Friday, January 28, 2011

Mezuzah - Paper or Plastic-Wrapped Animal Skin?

For over a year, I've had an absolutely beautiful, stunning mezuzah case I bought for $5 at a sale at Rodals Quality Judaica. Mezuzahs are often known as the beautiful, decorative cases found on the doorposts of many Jewish homes. However, the actual mezuzah is not the case, it is the scroll inside. The word mezuzah literally means "doorpost".

The Torah commands us to "Write [The Commandments] on the doorframes of your houses and on your gate" (NIV, 1984). Traditional Halacha dictates that the mezuzah itself (which is not the case outside, but the text inside) be made from the "klaf", or fine animal parchment, of a kosher animal. It must also be hand-written by a sofer, or scribe, who is specially trained. Certain mistakes made during the reproduction of the text cannot be fixed; if these occur, the text must be re-written.

Naturally, kosher scrolls are not cheap. Rodals sells mezuzah scrolls at $45 per scroll. This is a very decent price considering the time and effort put into the material and textual production of the mezuzah. Trouble is, I'm just too cheap to pay $45 and up for something I don't really believe in but want to put on my door because of an internal struggle with religion and identity. So I searched online to see if anyone else had chosen to produce mezuzot in a cheaper way, and I found some interesting results.

According to a responsa letter by  CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) concerning whether the sale of paper scrolls should be permitted in Synagogue Gift Shops, Soviet Jews sometimes used paper scrolls. The reason for this was that kosher parchment scrolls were difficult to find during certain times. What's more, putting a mezuzah on your doorpost was not just an act of religion, but often of political resistance in the face of persecution. Therefore, in that case, paper scrolls were "permitted".

Many vegans today also have problems using klaf scrolls, but for a different reason. They do not want to use animal products for ethical reasons, and so use paper scrolls themselves. You can find another blogger's opinion regarding paper vs. animal scrolls here.

I also found an interesting interview with Rabbi Zalman Schalomi-Schacter, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. He noted that the Torah itself commands us to "write these words on your doorpost", not have someone else write them. He also expressed his opinion that "klaf"was not originally mandated for religious reasons. Rather, it may have been a requirement to use the best technology available at the time to reproduce the text. They just didn't have laser printers two millennia ago.

All of these are interesting facts, but I'm still left with my own dilemma.  Should I put a mezuzah case up. Should I put a kosher scroll inside, or a paper scroll? Should I put something totally different in the case?

The text of the Mezuzah is translated as such:

Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one. You shall love the L-rd, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources. And these things that I command you today shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you go on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm and they shall be an ornament between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

And it will be that if you hearken to my commandments that I command you today, to love the L-rd, your G-d, and to serve him with all your hearts and all your souls. And I will place rain for your land in its proper time, the early and the late rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. And I will provide grass in your field for your cattle, and you will eat and you will be satisfied. Watch yourselves, lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve other gods, and prostrate yourselves to them. And the wrath of G-d will be upon you, and he will restrain the heaven and there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield its produce, and you will be lost quickly from upon the good land that G-d gives you. And you shall place these words of mine on your hearts and on your souls, and you shall bind them as a sign upon your arms and they shall be ornaments between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your children to discuss them, when you sit in your house and when you go on the way, and when you lie down and when rise up. And you shall write them upon thedoorposts of your house and upon your gates, in order to prolong your days and the days of your children upon the good land that G-d swore to your fathers to give them, like the days of Heaven over earth.

Unfortunately, I don't believe in a mezuzah with that message. Parts of it may be true; do the right thing, you'll get a reward. Do the wrong thing and five thousand blackbirds drop from the sky on New Year's Eve without any reason, 40, 000 crabs drop dead in England and Republicans take over the White House during a midterm election.

On the other hand, threats of punishment have never kept the human race from our hobby of self-destruction for long. Threats have, however, been used to justify the self-destruction. As for myself, it's becoming increasingly clear to me that I need to walk with an open heart and act in love and compassion. Threats and warnings are important sometimes, but they alone don't have the power to compel me to act with love and walk with an open heart.  I would like to put something in my Mezuzah case like, "peace" or "beauty", because peace and beauty are what I want in my home. And yet, I want something protective as well.

So I'm open to suggestions. What do you do? Do you use a mezuzah? It is super-duper kasher certified by an ultra-ultra-ultra frum sofer? Do you have a mezuzah case with anything at all inside it? Do you have a protective ritual or object for your home or doorways? Do you sprinkle rock salt along the bottom to keep out unwanted guests? Do you think it really matters whether one uses paper or animal skin for a Mezuzah? Let me know!


  1. I have a mezuzah, but I don't currently have it up on my doorpost, because I don't consider the home I'm currently living in my permanent home. We're living in a rental right now, and have six months left on the lease. Besides that, I don't like this house and don't feel comfortable in it. So, for some reason, I don't want to dignify it with a mezuzah.

    Anyway, my mezuzah is not kosher. At the time I bought it, I didn't know that it wasn't kosher, nor did I know that there were kosher or non-kosher mezuzot. I'm not sure that it really makes a difference to me, because as you mentioned, the command really is to literally *write* the commands on your doorpost. So, if I were truly concerned about being kosher (in God's eyes), I would be taking a Sharpie to my doorpost. I don't think my landlord would be too pleased.

    I also must add that most Jews would think it would be un-kosher for me to put up a mezuzah because I'm not Jewish. But I follow many Torah commands out of a desire to please God (first and foremost), and as a way of connecting to my Jewish heritage (on my mom's father's side).

  2. Tres cool, Robyn! Thanks for sharing your mezuzah model!