Is the Mezuzah an Amulet?

The ancients believe that an amulet is supposedly charged with magical power that can ward off misadventure, disease, or the assaults of malign beings–whether demonic or human. A talisman is an object similarly used to enhance a person’s potentialities and fortunes. Amulets and talismans are two sides of the same coin. The former are designed to repels evil; the latter, to attracts blessing and prosperity. Historically, the mezuzah combines both features in rabbinic folklore and history.

The Mezuzah as an Amulet

Since Late Antiquity, our ancestors believed in mezuzah’s ability to supernaturally protect a Jew no matter where he or she happens to be.  The mezuzah combines both the aspects of the amulet and talisman that we mentioned above. In one well-known Talmudic passage, we discover that some of the Sages believed that the biblical promise of a long life depends upon the observance of the mezuzah. As a proof text, the rabbis explain the verse  “And you shall teach them your children … and you shalt write them upon the door posts of your house (mezuzot) … that your days may be multiplied and the days of your children” as a conditional promise. That is to say, if someone wants to enjoy a long life, then he had better be scrupulous in his observance of the mezuzah.[2]

In another Talmudic passage, the King Artaban of Parthea one day sent a gift to Rabbi Judah.  The gift was an exquisite and quite expensive pearl.  The king’s only request was that the rabbi send a gift in return that was of equal value.  Rabbi Judah sent the king a mezuzah. Artaban was displeased with the gift and came to confront the rabbi.  “What is this?  I sent you a priceless gift and you return this trifle?” The rabbi said, “Both objects are valuable, but they are very different.  You sent me something that I have to guard, while I sent you something that will guard you.” [3]

Pagans Once Wore Phylacteries

As a side note, the meaning of the original Greek term φυλακτήριον ( “phylacteries”) a preservative or safeguard, an amulet: (cf. Demosthenes, p. 71, 24; Dioscorides (ca. 100 C.E.) 5, 158f (159f), and appears often in the writings of Plutarch.  The ancient pagans believed that the wearing of phylacteries (as seen in some of the pictures of the goddess Ishtar), helped keep the evil spirits away. In all likelihood, ancient Jews were influenced by these pagan practices but later came to redefine their religious significance in light of Judaism’s sacred teachings. Archaeologists discovered these boxes in the caves of Murabbaat, which further confirms literary evidence of the ritual practice existing sometime in the century preceding the Common Era. Whether the members of Qumran actually wore such things is by no means clear. It is possible certain Pharisees who joined this sect, brought them with them to Qumran.

Fortunately, no Jew calls tefillin “phylacteries” today–but in the days when Jews spoke Greek, they called tefillin by a different name.

The Ancients Lived in a Demon Haunted World

The  ancients believed that they lived in a demon-haunted world. They probably had good reasons to do so. The average human lifespan was dramatically less than what we now enjoy. Infant mortality probably resembled what it presently in the Third World countries. Yes, the world was  a much more of a dangerous place. The belief in demons seemed only natural and even logically plausible to the pre-modern mind. Despite the advancements made in science and technology, we often find ourselves unconsciously believing in the protective power of these ancient tools. If for nothing else, they serve as psychological props for people undergoing psychological difficulties in their lives. Seeing a mezuzah on a door offers a feeling of protection.

Given what the ancients had to work with, it is only fitting we judge charitably when evaluating their belief systems. However, we have every right to expect more from our modern rabbinic scholars–especially in light of Jewish rational thought as championed by Maimonides and Gersonides (ca. 14th century). Even in the Israeli news media, rabbis boldly promote the use of the mezuzah as an amulet as though we are still living in the Dark Ages.[1] Continue reading “Is the Mezuzah an Amulet?”

Beyond the Five-Sensory Zone of Consciousness

Redefining the role of prayer in a modern age is  one  of modern Judaism’s greatest challenges. This is true not only of Judaism, but of all religion as well. I see prayer primarily in existential terms.

Prayer is rooted in the conviction that there is more to human life and consciousness than just the five-sensory world we experience. Our hunger and yearning the meaning of the universe and our lives  prompts us to move from the ordinary to a reality that is extraordinary and profound. It is precisely when this impulse is frustrated, we feel alienated and apart from the deepest spiritual dimension of our lives. Human loneliness can be transcended if we can discover the Ultimate that is not only Present within the world, but beyond it as well. Sufi tales, like the Hassidic stories, touch upon the universal truths that bind us together.

Once somebody dared the Sufi master Halqavi to go before the presence of a certain king and say a disparaging remark that would most likely cost him his life.  Without hesitation, he accepted the challenge. As soon as he was shown the throne-room, the king–a capricious character said, “Since you are reputed to be so clever, for my amusement, to say something which nobody who is  present can say.” Once again, without the slightest pause, the Sufi said, “I am not in Your Presence.”

This Sufi story has its parallels in the old Midrashic stories depicting the ever-closeness of God. When we pray, we become aware that we are  standing in the Presence of God, before Whom, our tradition says, “There is no place that is void of the Divine Presence.”

It is funny how our language is couched in the geometry of time and space. Sometimes we imagine that God is “out there,” when we pray “to” God. However, in truth,  our prayers do not have to travel through some ethereal space to God.  God’s Presence is much more non-localized then we ever imagined possible. He is here at this moment and not here at the same time — Hidden but yet revealed — all at the same time. Prayer awakens within us a sense of unity we feel in the heart of our soul.

Although God transcends the world, He infuses it with soul and existence. He is paradoxically close and yet infinitely distant. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is not perceivable even when His Presence is encountered, yet He is present even when His absence is most felt. He is inherent in the world and but not contained in it; He embraces it and nevertheless is not confined by it. God’s Presence surrounds us in ways we can never fully know or understand.

Now, thus far I have used masculine imagery to explain God’s relationship to the world. Let’s use  feminine metaphors to convey the same truth, which should present to the reader an altogether different perspective.

Although God transcends the world, She infuses it with soul and existence. She is paradoxically close and yet infinitely distant. She is closer to us than we are to ourselves. She is not perceivable even when Her Presence is encountered, yet She is present even when Her absence is most felt. She is inherent in the world and but not contained in it; She embraces it and nevertheless is not confined by it. Her Presence surrounds us in ways we can never fully know or understand.

The time has finally come for us to realize that our concepts of God are invariably mediated through human language, which reveals concepts much like a prism refracts light. We cannot help but conceive of God through our unique cognitive and cultural lens. The Zohar certainly intimates this truth in one of its more profound statements concerning the gender inclusiveness of the Divine,“High mysteries are revealed in these two verses ‘Male and Female He created them’ (Gen. 1:27) to make known the Glory on high, the mystery of faith, out of this mystery, Adam was created. . . . Any image that does not embrace male and female is not a high and true image.”[1]


[1] Daniel Matt, Zohar, The Book of Enlightenment (Philadelphia: Paulist Press, 1983), 55.