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Saturday 24th July 2021 15th Av 5781


Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11; Isaiah 40:1 – 26; Luke 3:2 - 15


Moses pleads (va’etchanan)with God to enter the Holy Land, but is turned down. (Remember, God always answers your prayers -- sometimes with a “yes,” sometimes with a “no” ... and sometimes with a “not yet”.) Moses commands the Children of Israel not to add or subtract from the words of the Torah and to keep all of the Commandments. He then reminds them that God has no shape or form and that we should not make or worship idols of any kind.

The cities of Bezer, Ramot, and Golan are designated as Cities of Refuge east of the Jordan river. Accidental murderers can escape there to avoid revengeful relatives. They then wait there until tried.

The Ten Commandments are repeated to the whole Jewish people. Moses expounds the Shema, affirming the unity of God, Whom all should love and transmit His commandments to the next generation. A man should wear tefillin upon the arm and head. All Jews should put a mezuzah (the scroll is the essential part) upon each doorpost of their home (except the bathroom).

Moses then relays the Almighty’s command not to intermarry, “for they will lead your children away from Me” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).

The Mezzuzah (Devarim 6:9)

The legal concept of the inviolability of one’s home has been known in Western civilization since the age of the Roman Republic. In English common law this maxim is derived from the dictum that “an Englishman’s home is his castle.”

The term “castle” was defined in 1763 by Prime Minister William Pitt, first Earl of Chatham: “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow through it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter.”

Originally, the law in Florida was that, if possible, a person must retreat rather than use deadly force to incapacitate someone who is a serious threat to life or limb. The exception to that rule was the “Castle Doctrine,” which is based on the concept that “a man’s home is his castle.” This means that when you are in your own home you are not required to retreat if you are threatened. Therefore, if someone breaks into your home you can use lethal force to dispatch the intruder. (Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law now extends that right to other places where one is lawfully present.)

The Castle Doctrine actually forms an essential part of the Fourth Amendment that protects people, their homes, and their property from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. In other words, a person’s home is hallowed grounds and he has a right to privacy; no authority can dictate to him how to behave behind closed doors. In one’s home a man is king of his domain.

A person’s home is akin to having his own fiefdom. The manner in which a person makes it be known that his house is under his control is by placing his name on either the door or doorpost. In Europe, it was very common in medieval times to place a family’s crest above the door to their home. This signage officially declared who were the masters of the home.

Judaism has a different view of this concept, and in this week’s Torah reading we find a commandment that has something to say about how we should perceive our homes.

“And you should inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9).

This week’s Torah portion contains the obligation to place a mezuzah on the doorposts of one’s home. A mezuzah is a small piece of parchment or “klaf” upon which a specially trained scribe carefully pens what is perhaps the most essential prayer in Judaism; the shema. The shema prayer is recited twice daily and is the affirmation of the monotheistic core of Judaism as well as one’s acceptance of the absolute sovereignty of God. These verses begin with the phrase: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

The verses are written in black indelible ink with a special quill pen, usually hand made from a very large feather. The parchment is then rolled up and placed inside a protective case and affixed to the doorposts of one’s home. In fact, the word “mezuzah” in Hebrew means “doorpost.”

Interestingly enough, according to some estimates more than 95% of all Israeli homes have a mezuzah. In the 2020 study done by the Pew Research Center, most American Jews (almost two thirds) have a mezuzah on their home. It was fascinating to see that the more money a person earned the more likely it was that they had a mezuzah. Of those earning less than 50k a year only 51% had a mezuzah, while 69% of those earning between 100k-200k had one.

But the name mezuzah requires further explanation. Generally, a Torah mandated commandment is defined by the object used to perform the precept. For example, a shofar is a ram’s horn that is blown on Rosh Hashanah, a lulav is a palm branch that is used on the holiday of sukkot, and tefillin are phylacteries that are placed on the arm during the morning prayer services. These are all names that relate to the object of the precept.

As mentioned above, the word “mezuzah” means “doorpost.” Oddly enough, the object itself (the scroll and case) has no defining name other than the post upon which it is placed. Referring to this precept as mezuzah tells us nothing about the parchment or the very special prayer it contains. The only self-defining feature of its name seems to be where it is placed. This would be comparable to referring to tefillin as “arm.” What is so critical about the placement of the mezuzah that it has come to define the very commandment?

In the Book of Ruth, we find a curious interaction between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. When leaving the land of Moav, Naomi attempts to dissuade her daughter-in-law Ruth from embracing Judaism and accompanying her on an arduous journey to the Land of Israel. In order to discourage her, Naomi mentions several commandments that Jews are required to fulfill.

Judaism is unique among world religions in that a core belief is that even non-adherents can earn a share in the World to Come. In other words, Jews believe that one does not need to be Jewish to enter “heaven.” A non-Jew must merely observe the Seven Noachide Laws and lead a moral and just life to earn a share in the World to Come. (This is a radical departure from Christianity and Islam; while both have their roots in Judaism, a basic tenet of those religions is that non-adherents are doomed,)

Conversion to Judaism is generally discouraged because it requires a rigorous commitment to following the Torah and all its commandments. In fact, one of the ways that potential converts are discouraged is by informing them of some of the more rigorous and challenging commandments that the Torah mandates.

One of the precepts that Naomi mentions to Ruth is the obligation of placing a mezuzah on one’s home doorposts. Why is this such a critical commandment that Naomi felt it necessary to mention it to a person who was interested in converting?

A person’s home is akin to having his own fiefdom. The manner in which a person makes it be known that his house is under his control is by placing his name on either the door or doorpost. In Europe, it was very common in medieval times to place a family’s crest above the door to their home. This signage officially declared who were the masters of the home.

By placing a mezuzah on his doorpost, a person is affixing Hashem’s name upon his home, thereby declaring that he is submitting to Hashem and that God is the actual authority of this abode. Even within our most cherished space – the sacred private space that we own and reside in – we are declaring that the ultimate master of our environment is the Almighty, not us. A mezuzah announces that this space is given over to God. Therefore, the name of this precept is all about the space it occupies.

Naomi understood that Ruth, coming from a society that entitles a person complete control over one’s actions within one’s own home, needed to be warned that as a Jew this will not be the case. This is a major paradigm shift; one that many would find stifling. A convert must accept that every aspect of a Jewish life, even one’s conduct within his own home, is under the jurisdiction of the Almighty.

There is another very important symbolism to the mezuzah – one that is an important life lesson for anyone building a home life.

The mezuzah is affixed to the right doorpost at the entrance of a room. There is a well-known dispute as to what position the mezuzah is supposed to be affixed to that doorpost. The famous scholar known as Rashi ruled that a mezuzah should be affixed to the doorpost in an upright and vertical position. Along came his grandson, Rabbi Yaakov ben Meir – also known as “Rabbeinu Tam” (a great scholar in his own right and the undisputed leader of his generation) – who ruled that a mezuzah should be affixed horizontally on the doorpost.

Here we have the two great medieval luminaries (not to mention a grandfather and grandson) ruling in direct opposition to one another. What should be done?

This issue was cleverly solved a hundred years later by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, better known by his groundbreaking work on Jewish law and referred to as the “Tur.” He ruled that we split the difference. Thus, a mezuzah is affixed at an angle – midway between the vertical and horizontal position – with the top facing into the room about to be entered. In this way, the Tur created a compromise of the two opinions.

How fitting: A compromise is one of the most important aspects of building a home and this compromise is the first thing a person sees upon entering his home – and it’s a constant reminder of how we should deal with all disagreements in our home.


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