The Meaning of the Mezuzah – Or What Not to Say to your Atheist Friends

The Meaning of the Mezuzah – Or What Not to Say to your Atheist Friends March 18, 2016

By Gregory


A mezuzah is a Jewish religious symbol. It’s a stone, glass, ceramic, wood, or metal artistic case that contains a small scroll of scripture verses.

The Hebrew word mezuzah means “doorpost.” According to tradition, the mezuzah is to be affixed to the doorpost at the entrance to a Jewish home as well as at the entrance to each of the interior rooms except for bathrooms or closets.

The scroll inside the case contains the verses from Deuteronomy 6:4–9:

Hear, O Israel! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.  You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.  Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.  Impress them upon your children.  Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.  Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Why do some of us Jews affix mezuzahs to our doorways? What a great question! I’m glad you asked!

Having a six-inch glass case with Hebrew letters and a scroll behind it on your front door post sometimes gets attention. People see it and ask, “What is that?”

How I explain why I have a mezuzah on my doorpost matters. Especially since many, if not, most of my friends are atheists and secular humanists.

How I answer their question speaks to how I understand my Jewish spirituality and worldview.

Let me first tell you how I think we should not answer the question. One evening I was having several people over for drinks and appetizers. A Jewish friend of mine arrived early and was enjoying a glass of wine with me when some atheist friends arrived who had not yet been to my house.

One of them noticed the mezuzah on the doorpost and asked about. Before I could say much, my Jewish friend offered an answer:

“A mezuzah is a Jewish house blessing. It conveys God’s blessing to the homes that affix it. It blesses us as we come and go. We venerate it, since it contains a piece of Holy Scripture. We put a mezuzah on our doorpost because the Torah tells us to do so. The mezuzah is a sign to God that this household is part of the sacred Jewish covenant. “

Ah … sure … yes … right … but ….

I don’t necessarily or completely disagree with the above description, but it’s not how I would go about explaining the symbol on my doorpost.

My atheist friend seemed to agree with me concerning the inadequacy of the explanation. At the time, she politely nodded at the explanation. And after my Jewish friend left, she asked me, “Does that guy think his shit doesn’t stink like the rest of ours does?” She later asked if he was a fundamentalist. She was not impressed.

Obviously, she didn’t buy his explanation. In fact, she found it absurd, and even slightly offensive. Not a good first move in terms of establishing a productive dialog.

All right, so how did I explain the glass case with the small scripture scroll in it, hanging on my front doorpost?

I told my atheist friend that the mezuzah was a symbol for me that represented my commitments to a certain set of values – kindness, hospitality, compassion, love, and justice. How having it on my doorposts reminded me to embrace and practice these values at home and while out in the world. The mezuzah reminded me that I lived my life trying to live up to a Covenant of love that I accepted as true.

I also told her that the mezuzah was a symbol for her – that when she saw it, she should know that she was always welcome in my home, that my home was a place of hospitality, and that she should always find it a place of refuge and love.

She asked me if I thought God blessed my home because of it. I told her that I thought I was blessed because I embraced and practiced the values I mentioned, not because of any superstitious investment in the object itself.

Two weeks later, she asked me if it was all right for an atheist to put a mezuzah on her doorpost.

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