During Chanuka we celebrate the spiritual resistance of the Jewish People in the face of religious persecution in ancient times. Over the centuries we have faced similar repressive decrees outlawing Jewish observance, often at penalty of death. Proudly affixing a mezuzah on a doorpost is a very public religious sign that can arouse resentment and even peril under anti-Semitic regimes. The question arises: Must the mitzvah be fulfilled if it entails risk of dangerous repercussions?
A little background is needed in order to address this question. In general, a person is not required to risk his life in order to avoid transgressing a Torah prohibition, with the exception of the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. Nevertheless, in times of religious persecution one must be ready to give up his life to avoid even a minor transgression.
However, Shulchan Aruch rules that this readiness only applies to one being forced to violate a transgression, and not to one threatened by a decree against the performance of positive mitzvot like mezuzah and tefillin. This means that a person would not be obligated to endanger himself by affixing a mezuzah in a time of persecution. In fact, in most cases one would be forbidden to risk his life for the performance of a positive mitzvah, unless he judges that there was a particular need for him to do so in an extraordinary circumstance. As an example of this exceptional act of self-sacrifice, the Talmud relates the story of a great tzaddik named Elisha:
The wicked state (Rome) once proclaimed a decree against Israel that whoever donned tefillin should have his brains pierced through; yet Elisha put them on and went out into the streets. A Roman soldier saw him; he fled before him, and the latter gave pursuit. As he overtook him, he (Elisha) removed them from his head and held them in his hand, “What is that in your hand?” he demanded. “The wings of a dove,” was his reply. He stretched out his hand and the wings of a dove were found therein.
During the Spanish Inquisition it is well known that thousands of conversos, Jews who had feigned conversion to Catholicism, continued to practice Judaism in secret. Many of them concealed their mezuzot in ingenious ways at great risk. They also kept the ancient custom, still practiced today, of being careful not to sweep the dirt of their doorsteps towards the doorpost concealing the mezuzah. One poignant story of faith and devotion from this period has been recorded for posterity:
It is well known that in Spain during the Inquisition, when they checked and found one of the Conversos who swept dirt to the side away from the mezuzah, they reported that he was still keeping the Jewish religion, and he was martyred “al Kiddush Hashem” — in sanctification of the Divine Name.
The threat of mezuzah theft is a more common, if less dramatic, act of anti-Semitism or vandalism. (It has been suggested that mezuzot are often stolen by people who imagine that they are some type of lucky charm.) If this is a real concern, ideally one should protect the mezuzah by carving out a space in the doorway for it. One must be careful not to insert the mezuzah into the hole more than a handbreadth (tefach, about three inches), as it would then be considered in the wall and not in the doorway. It is also important that the Divine Name of Sha-dai, written on the outside of the mezuzah, or the letter Shin on an opaque cover, should remain visible.
Alternatively, one may affix the mezuzah on the continuation of the doorpost behind the closed door, as it would still be within the doorway, though not visible from the street.
If this is not possible, in the absence of other options, one may place the mezuzah on the inner wall of the house facing the room, within a handbreadth of the doorway opening. One should place it on the inner door frame rather than on the wall itself. In this case, one should not recite a beracha, since according to many authorities the mezuzah is within the house and not within the doorway.
As Mark Twain observed, the Greek and the Roman empires made a vast noise, but now are gone. He asked, “What is the secret of Jewish immortality?” Surely, our spiritual courage and determination in the face of crushing repression is part of the answer.
- Sources: Shabbat 130a; Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 157:1; Mezuzas Melachim p. 66; Agur B’Ohalecha 14:2 and 14:12; Mark Twain, “Concerning the Jews,” https://ohr.edu/judaism/concern/concerna.htm.