It’s that time of year again: As Elul arrives, many send their tefillin and mezuzos to be check. Rabbi Aryeh Citron writes some of the details and halachos to keep in mind.
By Rabbi Aryeh Citron
The mitzvah of mezuzah is mentioned both in this week’s Torah portion of Eikev as well as in last week’s portion Va’es’chanan. In fact, the two verses are identical (Deut 6:9 and Deut. 11: 20: “And write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” The commentaries discuss why the Torah repeats this mitzvah. Several explanations are offered:
- Even in the Diaspora
Rashi (on 11:18) says that the Torah repeats the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuzah in order to emphasize that one is obligated in these mitzvot even if he is exiled from the land of Israel. (See verse 17, “And you will be destroyed from the good land that the L-rd, your G-d, is giving you.”)
The Gur Aryeh adds that, if not for this verse, one may have thought that the mitzvah of mezuzah does not apply outside of Israel since our homes in the diaspora are temporary.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains (Likutei Sichot 9:80) that the first verse about tefillin and mezuzot (Deut. chapter 6) are preceded by the verse that says, “This is the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances that the L-rd, your G-d, commanded to teach you, to perform in the land into which you are about to pass, to possess it.” This would seem to indicate that these mitzvot only apply in the land of Israel. Hence the need to clarify the matter in this week’s Torah portion.
Similarly, the Ramban (based on Sifri) explains that, if not for this verse, one might think that all of the mitzvot apply only in the land of Israel which is the optimal place to fulfill them. The Torah therefore informs us that we must keep these (and all) mitzvot even in the diaspora so that we are “used to” keeping them when we return to the Holy Land with Moshiach.
- Protection from Exile
The Ibn Ezra (on verse 18) says that the verse teaches us that if we keep these mitzvot, we will be protected and will not be exiled from our land.
- Women Too
Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor points out that the Talmud (Kiddushin 34a) learns from these verses that women are obligated to put up mezuzot should they be living alone. This is derived from the fact that the Torah promises a long life as a reward for the mitzvah of Mezuzah (“So that your days and the days of your children will increase…”), and since women need to live, the Talmud concludes that they must be obligated to put up mezuzot.
The rest of this article will focus on the obligation of checking one’s mezuzot periodically and the laws associated with this matter.
Twice Every Seven years
The Talmud (Yoma 11a) says that a mezuzah of a private person must be checked twice every seven years, whereas a mezuzah belonging to a community (such as the doorways of shared courtyards) need only be checked twice every 50 years. Rashi explains that the purpose of checking is to make sure that the letters did not rot and that the scroll was not stolen. The reason that a communal mezuzah need not be checked as often is that people tend to delay taking care of matters that are a shared responsibility. The rabbis therefore did not trouble the community too much in this case.
The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 291:1) rules accordingly.
What to Check?
Tosfot (D.H. Tefillin on Menachot 42b) explains that it is not necessary to check if the mezuzot have extra or missing letters as this is not something that changes. Rather, the checking is to make sure the letters are still intact and not split or worn away. In order to do this, it is necessary to open and check each one by looking it over carefully (Responsa Chatam Sofer Y.D. 283).
Who can Check?
The Chatam Sofer writes (ibid) that one may check his mezuzot himself and need not bring them to an expert scribe. If one sees that there is a question about his mezuzah, he should then bring it to an expert to examine (Peninei Halacha, likutim 1 by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed). Similarly, if one is unsure if one’s mezuzot were written properly in the first place, they should be checked by an expert (ibid). Author’s note: It is now common practice to have an expert scribe check the mezuzot. The reason for this may be that not everyone is able to identify if a mezuzah has a problem with it.
Check Them All
The Birkei Yosef (cited in Pit’chei Teshuvah 1) writes that one must check all his mezuzot twice every seven years. It is not sufficient to check three as a sample and to assume that if those are kosher, so are the rest. This is because each location is different so the fact that three are kosher does not prove that the rest are kosher.
What is a Communal Mezuzah?
The Chatam Sofer writes (Responsa ibid) that a mezuzah owned by partners is not considered a communal mezuzah but is a “private mezuzah” and thus must be checked twice every seven years. It seems that the Chatam Sofer is of the opinion that a “communal mezuzah” means one that belongs to the community (e.g., a city) as opposed to a fixed number of partners. As such, Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv ruled (cited in Birkat Moshe by Rabbi Moshe Druk on Yoma ibid) that the mezuzot in the shared spaces of an apartment building must be checked twice every seven years.
A Shul Mezuzah
If a shul has a paid gabbai or attendant that takes care of the shul’s affairs, the mezuzot must be checked every three and half years. If, on the other hand, those who take care of the shul’s affairs are volunteers, it is only mandatory to check them once every 25 years (Chovat HaDor 1 note 36).
Every Three and a Half Years
Although the Talmud says simply that mezuzot must be checked twice every seven years, one may not wait until the end of seven years and check them twice at that time. Rather, one must check them once every three and a half years. The reason that the Talmud does not specify that one must check it every three and a half years is because one need not check it precisely at the end of three and half years. It is sufficient to check them approximately every three and half years, which is twice every seven years. (Birkat Moshe, ibid)
If one is unsure if three and a half years have passed since he last checked his mezuzah (or mezuzot), one may be lenient and wait to check it until they are sure it is the end of three and a half years. This is because the obligation to check every three and a half years is a Rabbinic (rather than a Torah) law (Sukkat Chaim by Rabbi Simcha Bunim Lundinski on Yoma ibid).
[Author’s note: It is recommended to keep a note in the mezuzah case indicating when it was last checked.]
One who is taking down his mezuzah (or mezuzot) and plans to check them immediately and then put them right back up (if they are kosher) need not put up a replacement mezuzah (or mezuzot) for that time. If they will be down for a longer period of time (see below for the definition of this time period), it is preferred to put up temporary mezuzot for that time. If this is not possible, one may be lenient and leave the doorways without mezuzot for the interim (Sukat Chaim ibid).
Some say that if one is renting his house and living in the Diaspora, there is greater leniency to allow for a house to be without mezuzot for several days while the mezuzot are being checked. But one who owns his home or lives in Israel must borrow replacement mezuzot if he is unable to put up his old mezuzot immediately (Chovt HaDor 1:8).
One need not affix the mezuzot on the exact doors on which they were originally placed. One should take care, however, not to place mezuzot that were previously on doors that needed mezuzot by Torah law onto other doors that are only obligated Rabbinically (ibid 9).
More specifically, mezuzot placed on doorways that have a door in them and are on rooms that are the dimensions of at least 4 by 4 amot (approx. 6 feet by 6 feet) should be put back onto similar doorways. They should not be placed on a doorway that has no door or that does not have those minimum dimensions (see ibid 4:7 and 7:17). For example, the halacha states that one must affix a mezuzah on a walk-in closet which has 36 square feet but is rectangular in shape and does not have six feet in each direction. Nevertheless since there are differing opinions on this matter the mezuzah should be affixed without a bracha (blessing). As such one should take a meuzuah that was previously affixed on a regular room and place it on the doorway to such a closet as this would be “downgrading” its level of mitzvah.
Bracha When Replacing
When replacing the mezuzot after checking, if all the mezuzot are the same and were kosher all along, one need not make a bracha (blessing) as long as they are replaced immediately. (Some define this as within 3 hours while others say that it means on the same day.) If on the other hand, one is putting up a new mezuzah or a mezuzah that was corrected and was made “kosher” or if one is putting the mezuzot back up after some time, one should recite a blessing when doing so (ibid 11:14).
The bracha is “Baruch attah… Asher Kideshanu… Likvo’a Mezuzah – …Who commanded us to affix a Mezuzah.” It can be found in most siddurim and is on page 87 in the new Chabad Siddur.
Checking in Ellul
The Mateh Ephrayim writes (581:10) that one should check his tefillin and mezuzot in the month of Ellul. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains (Sha’arei Halacha Uminhag 5:119) that, although by the letter of the law one need only check one’s mezuzot twice every seven years, if one needs additional Divine blessing it is best to check one’s mezuzot every year. This is especially important in places where the mezuzot may not have been kosher in the first place.
The Rebbe also writes that, in addition to following the above practice (of checking one’s Tefillin and Mezuzot), one should publicize this to the best of his ability to his fellow-Jews in his community.
Checking the Placement
The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes (Sha’arei Halacha Uminhad 3:341) that when checking the mezuzot one should also check that they are placed in the correct position in the doorway. According to Chabad custom this includes making sure that it is on the right side based on how the door opens (heker tzir). In addition, the mezuzah should be placed on the beginning of the top third of the doorway. See here for more information.
May Hashem continue to protect us and bless us!
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