Word Smith: Mezuzah

A small rectangular box, about the size of a lipstick holder, was covered in mud and had one nail in the side. It was “going to the dump day” and this was amidst the debris outside our new home in Portland. On casual inspection I put it in my pocket and did not pitch it into the refuse in the back of the dump-bound van.

Putting a dirty old toothbrush to the task, the dirt removal went fast and there below the grime was a carefully crafted image of a globe, some buildings, stars and the Hebrew W or Shin, the twenty-first letter in the alphabet. This was not on a dreidel, but a carefully carved and assembled box. [1]

Shin (put one in)

Turning the box over, there was a small opening. Once the mud was removed, this opening was also specially carved, as if the holder of special contents, but there was no bottom, as a completed box would have. This must be a mezuzah.

Digging deeper into the meaning of these symbols on the mezuzah, the W or Shin means Shaddai, or “Almighty,” and the letter is one of the biblical names of God. When it appears on a mezuzah, as in this case, Shin serves as an acronym for Shomer Daltot Yisrael, which translates as “Guardian of Israel’s doors.”

According to Wikipedia (the go-to source for all things internet) many mezuzah cases are marked with the Hebrew letter ש (Shin), for Shaddai. [2] The image on the top of the mezuzh is the city of Jerusalem with the globe rising up from it. The stars sparkle around the Shin highlighting the almighty in the heavens.

Since the inside of our found mezuzah was “empty” and the contents consisted of mud, I found a rabbi to help me out. The scroll, or parchment, must have disintegrated long ago, so the rabbi agreed to give me a new rolled parchment for a minor contribution to his community. He reminded me that the outer casing is NOT the mezuzah, it is just the protective covering. The real mezuzah is the written word of God.

The scroll, called a klaf, consists of a rolled piece of parchment with writings. (Having a brother-in-law with the last name of Klaff, the family name makes sense as a revered name.) The parchment is typically inscribed by a calligrapher who is called a sofer stam, or specially trained and qualified “writer of The Word.” The verses on the klaf are traditionally taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verses 4 – 9, where the Jewish prayer of Shema Yisrael is found. Verse 9, for example, translates as, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord (is) our God, the Lord is One.” Variations of the verses on the klaf come from Deuteronomy, chapter 11, verses 13 – 21, and others of the Ten Commandments delivered to the Israelites on the tablets by Moses. The sofer stam chooses the verses and writes them in black indelible ink with a special quill pen made either from a feather or a reed. The scribe then rolls the parchment up and places it inside the case. [3]

In mainstream Jewish tradition, the mezuzah is nailed to the doorpost on the right side door jamb homes at of an angle titled toward the home as a sign of welcome to all who enter the home. The mezuzah is then touched by believers, who then kiss their fingers as a sign of blessing. The families who lived in the house may move, but the mezuzah stays with the home. The parchment (klaf) written by a scribe (sofer stam) makes the mezuzah kosher and where the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew. [4] Another respectful and beautiful religious tradition that is revealed to the curious.

As Arlene Klaff recalled, “Years ago, when my husband Richie and I were looking for a larger home, before we bought Three Ponds, we went to see a beautiful, old home on Garrison Forest Rd. The home had been in the Poe family (Edgar Allen Poe’s relatives) for generations. We were surprised to see a mezuzah on the front door jamb. Long before Google, we found that the home was built in the early 20th century by a Jewish family who owned many jewelry stores in the area. I guess the Poe’s never questioned its origin!”

The mystery is who were the Jews who lived in the home? How should the new, non-Jewish owners use this mezuzah? Is it sacrilegious to hang it on the doors in the home of a Catholic? Time to turn to the Klaff family patriarch and matriarch to see what they say on the matter. Harry? Mom Klaff, Arlene, offered her suggestions as to what we do, replacing the klaf and leaving the mezuzah as a welcoming sign to the new residents.

All suggestions are welcome.

Harry Klaff


[1] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/how-to-play-dreidel/

[2] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mezuzah

[3] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mezuzah

[4] Arlene Klaff wrote of her faith traditions with the mezuzah, which were very helpful in this research.