Swine flu causes worry about kissing mezuzot


By Zev Hurwitz, Torah Editor

This story is a National Winner in the News Story category of Quill and Scroll’s 2010 International Writing and Photo Contest, judged by the American Society of News Editors.

A mezuzah affixed to the doorframe of a home is meant to protect the home’s inhabitants.  But could having a mezuzah be detrimental to your health?

According to health agencies, the common action of kissing a mezuzah as you enter and leave a room exposes you to the H1N1 virus that is sweeping the globe. Infected persons who kiss their fingers and proceed to touch a mezuzah could inadvertently place germs on the mezuzah, and each succeeding  person who touches it could be thus exposed to the virus.

Websites of the United States Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta say that certain diseases can linger on hard dry surfaces such as doorknobs for up to 48 hours, providing ample time for a disease to be transmitted from one person to another.

“In an environmental survival study, influenza A virus placed on hard, nonporous surfaces (steel and plastic) could be cultured from the surfaces at diminishing titer for 24 to 48 hours,” stated the CDC on their website,   http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol12no01/05-1370.htm.

A mezuzah is a parchment casing that is affixed to the door posts of Synagogues, Jewish businesses, and, orthodox homes. Generally, they are hung in the doorway of every room that is used for living (bathrooms and closets are excepted).  Inside the case is the text of the Shema, written on parchment by a scribe much as a Torah scroll is written.

The word mezuzah literally means “doorpost” and is first mentioned in the Torah in Parashat Bo, where the Israelites are instructed to prepare for the final plague, Death of the Firstborn. After sacrificing a lamb, the parsha says, “They shall take some of its blood and place it on the two doorposts (mezuzot) and crossbeam of the houses in which they will eat it.” (Shmot 12:7)

The Torah subsequently discusses mezuzot as a commandment, in Parashat Va’etchanan when Bnei Yisrael is told to remember and love G-d and his laws: “Teach them diligently to your children, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Devarim 6:9)

Although this passage, which is also the last line of the first paragraph of the Shema, only prescribes the mitzvah of affixing mezuzot, in many communities it is customary also to kiss a mezuzah – that is, to kiss your fingers and then touch the mezuzah with them, or to touch the mezuzah and then kiss the fingers – whenever walking into or out of a home or room that has them.  Kissing mezuzot is only a minhag, custom which generally accepted as a tradition, not a commandment.

“The idea is that we recognize the presence of Hashem whenever we enter a room,” said Judaic studies teacher Rabbi Ari Leubitz. “Kissing the mezuzah is a reminder to be aware that Hashem is everywhere we go.”

Senior Talia Reich does not kiss the mezuzah because she does not know why she would.

“I never really learned what the meaning is,” Talia said. “It’s also kind of hard to remember.”

Some people like sophomore Josh Miesel who kiss the mezuzah on their way in and out of the building aren’t very worried about contracting flu from contact.

“I kiss the mezuzah because it’s an interaction with G-d every time you enter a room,” said Josh. “It’s probable that I would keep kissing the mezuzah even if I knew that there may be disease on it.”

Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Aaron Parry explains that the outside of most mezuzot contains the acronym Shaddai,  Shin, Dalet, Yud, which is one of the names of G-d.  But the three letters are also thought to stand for “Shomer Delatot Yisrael” which means Protector of Israel’s Doors, he explained.

In Israel, where the kissing of mezuzot is far more common than in America, The mezuzah-flu virus issue has sparked controversy.  Some Israeli doctors recommended that people “air-kiss” mezuzot without actually touching them to avoid contracting disease (http://www.onejerusalem.com/2009/08/13/kissing-a-mezuza-risks-swine-flu-doctors-say-yes/).  This enraged many ultra-religious Jews who believe that the mezuzah’s purpose is to protect against sickness (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3761169,00.html).

According to  www.jpost.com, Israeli Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, who is a Gur Chassid, has said that mezuzah-kissing will not affect health because the mezuzah is meant to protect households.

“Mezuzot protect the home; they won’t spread disease,” said Litzman.

But science suggests a different outcome. According to www.onejerusalem.com, Israeli Dr. Ilan Youngster performed a study in 2007 where he sampled 70 mezuzot and tested them all for bacteria. All 70 mezuzot tested positive for some kind of bacteria, many of them harmful.

That would suggest that H1N1 flu could behave the same way.  One solution is to regularly sanitize mezuzot, but Dr. Youngster noted that many religious Jews are hesitant to clean mezuzot because they are holy objects.

“Perhaps,” said Youngster, “because of the fact that the mezuzah is a religious object, people are afraid to sterilize it.”

The Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, has said that if the Israeli  government implements a safety precaution of avoiding contact with mezuzahs then people will need to make a point of air-kissing the mezuzah,“to ensure that the custom is not forgotten.”

Rabbi Leubitz agrees with Rabbi Amar, adding that, “one fulfills the mitzvah of mezuzah simply by looking at it.”

Shalhevet is taking steps to avoid spreading H1N1 flu by regularly cleaning doorknobs and sink faucets. A new staff member, Mercedes Rosales, has been hired to do this and can be seen walking the halls throughout the day. But what are we doing about mezuzot?

In an interview with The Boiling Point, Ms. Rosales said she’d been told to wipe down surfaces that she saw people touching.  She cleans door and locker handles, for eample, but had not noticed people touching mezuzot and so was not cleaning them, she said.

“Everywhere that people put their hands,” said Mercedes through translator junior Emilio Lari. “[I clean] anything people usually touch.”

Director of Student Life Yossi Kastan said that there is no set policy for cleaning mezuzot and that the idea never crossed his mind.

“Now that it has been brought to my attention, we’ll discuss it,” he said.

Head of School Rabbi Weinbach said he does not know how frequently, if at all, school mezuzot are sanitized.

“They should be,” Rabbi Weinbach said. “There is no problem with cleaning [Shalhevet’s] mezuzot because the parchment is protected by two layers of plastic casing. It’s perfectly ok to clean them.”

As of this printing, Shalhevet has not yet created a policy for mezuzah cleanliness. Students are advised to utilize the hand sanitizer stations positioned around school to prevent the spread of sickness in general.