The mezuzah is this small object only experienced observers will notice, most of the time fixed on door frames in houses or apartments. Where it is found, the mezuzah, or the imprint left by it, testifies to the present or former presence of Jewish communities. Let us understand this house guardian symbol, its role and its attachment to the arts.
The mezuzah (Hebrew: מזוזה, plural mezouzot) is a small box fixed on the door frames of Jewish homes or synagogues. The case is fixed on the right side of the door frame slanting down towards the entrance of the designated room, it is placed two-thirds up the door frame.
Inside the house, mezuzahs can also be attached to the door frames of each room – except for the bathroom and toilet or for a possible balcony. A mezuzah-affixing ceremony usually takes place when moving into a new house, it is most of the time during the housewarming party.
This case contains a text from the Old Testament (text common to Christian and Jewish religions). This text, commonly known as Chema Israel (English: « Listen, O Israel »), refers to the divine requirement on the Jewish community to mark their door frames. Thus, the mezuzah is a mise en abyme: the text contained in the box is actually the requirement and the explanation.
The word “mezuzah” appeared for the first time in the Old Testament in the episode about the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt, while God inflicted the ten plagues on the Egyptians. The day before the plague of the death of the firstborn of Egypt, just before the Hebrews left the country, God asked them to leave a sign on their door to show the difference between the Jewish houses and the Egyptian ones: « And they shall take of the blood [of the paschal lamb], and put it on the two side-posts [mezuzot] and on the lintel, upon the houses wherein they shall eat it. » (Exodus 12,7). By association, the word “mezuzah” means the box that is fixed to the door frame.
The pen-and-ink text is written on a parchment by a scribe – the sofer STaM – who is entitled to this task along with the scroll of the Torah, the whole process following specific rules: in black ink. If one letter is missing or if there is the slightest clerical error, the text is no longer valid; therefore, the mezuzots are regularly checked, to ensure that the writing has not been impaired over time. The parchment is rolled with the writings inward. One of the Jewish names of God – Chadai – is written on the back of the parchment, thus it is visible once the parchment is rolled. This name is equivalent to the initials of three words in Hebrew: Shomer Daltot Israel, « Guardian of the gates of Israel ».
The word “Chadai” just as the word Chema – name for the text of the mezuzah – begins in Hebrew with the letter Shin (ש) which is found as a decoration on the case of the mezuzots.
A strong symbolism:
The mezuzah is the symbol of the divine protection on the Jewish house. It is customary to touch or kiss the mezuzah while crossing the threshold of the door, either leaving or entering the room. This behaviour shows the quest for a more personal relationship with God, thus the mezuzah becomes the illustration of this link; it is a medium and not the very object of the sacred. Some people are used to adopting the same behaviour before going to bed, because sleep is considered as a small death.
Some groups perceive the mezuzah as having a disproportionate protective power deviating a bit from this original strong symbolic presence. It is supposed to have the power to protect from natural disasters and even to make women fertile … That’s why the master, doctor and medieval thinker Maimonides says in one of his books that the mezuzah should not be considered as an amulet.
Mezuzah and art:
Mezuzah made of Murano glass / wooden Mezuzah with the letter ש
As a singular and « inhabited » object, the mezuzah has also inspired the fine arts. Salvador Dalí was inspired by this object making bronze sculptures. The artist Allan Wexler set up a project on this same theme in 2004, as part of an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. He worked on the frontier between the interior and the exterior, the private and the public sphere.
Author: Lior Toledano
Translated by: Laurane Mandin
For further documentation:
- « Qu’est-ce qu’une mezouza ? », Chabad.org. available on : https://fr.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3631339/jewish/Quest-ce-quune-Mzouza.htm
- Boxed Mezuzah : Contemporary Judaica Acquisitions Committee Fund
- Cover, drawing and text in Hebrew: CC by SA
The other photographs belong to the author or to Cultinera, they cannot be reproduced without authorization.