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
"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
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
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