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What Orthodox Hebrews Fasten to the Doorpost.

From The New-York Tribune, October 8, 1905.

A dozen families of Orthodox Jews were busy moving into a new brick tenement house on Sheriff Street, in the heart of the East Side, when a Tribune reporter was passing. His attention was attracted by a ceremony, which seemed to center about the doorpost of one of the ground floor flats.

An aged gray-headed patriarch was tacking a little case to the upper right hand doorpost, a hairbreadth from the edge. It was of tin, about three inches long and half an inch wide, and while fastening it securely in place the old man seemed to be muttering a Hebrew prayer.

After the ceremony was ended the reporter began to ask questions.

"Yes, it is a religious rite," the old Hebrew answered. "One of the most sacred of our religion--the fastening of the mezuzah. No home is blessed without it, and one might better die at once than attempt to live in a flat that did not have a mezuzah on the doorpost."

"And what did you say as you fastened this mezuzah?" was asked.

The old man translate this prayer of benediction:

"Blessed art Thou, our God, King of the World, who has sanctified us by Thy commandments and hast commanded us to fasten the mezuzah."

Inquiring further, the reporter learned that the tin case contained a rectangular piece of parchment, which was carefully rolled up to fit it. On the parchment are written passages from Deuteronomy vi, 4-9 and xi, 13-21. Both selections must be used, and if one letter is missing the mezuzah is worthless. The passages are usually written in twenty-two lines, equally spaced. On the back of the parchment, so written that it will fall behind an opening in the case, is the name of God in Hebraic characters.

All over the East Side, wherever dwells an Orthodox Jew, one finds the mezuzah carefully tacked to the doorpost. Most of them are simply plain tin cases costing a few cents, like the one the Tribune man saw placed in Sheriff Street. As a Jew of the faith enters or leaves his dwelling he ouches his hands to his lips and then to the mezuzah. As he does so he prays:

"May God keep my going out and my coming in from now on and evermore."

There are other prayers for special occasions. If he sets out on a business expedition he prays for great success and caresses the mezuzah without fail.

Some of the mezuzahs one finds on the East Side are of glass. Others, more elaborate and expensive, are of carved wood. Still others are nicely turned, with knobs at either end. Great care is taken that unclean hands shall never touch them. They are not allowed to fall into the hands of non-Jews, if that can be prevented, for fear they will be mistreated.

According to a rabbi with whom The Tribune reporter talked, the obligation is derived from the Biblical passage: "And thou shalt write them on the doorposts of thy house and within thy gates." The custom has been known since the time of Josephus, and at one time the mezuzah was supposed to be a powerful factor in warding off evil spirits. In the Middle Ages the practice of writing the names of certain favored angels, in addition to the passages, crept in. Maimonides, the great Jewish teacher, put a stop to the innovation after a vigorous campaign, in which he preached that those who lived in houses so branded would have no share in the future world.

The practice is a close kin to the Mahometan one of writing the name of God above the doors and windows of their dwellings and shops. Indeed, for a time both Mahometans and Egyptians used these cases, the Mahometans putting within passages from the Koran, short invocations and professions of faith.

In New York the Italians have a fashion of putting an image of their patron saints in their doorways. Other Catholics on going into a new dwelling sprinkle the rooms with holy water, in order that their residence there may be blessed.







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