Saturday 30 March 2019

Oy vey mezuzah

I finished off my very expensive education in graduate school in Boston. I had a desk in the Vole Lab which was down the corridor from Tom Kunz's Bat lab and across it from  Fred Wasserman's Bird Ethology lab. Not all the people with Mitteleuropa surnames were Jewish but some of them were and I learned a bit about Hannukah, lox & bagelsShidduch, and Dreidels. It's kind of interesting when your neighbours have completely different holidays, peculiar food and nail things up on their doorways which aren't horseshoes . . .

. . . that would be a mezuzah מְזוּזָה: a little box or tube which holds a fragment of parchment. The words on the parchment start שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד׃ Hear O Israel, the lord our god, the lord is one. Which is a straightforward enough statement of faith. Th parchment is called a klaf and must be inscribed by a fully trained religious scribe called a sofer. Ballpoint pen will definitely not do and nor will 80gsm acid-free paper.  The rest of the text is an exhortation to to good and a promise of the god good things which will happen if the proscriptions are followed.  The mezuzah [L] is deliberately shown on a tilt because for some Jews that is part of the protective magic. Many believe that the little object will not only fend off divine wrath but also actual missiles if the neighbours get feisty. Nobody claims any particular mezuzah powers over everyday assailts on the home like junk-mail, dog-shit on the lawn, and hellish loud parties on the student house down the street.

Being a sofer seems a pretty secure gig, what with people moving home, upgrading their mezuzah to this years model, trying to out-mezuzah those Cohens next door. But I'm guessing that even a jealous god would look kindly on folks making home-made mezuzot. There are other Jewish specialists who hold local essential monopoly status a) the shochet שחיטה who slaughters animals in the prescribed way to ensure that the carcasses are kosher b) the mohel מוֹהֵל who does the circumcisions. Don't try these at home folks! Stick to the klaf-scribing if you want to save a bit.

When we lived in England through the 80s, the god-slot on the wireless was Thought for the Day, often read by a genial rabbi called Lionel Blue [shown R in his rabbinicals]. He died a few years ago in the fullness of years much loved by those who'd been braced to face the day by his slightly fey, whimsical, 3 minute morning monologues. In June 1985 I was given his T4tD paperback compendium called Bright Blue. You can get your own copy for £0.01. Our copy surface a couple of weeks ago and I rather like a story I found in there:

A Jewish family moves into a resolutely gentile neighbourhood. Everyone is curious about the new people and when they install the mezuzah someone asks about it. "It's just a box with a roll of paper inside which carries some verses from the bible". The neighbours cannot accept this bizarre explanation and a group of them go by night, unscrew the mezuzah and unroll the scroll. It says: "Help, I'm a prisoner in a mezuzah factory".

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