Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Shabbat 79 - On What to Write a Mezuzah?

In the Mishnah’s catalog of items of which specific amounts are forbidden to take from one domain to another on Shabbat, one small item receives substantial attention. The Mishnah prohibits taking out parchment [klaf] “enough to write on it the smallest phrase in tefillin [prayer boxes], which is Shema Yisrael [Hear, Israel].” The problem arises from an non-Mishnaic tradition that one is not allowed to take out enough parchment or duksustos [a lower-quality parchment] to write a mezuzah [doorpost box]. Which is the correct amount?

The connection between tefillin and mezuzah is obvious from many perspectives – they contain the same passages from Deuteronomy [Deut. 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 – tefillin also have passages from Exodus]; anthropologically, they are both totems and good luck signs; behaviorally, they were traditionally used and touched multiple times a day. The resolution of this particular issue is that duksustos is determined by mezuzah size, since one should not use it for tefillin, while parchment is determined by this shortest phrase in tefillin, the famous “Shema.” Incidentally, there are other passages in Deuteronomy that begin “Shema Yisrael,” but when you use those two words, everyone refers to Deuteronomy 6, including the Talmud here.

Again we see the difference between recommended and acceptable practice – it is a “halakha l’moshe misinai – a law from Moses on Sinai” (in other words, “so old we don’t know when or why it started”) that tefillin texts should be written on parchment and those in a mezuzah on duksustos, but also that in a pinch each can use the other material. But there is a limit to efficiency – a Torah scroll or tefillin text that has worn out may not be remade into a mezuzah using the unwritten margins of the parchment.

The question we would like to ask again it outside the bounds of Talmudic discussion: why include THESE texts in the tefillin or the mezuzah? In modern times, could one choose their own texts, from the Bible or even from other Jewish writing, to signify their highest values? And is there a risk that such ritual behavior crosses the line into superstition? After all, many rabbinic authorities to this day suggest that if you’re having a run of bad luck, you should check your mezuzah. . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom