely far apart. Thus, the more a certain angel resembles G‑d’s attributes, the “closer” he is to G‑d and the “higher” on the ladder of creation.

The goal of life is to get closer to the Creator, as He is the ultimate goodness for which we all strive in our relentless pursuit of happiness. In a very important sense, however, we are inevitably infinitely far apart from Him. Since G‑d is the Creator and we are His creations, He is the Giver and we ultimately are the receivers, we are always on opposite poles. Therefore, in the conceptual spiritual space we can never get closer to G‑d.

As we have already explained, however, G‑d created the world only to make us happy; and the ultimate good He can give us is Himself. Since it is impossible to do this in the spiritual realm, G‑d created a material world wherein opposites could coexist in the same physical space. Therefore, He enclothed His will in His commandments and gave them to us as a mechanism through which we might attach ourselves to Him. Most of the commandments, therefore, are done through physical objects such as tefillin or mezuzah. These material objects become vehicles for the Divine will, and by performing commandments with them, we attach ourselves to G‑d. Paradoxically, in donning tefillin or affixing a mezuzah or performing any other commandment, we actually touch the Divine, embracing our Creator. The only way G‑d and a human can come together is through the medium of a material object with which one performs a Divine precept. The commandment to love G‑d is thus followed by commandments that allow us to achieve closeness to G‑d.

Symbolic of All of the Mitzvoth

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that the commandment to love (i.e., serve) G‑d with “all your heart” is fulfilled through the service of prayer, “with all your soul” through observing the Torah mitzvoth (commandments), and “with all your might” through the mitzvah of mezuzah. The commandment of mezuzah is, then, just as important as all the other commandments combined. The Alter Rebbe also derives this comparison from the custom of placing the Chanukah menorah in the doorway opposite the mezuzah, as we find in the Talmud:

The Chanukah Menorah shall be on the left and mezuzah shall be on the right.

The light of the menorah, on the left side of the doorway, represents the light of Torah. The mezuzah, on the right doorpost, represents mitzvoth (Torah commandments). The Tzemach Tzedek11 states so explicitly:

Mezuzah is equivalent to all of the mitzvoth.

In this portion, G‑d also commands us to study the words of Torah, to teach them to our children, to recite the Shema twice a day – every morning and evening – and to put on tefillin (phylacteries) every weekday.

Text of Vehayah

And it shall come to pass, if you will diligently obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the L-rd your G‑d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satiated. Take care lest your hearts be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Lord’s wrath will flare up against you, and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land that the L‑rd gives you. Therefore, place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign on your hands, and they shall be for frontlets (totafoth) between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your house and when you are on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts (mezuzoth) of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be prolonged on the land that the L-rd swore to your fathers to give to them [for as long] as the heavens are above the earth. (Deuteronomy XI, 13-21).

The second portion of Shema teaches us the concept of reward and punishment:

And it shall come to pass: if you will follow my commandments... I shall give rain to your land in its time... and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware, that your hearts shall not follow your temptations and you shall not turn away... or G‑d will be enraged with you...

Divine Providence

This paragraph teaches us not to presume our fortunes and misfortunes the result of happenstance, but rather to connect them with the Divine Providence guiding the world.

Reward for the Mitzvah

It is in this portion that G‑d promises a reward for the observance of the precept of mezuzah: that your days and the days of your children may be prolonged on the land which the L-rd swore to your fathers to give to them for as long as the heavens are above the earth.

Ten Commandments

The Zohar notes that this portion contains allusions to the Ten Commandments.

World-to-Come and Resurrection of the Dead

Other important themes running throughout Shema and Vehayah are the concepts of the World-to-Come (Olam HaBa) and Resurrection of the Dead (Techiyath Hamethim). The Shelah relates the entire portion of Shema to the World-to-Come.

On the very first passage of Shema, Rashi comments that it should be translated as “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd will be One.” Rashi exegetically derives his commentary from the prophecy: “On that day the L‑rd shall be One and His Name shall be One.” (Zechariah 14:9) The monotheistic ideal proclaimed in this Biblical passage is expected to find its full realization in the messianic era.

As we read further, this chapter instructs us to recite its words

...when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down and when thou risest up.

This phrase alludes to the life-cycle of a soul: when thou sittest in thy house – in heavenly Paradise – abode of the souls; when thou walkest by the way – on a life-journey on Earth; when thou liest down – when one’s soul returns to the Creator; when thou risest up – at the time of Resurrection of the Dead.

We find a similar idea in the Scriptures:

When thou walkest, it shall lead thee, when thou liest down, it shall watch over thee, and when thou wakest, it shall talk with thee. (Proverbs VI, 22)

R. Yehudah HaNasi explains this verse as it applies to the commandment of mezuzah: When thou walkest, it shall lead thee – in this world; when thou liest down, it shall watch over thee – in the hour of death; and when you wakest, it shall talk with thee – at the time of Resurrection of the Dead.

Some of the commentators suggest that mezuzah is a momento moro sign on a doorpost. Coming to a house one should remind oneself of the moment of coming into this world, while when leaving the house – of the moment of leaving this world. This notion is in concert with a dictum of the sages expressed in the words of Akavya ben Mahalalel:

Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an accounting.

Mezuzah reminds us of all three.

The first portion of the mezuzah, Shema, thus begins with the declaration of our faith in the Messianic redemption, a fundamental aspect of Judaism, as stated by Maimonides in his Thirteen Principles of Faith, and ends with the commandment of the mezuzah which serves as a pointer, an arrow to the Messianic era.

The second portion of the mezuzah, Vehayah, also concludes with the commandment of the mezuzah, and the connection here to the concept of the World-to-Come is even more apparent. The last verse reads:

And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts (mezuzoth) of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be prolonged on the land that the L-rd swore to your fathers to give to them for as long as the heavens are above the earth. (Deuteronomy XI, 13-21)

Classical commentators note that, in the literal reading of the text, G‑d swore to our forefathers that He would give them the land, and He will keep His promise by in fact giving this land (the Holy Land) to them, at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead.

Reward and Punishment

The Talmud states that the main reward for the performance of commandments is in the World-to-Come:

Today you are to do them and tomorrow is reserved for reward for doing them.

This is quite logical for several reasons. In a simple sense, it is only natural that spiritual acts such as religious observances lead to spiritual rewards enjoyable in the world that is mostly spiritual.

Furthermore, as we have seen before (see pp. 25-26) the purpose of Creation was to benefit man in the ultimate sense. In order to achieve this, history is divided into two main periods: the time optimally conducive to earning the reward (Olam HaZeh – this World) and the time optimally suited for receiving the ultimate reward (Olam HaBa – the World-to Come). Earning the reward is only possible through the exercise of free will, which is possible only through concealment of the Divine; on the other hand, the ultimate reward is open G‑dly revelation and closeness to the Creator. These two periods are diametrically opposed to one another and thus are separated. It is entirely logical, therefore, that the reward for the performance of the commandments is postponed until the World-to-Come.12

It comes as a surprise, then, that G‑d promises man:

...If you will diligently obey My commandments…, I will give rain for your land at the proper time…, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satiated.

And, on the other hand:

Take care lest your hearts be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then... He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce...

Although we may expect that a causal relationship exists only within a single realm, so that spiritual acts bear spiritual fruits while physical deeds lead to tangible results, the truth is in fact to the contrary. Because the spiritual and physical are but two aspects of the same unified reality created by G‑d, any spiritual or physical act committed by man ripples through the entire Universe and reverberates back to him according to the laws set by the Creator.

The Tanya13 teaches that G‑d recreates the world anew every moment. We actively (although often subconsciously) participate in this process through our actions as partners of the Creator. G‑d, as it were, provides us with the paints, but we ourselves paint the picture in which we are going to live the very next moment. Thus, we create our own destiny. One may argue, saying that life is not as logical and predictable (or fair, for that matter) as it would seem to follow from the above. We must however include our past and future lives (reincarnations) in the “equation” in order to assess it. Otherwise, we resemble spectators attempting to judge a drama of which they see only a fraction of the middle act, unaware of its beginning and resolution. In the end, all accounts settle fairly, as Hillel the Elder explained when he saw a skull floating on the water:

He said to it: because you drowned others, they drowned you; and ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned.

The system of reward and punishment, stated in the portion Vehayah, is actually neither punishment nor reward in the literal sense. The true reward is deferred to the World-to-Come and the “punishment” is, at worst, a purification process (albeit painful) to heal the “wounds” one had inflicted upon himself. Ultimately, the reward and punishment serve as an effective feedback mechanism guiding us on an otherwise foggy road to G‑d. This road is charted for us in the map of Torah and clarified by the words of the Sages. When we receive its rewards we know we are on course, and as long as we stay on course the rewards serve as positive reinforcement. When we slip, “punishment” signals the need for correction. The longer one persists in the wrong direction, the louder the signal. The mezuzah which bears this message serves as a compass in the universe of choices, as the sign post pointing to the right direction, as the Arrow in Life.

Most automatic processes, from a self-tuning receiver to self-guided missiles and complex robots, operate on the principle of feedback. So, in fact, does every life organism. As Norbert Wiener, the father of Cybernetics, said, feedback is the secret of life. That Biofeedback should promise to become the treatment (and prevention) of choice hardly comes as a surprise, given that the Creator Himself chose feedback as His mechanism of interaction with man. The mezuzah is a device in which this mechanism is encoded.

The Names

On the obverse side of the mezuzah we find two inscriptions. The first, in the middle of the parchment reads Sha‑DaY, the Almighty, which is one of the seven most sacred names of G‑d. The Sages underscore its particular relevance to mezuzah, reading the word Sha‑DaY as the acronym for Shomer Delathoth Yisrael – the Guardian of the Gates of Israel (see further p.47).

The other inscription is on the top of the parchment and is written upside down. It reads KUZU BMUKSZ KUZU. As will be explained later in the chapter “The Mysterious Name” on p.76, this cryptogram represents three names of G‑d: the L-rd our G‑d the L-rd.