Affixing a mezuzah is the topic of this week’s article. The issue how it should be affixed – vertically as the Sefaradim do, or on a slant like Ashkenazim is the main point of discussion. What should residents of a mixed Ashkenzi-Sefardi building do? Does the position of the mezuzah have ramification on the position of tefillin or a Sefer Torah? When reading the Torah, is the scroll placed on the bima standing, lying or in a horizontal position? If only a regular table is available, can it be used?
Of this and more, in the following article.
The passuk in this week’s parashah reads: “And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates” (Devarim 11:20). In the following article, we will focus on the proper way to affix a mezuzo to the doorpost – vertically, horizontally or in a slant, and the reasons for the different positions.
There are various customs pertaining the direction of hanging the mezuzah. Some affix it vertically, standing it straight like a soldier, while others hang it on a slant. Why the difference in the position and what does one do when there is no other option – if, for example, the space on which the mezuzah should be hung is too small? And are there other halachos related to these differences in custom?
The dispute on the direction of the mezuzah appears in the Rishonim. According to Rashi (Menachos 33a) it should be positioned vertically along the doorpost. Rabbenu Tam is of the opinion that it should be affixed horizontally, across the doorpost. The reason for this is to show the mezuzah honor. Rabbenu Tam learns this from the halachos of burial. The honorable position for burial of the dead is lying down, like on a bed. A person should not be buried in a standing position since it is a disgrace, labeled ‘a donkey’s burial’. This is understood from Yirmiyahu 22:19 where Yirmiyahu prophesized the horrible death of King Yehoyokim, the evil ruler of Judea in its final years: “A donkey’s burial shall he be buried, dragged and tossed past the gates of Jerusalem”. This passuk teaches that burial in a standing position is a disgrace. The honorable position is lying down, horizontally. So too, says Rabbenu Tam, a mezuzah should be hung on the doorpost in an honorable manner, i.e. horizontally.
Following his opinion on the proper position for the mezuzah, Rabbenu Tam opines that other holy scrolls should also be placed in the same position – the scrolls inside their pouches in the tefillin should be placed horizontally, and the Torah scroll should be placed in the Aron lying down.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 289:6) rules: “The mezuzah should stand erect along the length of the doorpost”, but the Rama writes “And that is the custom. But some say that that position is invalid and it must be horizontal, lying across the doorpost. The proper thing to do is to place it on a slant to adhere to both rulings. And that is the custom in these countries.”
The basic halacha follows Rashi’s opinion that the mezuzah should be placed vertically. This is the Shulachan Aruch’s opinion. But the Rama adds that Rabbenu Tam’s opinion is also valid, and as such, countries that follow Minhag Ashkenaz affix it on a slant is a compromise.
The Rambam (Tefilin U’Mezuza chapter 9) and most other Rishonim (Yereim chapter 400; Hagahos Maimnios Mezuzah chapter 5; Mordechai chapter 941 and others) agree with Rashi’s approach. Interestingly, even the Yereim, Rabbenu Tam’s disciple, follows Rashi’s opinion on this in contradiction to his teacher’s ruling.
This compromise, the traditionally Ashkenazi position for affixing the mezuzah, demands explanation – seemingly when a mezuzah is on a slant it does not fulfill any criteria – it is not standing, nor is it lying across.
Bei Rebbe – The House of Rebbe
The dispute between Rashi and his grandson Rabbenu Tam is based on their understanding of a section of Gemara (Menachos 33A) which reads:
Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: If one fashioned a mezuzah like a bolt, i.e., he wedged it into a hole in the doorpost of a gate, he has not fulfilled the mitzva.
The Gemara continues and asks: when Rav Yitzhak bar Yosef came from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia, he said: All the mezuzahs in the house of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi were positioned like a bolt.
The Gemara answers that there are two positions which are like a bolt. The one which is proper is called istavira“. Rashi provides two explanations of this word: 1) The mezuzah was positioned like the letter nun – it was folded over part-lying and part-standing erect. 2) It was placed in a slanted position.
Rabbanu Tam’s student, the Yereim, records that ‘Rebbe’ would place his mezuzah on a slant because he was undecided if it should be placed perpendicular or lying down. Two contemporary talmidei chachomim raise an interesting point for discussion: who was the ‘Rebbe’ mentioned by the Yereim? Is it the same ‘Rebbe’ mentioned in the Gemara, referring to Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, or is it the Yereim’s own rebbe, Rabbenu Tam? Rabbi Feldman (Agur Beohalecha chapter 1:7) is of the opinion that the ‘Rebbe’ mentioned here refers to Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, of whom we are told affixed his mezuzahs like a bent over nun. According to this opinion, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi himself was undecided if the mezuzah should be hung erect or across, i.e. this machlokes existed even during the Mishnaic times. However, Rabbi Buchwald shlita (Mibei Dina, winter 5771 page 328) writes that the Yereim here refers to his own rebbe, Rabbenu Tam. This mention indicates that Rabbenu Tam was undecided how it should be affixed. Therefore, Rabbenu Tam told his student to affix it on a slant.
Not on a Slant
In light of the above ruling of the Ramo, for Ashkenazim, NOT affixing the mezuzah on a slant must be explained. The Vilna Gaon’s mezuzah, we are told, stood erect (Ma’asei Rav 97). The custom in Ashkenaz was to place the mezuzah on a slant as a compromise between the shitos represented by Rashi and Rabbenu Tam. Why did the Vilna Gaon differ from the accepted custom? Especially considering his own writings (Biur Hagra Yore Deah 289:14) in which he indicates that the mainstream halacha here follows Rashi’s approach and one who wants to be extra-careful should affix it on a slant as it was in Rebbe Yehuda Hansi’s house.
Similarly, Rabbi Chayim Kaniyevsky shlita (Hilchos Mezuza 289) recalls that the Chazon Ish hung his mezuzah almost erect because he maintained that the main halacha followed Rashi’s opinion, but in order to refrain from breaking from the accepted custom he placed it at a slight slant. We are told that the Brisker Rav did the same. Nevertheless, it remains unclear why they didn’t place it on a full slant like Rebbe Yehuda Hanasi did.
Perhaps it can be explained that in their opinion while affixing it on a slant fulfills the obligation, it is honorable to place a mezuzah in an upright position. Therefore, since the basic halacha follows Rashi’s opinion, it is best to affix the mezuzah on only a slight slant.
The question though, remains – how can we say that Rebbe didn’t affix his mezuzah in the most honorable position? Piskei Rid (Menachos 33a) explains that Rebbe placed his mezuzah on a slant or bent over because his mezuzahs were exceedingly large and beautiful, and there was no room on the doorpost for them. Perhaps when there is space it is preferable to hang them erect in accordance with Rashi, Rambam and the Rosh.
In the Rishonim’s writing we find two opinions regarding the degree of the slant. The Maharil (Minhagm, mezuzah 3) writes it should be affixed half-lying and half-standing, i.e. at a 45-degree angle. Rabbenu Yerucham (Netiv 21 part 7) writes that it should be slightly slanted, but it is unclear if this is the optimal slant or meant to indicate that slant of any degree is sufficient.
Minchas Eliezer (Part 1 chapter 36) paskens that the compromise between the opinions represented by Rashi and those represented by Rabbenu Tam is reached only when the mezuzah is affixed on a full 45-degree angle. If it is more erect — it does not meet the opinion of Rabbenu Tam, and if it is more horizontal — it does not meet the opinion of Rashi. Practically, the custom today is to affix it on a degree that is noticeable, but less than 45 degrees, especially since the Chazon Ish and Brisker Rav only placed it on a slight angle.
If the doorpost is narrow and leaves no room for the mezuzah to be affixed on a slant, the Yad Haktana (Mezuza chapter 3:7) and Piskei Teshuva (Yore Deah 289:9) deem it preferable that the mezuzah stand erect rather than for it to be on a slant but outside of the actual doorpost. Since basic halacha follows Rashi according to whom the mezuzah should stand erect, it is preferable to hang it upright rather than on a slant but not exactly in the doorpost – a manner which most shitos maintain does not fulfill the mitzva of mezuzah.
The majority opinion follows Rashi that M’ikar hadin the mezuzah should be affixed in a standingwwwwww position. Hanging it on a slant accommodates all opinions on the matter, as the Gemara mentions was the case in Rebbe’s house. There are opinions that rule it should be hung erect despite that fashion leaving some opinions unmet.
The prevalent Minhag Sfarad is to affix the mezuzah in a vertical position. This was also the Vilna Gaon’s custom. Nevertheless, the accepted minhag Ashkenaz is to affix it on a slant, and according to the Minchas Eliezer, at an exactly 45-degree angle. The accepted custom is to hang it at an angle that is less than 45-degrees. The Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rav both placed it at only a slight angle.
A building with a mixture of Ashkenazim and Sfradim should affix their mezuzah on an angle, even if only one resident is Ashkenazi. According to all opinions the slant position is acceptable also for Sfaradim (Agur Behalecha, chapter 11:3). Nevertheless, the mezuzah must not become a point of contention and peace should be upheld at all cost.
Following Rabbenu Tam’s opinion that honor to holy objects is shown when placing them lying down, it would seem appropriate for the parchments inside the tefillin to also be placed in a horizontal position. Many put on what is called Rabbenu Tam Tefillin in which the order of the parashiyos differs from Rashi (regular) tefillin. Nevertheless, the positioning of the scrolls in both tefillin types remains the same — the scrolls inserted in an upright position.
Both Noda B’Yehuda and the Yeshuos Ya’akov differentiate between the two issues. Rabbenu Tam’s opinion regarding the order of the parashiyos is also the opinion of many Rishonim (such as Rav Hai Gaon, Rabbenu Ya’akov Tuv Elem and others). Therefore, it is proper for a yarei shomayim to make another pair of tefillin in which the order of the parashiyos follows those opinions represented by and named for Rabbenu Tam. Regarding the position of the scrolls, Rabbenu Tam’s opinion here is only his, while all other Rishonim follow Rashi’s opinion. Therefore, going to the effort to prepare a second set of tefillin in which the scrolls are positioned according to Rabbenu Tam’s singular opinion is an unnecessary expense of time and effort. The only reason it is acknowledged for the mezuzah is because factoring in his opinion when positioning the mezuzah is a simple affair.
An additional difference between the two can be found in the Sha’arei Teshuva (Orech Chayim 32:62) and Cheshek Shlomo. Both maintain that while an erect mezuzah is pasul according to Rabbenu Tam, horizontal scrolls in the tefillin are acceptable by all. The Magen Avraham writes that for a mitzva min hamuvchar the parashiyos should be placed vertically, but even according to Rashi, one can be yotzei with laying tefillin in which the scrolls are placed laying down.
Interestingly, Keser Rosh (letters 13-14) writes that Rav Chaim Volziner asked the Vilna Gaon if he should lay Rabbenu Tam tefillin (a set with parashiyos in a different order) to which the Gaon answered that in order to be yotzei all the shitos in tefillin one would have to prepare 64 pairs of tefillin. He then went on to list all the differences in the preparation of the tefillin according to all the shitos, one of which is the positioning of the scrolls. This suggests that according to Rabbenu Tam, those tefillin called Rabbenu Tam tefillin might actually be pasul…
Rabbenu Tam tefillin and the Rabbenu Tam Zman
Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein (Chishukei Chmed Bave Basre 55a) was asked about the custom of laying Rabbenu Tam tefillin in the 58 minutes after sunset. This is following Rabbenu Tam’s opinion that the actual sunset is 58 minutes after it is perceived on earth. In his opinion those 58 minutes are day and according to Rabbenu Tam tefillin can be laid then.
Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstaien disagrees with this approach, explaining that each machlokes is different. He proves it from the tefillin themselves – although we do wear Rabbenu Tam tefillin with the difference in the order of the parashiyos, the scrolls are not tucked into the tefillin in a horizontal position in accordance with Rabbenu Tam. This illustrates the differences in machlokos – although an opinion may be named for Rabbenu Tam, it may actually enjoy a much wider consensus.
Sefer Torah Position
As we saw above, Rabbenu Tam (Menachos 33a) requires all stam to be positioned horizontally. He proves his approach from the Sefer Torah in the Mikdash which was stored lying down on a shelf connected to the Aron. He adds (Mordechai, Menachos 247:981) that if he merits to build an Aron Kodesh he will construct it wide enough to position the Torah scrolls in a horizontal position. Thus, we see that although he wanted to change it, the accepted practice even during Rabbenu Tam’s lifetime was to position the Torah scrolls upright. The Rashba adds (Bave Basre 14) that the custom all over was to position them upright. The Ya’avtz, though (ibid), expresses his puzzlement at why a Sefer Torah is not laid horizontally.
The position of a Sefer Torah is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch, but the Biur Hagra (Yore Deah 289:14) writes that the ikar hadin follows Rashi’s opinion throughout the issue of stam, so the same is true for a Sefer Torah. This proves that the upright position in which we place the Torah follows Rashi’s shita.
Radvaz explains the difference between the Sefer Torah in the Mikdash and Sifrei Torah in shuls. In the Mikdash, it was improper for the Torah to be higher than the luchos that were stored inside the Aron. In addition, since the Torah was not used for reading it could be positioned lying down. But a scroll which is used regularly should be placed upright for easy access.
The Bach notes the Ashkenazi custom of positioning both mezuzah and Torah on a slant, warning not to change it.
Lema’ase, most kehillos that follow the customs of Eidot Hamizrach place their scrolls perpendicular, while Ahskenazim stand them it on a slant. The Belz kehillos have a unique custom (Chelkas Ya’kov, Yore Deah 165) to place their scrolls lying down in the Aron Kodesh. Today it seems that the only place this custom is still upheld is in the Belz Center in Yerushalayim. The Chelkas Yaakov expresses his puzzlement at this custom being that customs in Blez usually follows the Bach’s rulings who served as the rav in the town of Belz.
Reading the Torah
The accepted custom among Eidot Hamizrach today is to read from the Torah scroll while it stands upright on the bima. Ashknazim read from the Torah while it lies on a bima sometimes with a slight incline. Although the difference seems to be related to the above-mentioned differences in opinion, we find no actual mention of it in the poskim. Therefore, it seems that the only reason for Ashkenazim to read from the Torah on a slanted bima is related to comfort, or to allow the person who lifts the scroll to do so easily and safely. (Igros Moshe Orech Chaim part 1:38). Therefore, today, when some daven in outdoor minyanim where the Bima is but a simple table, slanting the table is unnecessary, especially if it poses a risk of the scroll falling.
In this overview of the halachos pertaining the position of Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzahs we learned of different approaches to how to position the holy scrolls. We also learned of the importance of differentiating between various machlokos and how no two are the same, despite semantic similarities. In short, not all Rabbenu Tam shitos are equal.