The word mezuzah in Hebrew means “doorpost.” It refers to an ornamental case affixed to the right door frame on Jewish homes. Jewish families mark their houses in fulfillment of a commandment appearing twice in the Torah that prayers should be written “upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” The mezuzah is the dividing line between the chaos of the outside world and the sanctity inside a Jewish home.
What matters most about a mezuzah is what’s found inside. Each mezuzah contains a small scroll of parchment (k’laf) with a prayer called the Sh’ma (found in Deuteronomy). The Sh’ma translates to “Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This is the central tenet of Judaism, a belief in the oneness and singularity of God. Observant Jews recite the Sh’ma twice daily. It’s not merely an acknowledgement that there is only one God but that every particle of existence is a manifestation of God’s essence. (Jesus considered the Sh’ma to be the first of his two greatest commandments, the second being “Thou shalt love God with all thy heart.”)
While a mezuzah is not biblically mandated to ward off evil, it hearkens back to Passover when Moses freed the Israelites from bondage under Pharaoh. God pronounced ten plagues on the Egyptians including the death of their firstborn sons. God commanded the Jewish people to mark their own doorposts with the blood of a sacrificial lamb so the Angel of Death would pass over them allowing their children to live.
When I was a boy, our family had two mezuzahs. One was beside our front door, the other on the door leading to my parents’ bedroom. Every night my father covered his eyes and said his prayers before kissing the bedroom mezuzah and going to sleep. I asked him what a mezuzah meant to him. He said, “It means God lives in our house.”
My childhood neighborhood was nicknamed “Hebrew Heights.” Most local families were secular Jews who spent more time in delis than synagogues. All had mezuzahs on their front doors. Guests reflexively kissed the mezuzah above our doorbell before entering our house. Even non-Jewish friends partook in the practice. Once, Sammy Davis Jr. attended a family barbecue (my father edited one of his tv specials). Before stepping into our home, he blew a kiss toward the doorpost then said, “That is one wild and funky mezuzah.”