Thursday, June 24, 2010

Artsy container important for what it holds

It's almost Friday and you know what that means. Yes, it's time for another posting of "Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts" (IJS&F). Today, let's take a peek inside the Torah and explore one of Judaism's oldest commandments.

Okay, so you're visiting some new friends and as you're walking into their lovely home, you notice a beautiful little ornament nailed to the doorpost of the house.

You figure your friends are into edgy art, but still think it somewhat weird that they would be displaying something so delicate outdoors. Then again, there's a good chance you give little thought to the matter, quite probably don't even notice the little thingy hanging there.

Well, the delicate box isn't about art, but religion. And, truth to tell, the box isn't what's important. It's what's inside the container that counts in this case.

Jews are commanded by the Torah to place a "sign" on the doorpost of their homes. The why of it all is detailed in Deuteronomy 6:9, when the Torah commands that a mezuzah (Hebrew for doorpost) be affixed to the door frame of Jewish homes to fulfill the mitzvah (Hebrew for commandment) to write the words of the Shema "on the doorposts of your house."

The Shema is the ancient seminal statement of Jewish belief that runs on for several paragraphs. But even Jews who have only a passing understanding of the faith, generally know the opening line of the prayer: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!"

It remains an open question exactly what the Torah means by doorpost -- some Jews simply place a mezuzah just outside the front door of their homes, others place additional mezuzot (that would be the plural of mezuzah) on door frames throughout their houses, except for bathrooms and closets. Go figure.

It was once a simple matter of taking the prescribed text -- always prepared by a specially trained scribe, using black indelible ink and a quill pen -- and stuffing it into some sort of container. Quite often -- at least thousands of years ago -- a simple niche was cut into a doorpost, the text placed inside and a small covering nailed into place to protect the contents from the elements.

In the last century, give or take a century or two, artists have turned the production of mezuzah containers into high art, producing a wide assortment of pieces from an endless variety of materials -- precious metals, stone, wood, and glass. So often, the focus is on the artsy container. Big mistake. The only purpose of the container -- artsy or simple -- is to hold the sacred text of the Torah.

A tradition among many Jews is to gently touch a mezuzah when entering a home or room, then kiss their fingers. During a trip to Israel, I noticed a teen doing just that. Each time we passed a mezuzah, he would reach up, touch the icon, then kiss his hand. I knew his parents weren't religious, so I was curious why he had picked up this tradition.

"Are you religious," I asked him. "No," he responded. "Then why kiss the mezuzah," I wondered. "Superstition," he said. And that, my friends and readers, is a topic for another day.

IT'S TRADITION: Many Jews gently touch a mezuzah (photo above) when entering a home or room, then kiss their fingers as a sign of respect.

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