The prophetic vision of the return to Zion includes partnership in the spiritual realm between the Jewish people and the nations of the world. As we witness the fulfillment of several elements of prophetic visions in our modern age, it is time to reexamine various aspects of Jewish-gentile relations, both in the area of Jewish thought and in the area of halakha.
In this connection, an imam recently asked me an unexpected question. He told me that a Muslim dentist in his community wished to put a mezuzah at the entrance to his office, as a respectful gesture toward his Jewish patients. The imam wanted to know if it was halakhically permitted for him to acquire a mezuzah for this dentist.
Prohibition against Giving a Mezuzah to a Non-Jew
The Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, Germany, 1427–1365), presents several proofs that it is forbidden to give a mezuzah to a non-Jew. Moreover, when asked if it was permitted to give a mezuzah to a gentile noble who wished to put one in his castle, he responded that it is forbidden, “even if refusing would lead one to come to harm” (New Responsa of the Maharil 123).
The Rema also rules that one must not give a mezuzah to a non-Jew who wishes to put one in his house. But in contrast to the Maharil, he writes that if refusing to give the non-Jew a mezuzah will lead to hostility, one may be lenient (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, Hilkhot Mezuzah 291:2).
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and King Artevan of Persia
Nevertheless, a story in tractate Pe’ah of the Jerusalem Talmud seems to suggest the opposite conclusion. King Artevan of Persia sent Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi a precious stone and requested that he send him back an item of similar or greater worth. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi sent a mezuzah to Artevan, who responded angrily: I sent you a priceless pearl, and you send me something worthless in return? Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi answered him: You sent me something that I have to protect. I sent you something that, even when you sleep, will protect you. The story also appears in the responsa of Rav Achai Gaon (145), where it is told that Aretvan’s daughter was healed due to that mezuzah. The story begs the question: How can we resolve Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s giving a mezuzah to a non-Jew on his own initiative with the prohibition against doing so?
A Gentile Who Treats the Mezuzah Respectfully
We can begin to answer this question by examining the reasons that the gives for the prohibition. First, he expresses the concern that in the case at hand, the noble would ultimately demean or damage the mezuzah. The noble wants the mezuzah only as an amulet for protection, so if he would eventually decide that the mezuzah is ineffective, he would debase it. Furthermore, even if he himself might intend to treat the mezuzah respectfully, it is possible that he would ultimately yield to pressure from his priest who would likely oppose the usage of a Jewish mezuzah.
However, all these are not concerns in our case where the dentist wants the mezuzah out of respect and is doing so with the help of his religious leader. In his responsa, She’elat Yaavetz, Rabbi Yaakov Emden (Germany, 1697–1776) rules that if one knows that the gentile who wants a mezuzah will treat it respectfully, it is permitted to give it to him. He explains that this was Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s justification for sending a mezuzah to Artevan.
In Alei Tamar, a commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Yissachar Tamar lists (Pe’ah) several incidents throughout history in which Jewish leaders chose to gift a gentile leader with a Torah scroll, including sages in Russia who “greeted the Tsar with a Torah scroll and gave it to him as a gift” and Jewish leaders in America who gave President Truman a Torah scroll. Rabbi Tamar relies on Rabbi Emden’s ruling to explain why this was permitted and states that there is a presumption that the gentile leader will treat the Torah scroll respectfully.
Another reason to permit giving the imam a mezuzah for the dentist derives from a different rationale for the prohibition. The mezuzah affirms the oneness of God and would be inappropriate for those who are not monotheistic. Rabbi Yissachar Baer Eilenburg (Responsa Be’er Sheva 36) permits giving a mezuzah to a non-Jew for these reasons, even when refusal to do so would not engender hostility. He analyzes the story in the Jerusalem Talmud and concludes that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was unconcerned about giving Artevan a mezuzah because he knew that the king was not an idolater. In particular, Islam’s belief in the unity of God has been praised by Rabbinical authorities through the ages or as the Rambam writes, “concerning the oneness of God On High, they are without error.”
In keeping with the rulings of Rabbi Emden and Rabbi Eilenburg, I ruled that it is permitted to give the imam a mezuzah for that member of his community. It strikes me that the question has a deeper significance as well: the desire of non-Jews to place God’s name on the entrance to their homes realizes the prophetic vision that all humanity will unite to call God’s name together:
For then I will turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to worship Him of one accord. (Zephaniah 3:9)
The imam who asked me the question is from the Bedouin community in Rahat. After I wrote my response I went to Netivot to put up the mezuzah at the office of the Muslim dentist, Dr. Muhammed. Later that day, the imam called again and told me a story that left me dumbfounded: that morning, his daughter, who lives in the Bedouin settlement of Tel Sheva, had found a piece of parchment with Hebrew calligraphy. She had no idea how the parchment came to be under her door, and specifically on that day. He requested that I explain the writing and tell him the source for it.
When I saw the parchment, I got goosebumps; it was a talisman for protecting a house and its inhabitants, and it contained names of angels and holy names of God. A brief search yielded that it was the exact text of a talisman from the book The Angel Raphael. While we make halakhic rulings on the basis of halakha alone, rather than by seeking or interpreting signs from Heaven, still, I can only see this astonishing story – in which on the very day of the decision to put up a mezuzah, the imam’s daughter found the parchment of protection for a house – as a heavenly blessing upon my ruling.