A Minature Torah
Jews who do not call themselves religious nonetheless do a number of things that are religious commandments. This is what we are told by various surveys and it is confirmed by anecdotal evidence. These include lighting Hanukkah candles, attending some form of Passover service, fasting on Yom Kippur and going to synagogue for some portion of the High Holy Days.
Another mitzvah very widely observed is mezuzah. Mezuzah covers are increasingly decorative, and that is one incentive. Yet the underlying reason for the popularity of this mitzvah is that it is a statement of identity: This is a Jewish house. The commandment of mezuzah is mentioned twice in the Shema. The second mention is a quotation from this week’s parasha and a reason for the commandment’s performance is given: in order that you and your children may endure in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers. (Deuteronomy 11:21) Several verses earlier, a commandment is given to teach Torah to one’s children.
The juxtaposition of these elements — Torah study, mezuzah, and long life for one’s children — give rise to a dispute recorded in the Talmud (BT Shabbat 32b) The underlying assumption is that children die because of the sins of their parents; the disagreement is over which sin. According to Rabi Hiya bar Aba, it is failure to keep the commandment of mezuzah; according to Rabi Yosi, it is neglect of Torah study.
When children are killed in Israel, whether in accidents or acts of terror, certain persons proclaim that the lack of mezuzot, or kosher mezuzot, is the reason. These statements are not only cruel to the survivors — and thus constitute a violation of the commandment not to oppress people with words — but also show an ignorance of Jewish law and practice. First, the statements recorded in the Talmud are matters of opinion expressed by those particular sages. They are not binding. Second, they come in the context of a discussion of various sins as a result of which peoples’ lives are cut short. These statements are not necessarily to be taken literally. They can be seen as exaggerations for the purpose of making a point: that certain commandments are so important that failure to do them has severe consequences.
The idea that children die because their parents fail to have proper mezuzot or teach them Torah must be rejected. Yet there is a kernel of truth in the ugly husk of that statement. A mezuzah is a miniature, excerpted, Torah scroll. Its placement on a door post does not ward off evil. That would be magic, not religion. A mezuzah is a sign of identity, and is useful to that extent. Yet its real worth is as a sign of commitment by the inhabitants of the house not just to identify as Jews, not just to have an outside marker, but to bring Torah into their minds and hearts. Otherwise, the mezuzah is just a piece of parchment.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.