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.
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.” 
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. Continue reading “Is the Mezuzah an Amulet?”