This commandment in this verse mandates the writing of this paragraph, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, as well as Deuteronomy 11:13-21, on a parchment scroll which is then mounted on the doorpost of the home. These two passages are “these words” that the Bible mandates to be written on the doorposts. Jews have continued to practice this Biblical commandment to this day. The common Hebrew name for the scroll that is affixed to the doorframe is mezuzah, the Hebrew word for “doorpost” in this verse.
The meaning of “gate” in the Bible
In modern colloquial English, the end of the verse seems somewhat redundant. What is the difference between the “doorposts of your house” and “your gates”? Couldn’t the Bible have been more concise and commanded that the mezuzah be written on all doorposts? We would have understood that this includes doorposts of the home as well as outer gates.
The truth is that this question is based on a misunderstanding of what the Bible means when it uses the word “gates.” The Hebrew word shaar – gate – appears over 300 times in the Bible. It almost never refers to the gate of someone’s private property. Rather, in Biblical Hebrew, the word “gate” refers to the entrance to a city, public building, or palace. In fact, there are numerous verses that use the word shaar as a synonym for “city.” For example:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. – Exodus 20:8-10
The final word of this passage from the Ten Commandments literally means “in your gates.” The translators correctly rendered it as “in your towns,” as the word “gate” in Biblical Hebrew also means public spaces, towns, and cities. This is probably because all towns in the Ancient Near East were surrounded by protective walls with guarded gates.
To sum up, the word “gates” in the Bible refers not to gates that open onto private property but to public spaces and cities.
Private and public faith
With this in mind, we can easily see the lesson of the end of the verse. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 describes the obligation to love God and to serve Him with wholehearted dedication. Deuteronomy 11:13-21 commands obedience to God’s law and the promise of reward for fulfilling God’s word, or punishment for disobedience. These words are to be “written on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
The house is the private domain. The gates are public. The purpose of the words on the doorposts is to continually remind us that our commitment to God must govern our lives in all contexts, private and public alike.
There are many people for whom faith is expressed only outside the home. They attend church or synagogue services at appropriate times. They send their children to religious schools. They may even attend classes themselves. But for many, when the service is over and they return home, they leave God at the front door. Even for many people who worship regularly, home life is not permeated with faith. The mezuzah on the doorpost of the house is there to remind these people that their relationship with God continues in the home.
For others, the reverse is true. There are many people who profess faith in God and raise their families with values that are consistent with this faith. And yet, they are loath to profess this faith in the public square. They prefer faith to be a private matter. To these people, the commandment to affix a mezuzah on the doorpost of the gates, in the public square, sends an important message. Commitment to God is not only a private matter. Biblical faith is meant to govern society, not merely individuals.
The message is clear. Faith in God, love of Him, and commitment to His law are not meant to govern only what goes on in our homes. The covenantal commitment to God must be written on the doorposts of the “gates” as well.
We must show our love of God and commitment to His laws in both our private lives as well as in how we contribute to the greater society. This is the message of the mezuzah.
This article was taken from Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s book, Verses for Zion. Verses for Zion offers a profound exploration of devotional Bible teachings, intricately woven around the land, people, and God of Israel. Each page is a journey through history and faith, illuminating biblical narratives with insightful interpretations and spiritual wisdom. Click here to order your copy of Verses for Zion now.
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