From time immemorial, thresholds, gates and doors could be symbolically or literally places of danger or safety. The words: “But if you do not do right/ Sin couches at the door” (Gen 4:7), spoken to Cain in the opening chapters of Genesis, demonstrates the biblical conception that danger lurks at entryways.
Furthermore, the Bible suggests that doors are signs of deliverance (Ex. 12:23) or bondage (Deut. 15:17), and figure prominently in the Passover celebration. In the liturgy, doors are depicted as the portals through which the righteous may enter (Psalms 119:18). The door to walled cities, the place where commerce was conducted and justice was meted out, was also the most vulnerable part of its defense. Thus in addition to doorkeepers, ancients employed a variety of guards, amulets and magical prescriptions to protect their entryways from real or imagined threats.
From ancient days, Jews have marked their residences with a mezuzah, a handwritten, tightly rolled parchment scroll enclosed in a small container, nailed slanting inward at a 45-degree angle, three-quarters of the way up the right side of an entryway doorpost. The instructions are prescribed in Ekev, this week’s Torah portion: “inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates” (Deut. 6:9; 11:20). The 22-line Hebrew passage beginning with Deut. 6:4 comprises the first two paragraphs of the Sh’ma. The back of the parchment is inscribed with the word Shaddai —”Almighty.” Its letters shin, dalet and yad are thought to be an acronym for Shomer d’latot Yisrael—”Guardian of the doors of Israel.”
The affixing of a mezuzah is accompanied by reciting the blessing that concludes, “who has commanded us to affix the mezuzah.”
The origin of the mezuzah is so ancient that its original meaning is obscure. Some believe it is a carryover from the days of Egyptian enslavement , when blood was placed on the doorposts of Israelite homes to ensure that the angel of death would pass over them. Modern Jews often place them on the doors of every room (except bathrooms, storerooms, etc). Although frequently affixed to the entryways of public buildings and synagogues, there is no mandate to do so unless they also serve as permanent residences.
One of the most widely observed ceremonial commandments in modern times, the practice has further developed for Jews to wear a mezuzah in a small case on a chain around the neck. Some even suggest automobiles ought to have mezuzot to prevent accidents!
In talmudic times, protective powers for warding off evil spirits were attributed to the mezuzah, evidenced by the account of a reigning monarch who sent a gift of a priceless pearl to Rav, the leading rabbi of the day; in return Rav sent a mezuzah to the king. Incensed at the insignificance of Rav’s gift, the king rebuked him, but Rav responded, “The gift you sent me is so valuable that it will have to be guarded, whereas the gift I sent you will guard you,” and Rav cited a verse from Proverbs (6:22) to prove his point: “When you walk it will lead you; when you lie down it will watch over you” (Gen. Rab. 35:16).
Although affixing mezuzot to the doorposts of Jewish homes figures prominently in ritual practice, a deeper metaphoric meaning reminds Jews of the doors that throughout history were locked or unlocked to Jews, rendering them defenseless or protected. By extension, the obligation to offer hospitality to the stranger by bringing him through the door of a Jewish home symbolizes the hope that God will carry each individual from bondage to redemption.
Indeed, doors have been opened and closed to Jews throughout history. Nevertheless, Jews continued to place mezuzot on their doorposts as a reminder that although there is no easy route to freedom and redemption, deliverance begins by closing the one door to oppression and slavery and opening another door to redemption and liberation.
Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.