Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead,
and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up;
and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֤ם לְאוֹת֙ עַל־יֶדְכֶ֔ם וְהָי֥וּ לְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶֽם׃
וְלִמַּדְתֶּ֥ם אֹתָ֛ם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְדַבֵּ֣ר בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃
וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּז֥וֹת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃
Foundations for Planning
- Why are holidays, rituals, customs, important to me, my family, and my community?
- How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
- How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
- Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
- How can I experience moments of connection to God?
- How can mitzvot that function as “symbols” impact the way I am a Jew?
- How can the Mezuzah reflect our relationship with God?
- How can Mezuzah help me develop a relationship with God and Judaism?
- What Jewish ideas/values are contained in the symbolism of the ritual object Mezuzah?
- What is my own personal connection to the mitzvah of Mezuzah?
Devarim 11:18-21 Context of the Biblical source: This text is part of what is commonly known as the second paragraph of the Shema, traditionally recited twice daily: in the morning service (shacharit) and in the evening service (arvit or ma’ariv). Found in the book...
Context of the Biblical source: This text is part of what is commonly known as the second paragraph of the Shema, traditionally recited twice daily: in the morning service (shacharit) and in the evening service (arvit or ma’ariv). Found in the book of Devarim, it is part of the teachings Moshe presents to the Israelites about to enter the Land of Israel after having wandered in the desert for forty years. He is speaking of the virtues of the Land and reminds them that it will belong to them and their descendants as long as the mitzvot are being observed, among them tefillin and mezuzah.
This mitzvah also appears in Devarim 6:9 which is the last verse of the first paragraph of the Shema (see the block on Tefillin). In addition to commanding the mitzvah of Tefillin, these verses also introduce another type of reminder. It instructs the Israelites to “inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” This is referred to as the mitzvah of mezuzah. Just as Jews are to inscribe biblical passages on the arm and forehead, they are required to inscribe passages on their homes as well.
Etymology of the word mezuzah: The word mezuzah (מְזוזּהָ) means “doorpost.” The etymology of this word too is not entirely clear. Traditional sources connect it with the root ז-ו-ז (z-u-z), to “move,” perhaps a reference to people moving
through the doorway. Linguists trace this word to the Akkadian nazazu (to stand) or manzazu (a doorpost).
How to Observe the mitzvah: This mitzvah is fulfilled by writing the biblical passages on parchment and attaching the parchment to the house, rather than to directly inscribe the words on the walls of the house itself. And while there is no problem to place the exposed parchment on the doorpost, it is encased in something either to protect it from the elements or to beautify the mitzvah. Although the parchment and the casing are colloquially called mezuzah, the empty case in itself is not a fulfillment of the mitzvah.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 11a
The purpose of the mitzvah according to the biblical text: It seems from this text that the purpose of the mezuzah is to serve as a reminder to observe God’s commandments and maintain a relationship with God. However, this talmudic passage offers another perspective on the function of mezuzah.
This text tells an interesting story relating to the mezuzah. There is a tradition that links Onkelos – the 2nd century translator of the Five Books of Moshe into Aramaic – to Hadrian, a 2nd century Roman Emperor. The latter, apparently, appointed him to an office connected with the rebuilding of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina. At some point, Onkelos converted to Judaism, meeting with the vigorous opposition of the emperor, who sent three successive contingents of soldiers to arrest him. This is where this text begins. It relates that each of the contingents failed to apprehend Onkelos successfully because each time he managed to present a powerful theological argument in defense of his decision to convert. The soldiers were so impressed that they, themselves, elected to convert to Judaism as well.
Unique relationship between God and Jewish People: Two of the arguments, the second and the third, deal with God’s unique relationship with the Jewish people. The first of these compares God to a torchbearer – unlike an ordinary monarch, whose subjects illuminate his or her path, God lights the way for the Jewish people. The second of these focuses on the mezuzah. Normally, a monarch dwells in the palace and is protected by the servants who stand outside. God, however, guards His servants from the outside while they dwell comfortably inside.
Purpose of Mezuzah according to this talmudic narrative: Thus, in this view, the mezuzah no longer serves as only a reminder of an obligation to follow God’s laws and precepts. It now also symbolizes either God’s protection over the people, or God’s protection over those who dwell in this particular house.
This explains why it is customary in some circles to check the mezuzot of homes whose inhabitants have suffered an unexpected calamity or illness. A mezuzah that is pasul (unfit) does not offer its protective powers. (Rambam however, vehemently rejects this interpretation and Rabbi Yosef Karo suggests that Rambam understood Onkelos to be saying that the mezuzah reminds one to follow the commandments, and it is then that God’s protection will hover over the house.)
Other meanings found in the mitzvah of mezuzah: In Israel and throughout the world, one finds that many secular, non-observant Jews make sure that a mezuzah is affixed to their front door. For them, one might suggest that this mitzvah has evolved from being a reminder, as it seems to be described in the biblical text, to a way of identifying the home or office as one that is occupied by a Jewish person or family. It may also be for some that the mezuzah is for them an amulet or symbol of God’s protection.
Maimonides (Rambam), Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mezuzah 6:13
Purpose and Intention of the Mitzvah: The Rambam accepts the idea that one of the mezuzah’s purposes is to remind a person of God’s presence and commandments that, when followed, would lead the individual on the right path. However, Rambam adds another meaning to the mezuzah: any time one leaves or enters a house, it will be a reminder of the love between the person and God. In other words, while the following of the Law is important, so is the personal relationship each person has with God. It is important to note that while in the pre-modern Jewish world only men wore tallitot and tefillin, and therefore were much more exposed to physical reminders of God’s presence, commandments, and love, the mezuzah has always been a commandment for all, men and women alike.
Eleanor Harris, My Matriarchal Mezuzah
Finding Personal meaning in the mitzvah of mezuzah: Harris writes about her experience of choosing a mezuzah case for the first time as part of her celebration of becoming an adult Jew. While she is certainly looking for something that is beautiful in her eyes, there is a much deeper meaning to her choice. She connects the design of the case she selected to the commandments, which ties her choice of case back to the original, biblical, intention behind the mitzvah: a mezuzah should serve as a reminder of God’s commandments.
Connection to her Family – Past, Present ,Future: Harris also connects the case of her choice to her identity as a woman and as a daughter and granddaughter with strong Jewish role models, seeing herself as a reflection of those who came before her. This she sees in the particular design of pomegranates on the case. But she also sees herself as the bearer of millennial Jewish values into the future, to the generations that will come from her.
Significance of the Mezuzah Case: Harris focuses on the purchase of the case, rather than on the purchase of the mezuzah parchment. It was mentioned earlier that the case serves to physically protect the parchment from the elements, but it also carries an aesthetic quality to it. It was also mentioned earlier that for many Jews, a mezuzah on the door is a means of identifying as a Jew. It is thus significant that Harris spends so much effort to find a case aesthetically pleasing to her, as well as one with which she can identify and which will tell others something about her own identity, beyond the basic fact of her being Jewish.
Also note how the fact she is purchasing the case in Israel seems to be meaningful to her. Notice that the colors of the case are blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag. It is also traditional that the pomegranate has 613 seeds to it, “corresponding to the 613 commandments,” the number of mitzvot in the Torah handed down by tradition.
- The Great Global Mezuzah Scavenger Hunt! Divide your students into small groups and set them the following task: Using Google Street View (either through a browser at https://www.google.com/maps/ or using the Google Street View app on any device) your challenge is to find a screenshot of a house with a Mezuzah from every continent in the world. This is a race, and the first team to achieve the goal is the winner. Possible variations on the challenge could be:
- Set a time limit and see which group can capture Mezuzot form the most number of countries
- See which group can find a house with a Mezuzah the furthest away from their location
Once the task is completed, and the groups have shared their screenshots (which should be annotated with where they were found) you can use the activity as a trigger to discuss what we know already about mezuzot and what we can learn about the mitzvah from what we found (e.g. the position of the mezuza).
This could be an opportunity for a KWL activity (List what they already know, what they want to know, and ultimately what they learned from this lesson). This could be on the whiteboard in the classroom, or on an online poster board platform such as padlet or Lino.
- School Building/Campus Mezuzot Inventory: Ask your students to do an inventory of the mezuzot in the school campus. Divide them into groups, and give each group an area of your school building/campus. Ask them to report back what mezuzot they found, where they were positioned, which rooms did not have mezuzot and why, etc. When the groups return and share their findings, you can facilitate a discussion allowing students to share what they know already about mezuzot and what they can learn about the mitzvah from what they found in the school building/campus (e.g. the position of the mezuza, which rooms need to have it, what the mezuzah cases looked like and why, etc.)
Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.
The Shema is a central text to Judaism belief and practice, and although it is not a prayer in the classic definition (rather it is three texts from the Torah describing our relationship with God and with the Torah), when the rabbis canonized the prayer services, they placed the Shema as central to the Shacharit (morning) and Arvit/Ma’ariv (evening) prayer services. A good place to start this lesson, after your students have seen the text (either together or in chavrutot/study pairs), would be to discuss what these three mitzvot that appear in this text have in common. This will help us understand the context of the commandment of Mezuzah, and may help us understand the main idea behind it:
- What are “these words” that must be bound on one’s arm/head, taught to our children, and inscribed on our doorposts?
- What are these three mitzvot contained in this text and what do they have in common?
- What do you think the overall goal of these three mitzvot are?
- How does the mitzvah of Mezuzah achieve this?
The next text, a Talmudic story, has many themes to unpack (only one of which is directly relevant to our subject). You may wish to unpack some of the others, or just focus on what the text has to teach us about the Talmudic approach to the mitzvah of Mezuzah (if the latter, then skip the first three questions).
- Why do you think the Romans were so motivated to change Onkelos’ mind?
- There are many stories such as this in the Talmud (where Jews debate against non-Jews over the “truth” of Judaism. Why do you think this is? Wat can it tell us about the time of the Talmud?
- What message is the Talmud giving us with Onkelo’s ultimate victory in this debate?
- What role does the mitzvah of Mezuzah play in this story?
- What messages about Judaism and God’s relationship with the Jewish people are contained in the mitzvah of Mezuzah according to this story?
- The first text we saw presents the Mezuzah as an educational method to help remind us about the teachings of the Torah everytime we enter our homes. How is this presentation of the idea behind the Mezuzah different?
Rambam combines the ideas in the two previous texts, and describes the Mezuzah as a reminder for us everytime we enter and leave our homes specifically of the relationship we have with God. The following questions personalize this for the students:
- What does Rambam say is the idea behind the Mezuzah?
- How is this similar and different from the previous texts you have learned on the Mezuzah?
- What does Rambam suggest we will be reminded of when we see the Mezuzah?
- What do you think about when you see a Mezuzah?
- Are there any other symbols in your life that also help remind you about what it means to be a Jew?
- Do you think it is important to be continuously reminded of what it means to be a Jew and our relationship with God? Why?
The final source is the expression of one young person’s relationship to the mitzvah of Mezuzah. She doesn’t relate to the content of the actual mitzvah (the words written on the parchment inside the Mezuzah case and what they represent) but rather the impact the external aspect of the mitzvah has on her in her daily life. While one could challenge that she is missing the point of the mitzvah, she has picked on an aspect of the mitzvah that is intrinsic to it, namely projecting a message of identity to both herself and the outside world. She sees this through the choice of the casing of the Mezuzah. These questions ask your students to consider this for themselves in their lives:
- What is the most important aspect of the mitzvah of Mezuza for this author?
- In your opinion, has she missed the actual point of the mitzvah or found her own personal meaning in it?
- Have you seen any Mezuza cases on buildings or in shops that express personal identity in some way?
- If you were designing your own Mezuzah case to remind you of who you are and what is important to you, what would it look like?
- A possible fun and creative activity would be to have your students design (and if you have the capacity actually build) mezuza cases that reflect their own relationship to God/Judaism or their identities (this would be a good activity as a response to the last text in this lesson, by Eleanor Harris). They could begin by researching the most creative ideas for mezuzot cases they can find on the web and then create their own design that reflects their own Jewish identity/relationship with God and Judaism.
- The sources in this lesson are different expressions of the values that lie behind the mitzvah of Mezuzah. A Mezuzah is a way to build Jewish values into a building. A creative project to end this lesson could be to have your students design their own building (either institutional or home) with their own values (or Jewish values, or both) designed into the plan (for example, using Jewish symbols, environmental ethics, specific Jewish laws, could all be reflected in the designs. They could do this in a number of possible ways. Here are some suggestions:
- Creating the architectural designs on paper
- Building a model using lego or some other building block system
- Building a model from other collected materials
- Creating digital designs on a digital building platform such as Minecraft
- Mezuza Fixing Ceremony: If as a result of the School Building/Campus Mezuzot Inventory (see “hooks” above) you find that there is a room that is missing a mezuzah, you could conduct your own class ceremony to affix the mezuzah. Incorporate creative ideas from your students how to celebrate this mitzvah as a class. You may wish to show this video How to Affix a Mezuzah in preparation (or as another element of the class).
(check out https://edpuzzle.com/home for a great Edtech platform to incorporate videos into your lessons)