Case the Joint!
By Rabbi Basil Herring
Every once in a while some member of the synagogue can be expected to call to the Rabbi's attention that there is no mezuzah on the front door of the synagogue. How can that be, they say, after all, every Jewish building, especially a synagogue, is required to have a mezuzah. Can it be that someone overlooked such an important detail? And invariably they are reassured that indeed, according to Jewish law, the entrance to a synagogue is not to bear a mezuzah at all. For although the Torah tells us ?And you shall write these words on the doorposts of your home and on your gates,? (Deut. 6:9), and one might conclude that this means all your gates, nonetheless the Sages inform us that certain buildings are exempt. As Maimonides summarizes the law:
The Temple Mount, its galleries and entrances, also synagogues and houses of study, when they do not have living quarters in them, are all exempt from the mitzvah of mezuzah, because they have a special sanctity.
Hil. Mezuzah 6:6
Why is this? One might think the very opposite ‑ because they have a special sanctity, they should davka be graced by a mezuzah! And furthermore, what difference does it make whether there are living quarters in the sanctuary or not? Do living quarters remove its special sanctity? In answer to these questions, an interesting suggestion is made by Rabbi Ben Zion Firer. He says that had Jewish law required mezuzahs to be affixed to public places of worship, it might well have come to be that people would have stopped altogether placing mezuzahs on their own doorposts at home, in favor of transferring the mitzvah to the place of public worship. Why would this have happened? Because that is precisely what happened to another, parallel mitzvah ‑ the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah for oneself.
Obligation to Write a Torah
As he points out, in the Torah there is a commandment to write, or commission one's own Torah, to be kept for one's private study and use, so as not to have to go to a neighbor or public place for access to a Torah. But in the course of time this mitzvah evolved to the point that almost everyone fulfilled their obligation by means of the Torah located in the synagogue of their choice. In an act of vicarious fulfillment, it became accepted not to have one's own Torah at home, but rather to identify with the communal embodiment of the mitzvah. As a result, few today are the homes with a Torah. And, says Rabbi Firer, had synagogues and sanctuaries acquired their own mezuzahs, the same process might have taken place. People would have lavished their time, their money, their attention on assuring the finest, most auspicious ecclesiastical mezuzah, as the embodiment of their own devotion to the mitzvah ‑ to the detriment of their own domestic fulfillment of the precept.
For that is precisely the impulse of the uneducated Jew: namely, to separate the realm of the sacred from the profane, and then to transfer to that clearly defined sacred place his religious life and observance. It is so much more convenient and uncomplicated to keep Judaism in the sanctuary, to confine the acts of sanctity to a special time and place, so that they do not overflow or impinge on the rest of one's existence. How easy, how convenient, to be a good Jew in the synagogue, there to be observant, there to pay lip service through prayer, there to insist on kashrus, there to feel the spirit of Shabbat, there to feel the ?vibes? of the Torah! But that is not the way of Judaism ‑ for Jewish law and tradition does not permit or recognize such compartmentalization in the first place! You can neither confine nor contract your religious life in such simplistic fashion. All of life must be sanctified; all of life must be touched, if not transformed, by the religious impulse. To think otherwise is to betray Christological influence, for it is they, not we, who distinguish between Caesar and God, between the eternal and the temporal, between sacred and profane.
And so, the Sages in their great wisdom, saw fit to remove the mezuzah from the sanctuary, so as to ensure that the ordinary Jew would fulfill the mitzvah for himself, and for his family, and to avoid the unhappy outcome wherein the sanctuary would become the exclusive focus of his religious life. And thus, appropriately, if a family does live in a synagogue building, it, too, must have a mezuzah, for that is their home and dwelling place. And so, even if there is no Torah in each Jewish home, and sometimes even no books reproducing the Torah, or prophets, or Mishnah, or Talmud, or other elementary volumes of our national treasure, our rabbinic literature, at the very least, there is a mezuzah, inscribed with the first two parshiyot of the Shema.
Dual Role for Mezuzah
And of course, the mezuzah is exquisitely qualified to play this role. For there is a duality, a two‑sidedness to the mezuzah that gives it a unique character. On the one hand it serves, more than any other facet of Jewish life, to publicly identify, to Jew and to Gentile, that ?here lives a Jew, this is a Jewish home, that is not ashamed to proclaim its Jewishness.? But on the other hand, and no less significantly, it is not just on the front doorpost that we are required to place the mezuzah, but on practically every doorpost inside the house as well. For we must be constantly reminded that Judaism is not just a matter of external form, or aesthetics or appearances. It is rather the substance, how we internalize and live our Judaism behind the facades, away from the crowds, within the confines of our homes and our family lives, that is equally important!
How sad, therefore, when so many Jewish families, so concerned with the outside appearance, neglect to put mezuzahs on those doors as well ‑ for in so doing they provide silent testimony to their own lack of Judaic content, substance, and commitment. And how sad it is when we come to a house where Jews live, and the mezuzahs are so tiny that they are hardly visible, or painted over with each house painting, eloquent proof that neither time nor money is ever spent to ensure that decent, kosher mezuzahs should grace this home. Why is it that people who live in homes worth so many hundreds of thousands of dollars, so often refuse to spend a couple of hundred dollars to turn that home into a sanctuary protected by this special mitzvah? And all too often, where they are prepared to spend time and money on the mitzvah, it is only on the outside shell, the casing, valued for its appearance and artistic beauty, as opposed to the infinitely more significant, if unseen, parchment and lettering that lies inside!
Let us therefore take to heart the real significance of this beautiful ordinance: that as Jews we dare never become one dimensional, never allow ourselves to confuse communal involvement with individual observance, never to transfer our Jewishness out of our homes and into our synagogues, no matter how much we be committed to the latter; that we not make the common error of substituting appearances for the real thing, form for substance, vain pride in having been born a Jew ‑ instead of an honest effort in choosing to live up to the demands and responsibilities of living as a Jew. In short, to transform our dwellings from homes where Jews live ‑ into Jewish homes, a world of difference indeed.
And in return for observing this mitzvah, thereby to be vouchsafed that the Merciful One, God Himself, inscribed on the mezuzah as ?Shaddai,? Shomer Daltot Yisrael, the Guardian of the Doors of Israel, will guard our homes and our sanctuaries, our lives and our loves, our comings and our goings, in tranquillity as in peace, for us and all Israel, our brethren.
Rabbi Basil Herring, Ph.D is the spiritual leader of the Atlantic Beach Jewish Center.