I recently bought a new house. In anticipation of placing mezuzot (which I’ve learned are not the decorative boxes but rather the handwritten Torah passages on parchment placed inside the boxes), my family and I were discussing possible meanings for affixing mezuzot on the doorposts of one’s house. I suggested that the source for this custom is from the ten plagues, where the placing of blood from the Passover sacrifice on the Israelites’ doorposts was a sign to protect their homes from the Angel of Death. My brother thought that the purpose of the mezuzah is to create a space for G‑d in the world in the form of a Jewish home. Our father felt strongly that the mezuzah is primarily a declaration – or even a statement of defiance to the world – as if to say, “Despite the many forces that would have it otherwise, here stands a Jewish home!” I was wondering if any (or perhaps all) of our ideas might be correct, and would appreciate your thoughts.
There certainly seems to be a correlation between the placing of both the blood of the Passover sacrifice in Egypt, and the mezuzah, on the doorpost. Even a cursory reading of the verses indicates that both emphasize placing a sign or remembrance on the doorpost; and in each case, this sign serves as a protection and preserver of life.
Passover: “And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they will eat it….And the blood will be for you for a sign upon the houses where you will be, and I will see the blood and pass over you so that no plague will destroy you when I smite the people of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12:7,13).
Mezuzah: “And you shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul….And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your houses and upon your gates. In order that your days may increase, and the days of your children, on the land which G-d swore to your Forefathers to give them, as the days of Heaven above the earth” (Deut. 11:18,20-21).
In fact, the Zohar and Midrash explicitly correlate the blood on the doorpost of the first Passover to the mezuzah:
“A man builds a house and G‑d says to him, ‘Write My Name and put it on your door [as a mezuzah] and you will sit inside your house and I will sit outside your door and protect you’. Similarly, regarding Passover, He said, ‘You mark on your doors the sign of the mystery of My faith [the blood of the paschal lamb] and I shall protect you from the outside” (Zohar, Ex. 36a).
Similarly, “The blood of the Passover sacrifice was but of little significance, for it was required only once [during the Exodus], not for all generations, and by night only, not by day; yet He would ‘not allow the destroyer…to strike you.’ How much more will He not permit the destroyer into the house which bears a mezuzah, which is of greater significance, seeing that the Divine Name is repeated there ten times [five times in the first paragraph (Deut. 6:4-9) and five times in the second (Deut. 11:13-21)], it is there by day and night, and it is a law for all generations” (Mechilta of R’ Yishmael, Bo 11).
Interestingly, several teachings indicate that the blood was to be smeared on the inside of the doorframe. And if the Passover event was the prototype for the mezuzah, this would support your brother’s suggestion that the mezuzah demarcates a living space in which the inhabitants, focusing their attention on it and its call to holiness, make an abode for G‑d in the private sphere. Therefore, the verse states, “And the blood will be for you for a sign…and I will see the blood”. From here, some opinions in the Midrash Mechilta (Bo 6) posit that the blood was smeared on the part of the doorway that was visible only to “you and I”, namely on the inside. The Midrash Rabbah (Ex. 17:3) also teaches that the lintel and doorposts upon which the blood was placed correspond to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Correlating to the mezuzah, this expresses and reminds those within that this home is dedicated to preserving the righteous ways and teachings of our Forefathers.
However, one opinion in the Midrash, as well as several classical commentaries, maintain that G‑d commanded to display the blood on the outside of the doorway. And as a precursor for the mezuzah, which, in fact, is affixed outside the door, this would support your father’s suggestion that the mezuzah is primarily a statement to the world.
Rabbi Yitzchak in the Mechilta (Bo 6) says that the blood was placed on the outside of the doorways in order for the Egyptians to see their false god, the sheep, slaughtered, and its blood smeared. This bold act and statement in the face of their enemies was a great risk and sacrifice. In fact, the Midrash Pesikta Zutreta (Lekach Tov, Ex., Bo 12:7) compares placing the blood on the doorways to a sacrifice: “Thus we learn that our ancestors in Egypt had four altars – the lintel, the two doorposts, and the doorstep.” The Me’am Loez summarizes these ideas by writing (Ex. 12:23), “The blood was a symbol that the people believed in G‑d and were willing to risk their lives by defying the Egyptian deities. Because of this faith, no force would be able to harm them.”
According to the explanation of the verse by Chizkuni (Rabbi Chezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310, France), this was done so that even Egyptians who did not witness the earlier public slaughtering of the deified sheep would now all see its blood exposed to ignominy. In addition, the blood on the lintel and two doorposts formed the letter “chet”, the sign of life (chayim), to protect the entrance from the “destroyer”.
Maimonides (Guide, Part III, ch. 46) also explains that the mark of blood was a public declaration: “We were commanded to kill a lamb on Passover…to cleanse ourselves of those [foreign] doctrines, and to publicly proclaim the opposite, to express the belief that the very act [of slaughtering the Egyptians’ god], which was then considered as being the cause of death, would bring deliverance from death. [This was] the reward for publicly performing a service every part of which was objected to by the idolaters”.
Finally, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary also echoes the idea that the mezuzah makes a stand against harmful, outside forces. He writes that the doorposts and lintel, representing walls and roof respectively, are symbolic of the house, the home. The purpose of a house is twofold. The walls guard against human elements, protecting from unwanted, harmful intruders. The roof guards against physical elements, protecting from unwanted, harmful weather. Thus, the blood that was placed on the doorposts outside the doorway was designed to make a stand against, and repudiate, the unwanted, harmful and intrusive Egyptian culture by establishing clearly marked, prominent boundaries.
Accordingly, all of the ideas shared in your meaningful family conversation were correct!
- Dr. Yair Barkai, Doorposts and their Symbolism, translated by Rachel Rowen. (Pesikta Zutreta and several classical commentaries).
- Dr. Alexander Poltorak, The Protective Power of Mezuzah. (Zohar and Mechilta Bo 11).