Would a mezuzah be an appropriate gift for a Catholic baby?

July 1, 2010

Question: A close friend who is a Catholic has just given birth to a baby girl. I want to give the child a gift that would be symbolic of my tradition, and a mezuzah would be an ideal blessing of the new baby’s room. Would this be appropriate?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

V A tale in the Jerusalem Talmud implies that it is permitted to give a mezuzah as a gift to a gentile. The Talmud tells of the Parthian ruler Ardaven (Artabanus IV), who sent a priceless gem to Rabbi Judah Hanasi with the request that the rabbi reciprocate by returning a similarly priceless gift. In return the rabbi sent a mezuzah (Peah 1:1).
The question of giving a mezuzah to a gentile occurs again in the halachic literature of the Middle Ages. Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Moelin discusses a case where a gentile ruler requested a mezuzah to affix to his fortress and Rabbi Jacob’s own rabbi refused to sanction this.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles upholds this ruling in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch but he adds that, in a circumstance where refusal to concede to the gentile’s request is likely to cause animosity, it would be permissible to surrender a mezuzah.
In a lengthy responsum, Rabbi Issachar Dov Eilenberg explores these various strands. His argues that even if we could establish that the gentile in question would treat the mezuzah with respect, there is still the concern that he might relate to it as a charm to bring good luck as opposed to the sacred ritual object it really is. His conclusion, therefore, is to avoid giving it as a gift to a gentile unless circumstances are such that one’s refusal would cause ill will.
Based on this, I would discourage you from giving your Catholic friend a mezuzah. Not because she won’t treat it with respect, as I am sure she will, but because the mezuzah is so much more than just a cultural Jewish object. It is a sacred symbol of our particular relationship with God. By extending this sacred symbol to those who don’t share our faith is, in a way, to deprive the symbol of its true meaning. It would not be dissimilar to your Catholic friend giving your child a crucifix as a gift.
Putting aside how you, as a Jewish parent, might feel about your child wearing this symbol, think about it from the perspective of a believing Christian. When a sacred symbol is worn by someone who manifestly rejects its substance the symbol itself is compromised.
Consider giving something that isn’t a ritual or sacred object such as Jewish artwork, books or music. At least from the baby’s perspective these are far more interesting than a mezuzah!

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

V Some people may find this a strange question, but it is fascinating because it reflects two modern realities that would have been impossible for many previous generations to envisage.
First, that Jews and Catholics today can be close friends, whereas in former centuries the latter were burning us at the stake. Even up to 50 years ago, the Church was teaching that all Jews were enemies of God and were doomed to damnation.
Second, that you have no doubt in your mind that your friend would be delighted by a Jewish ritual object and regard it with pleasure rather than suspicion. Once it would have been taken as a danger to the house or an attempt at conversion. We should appreciate the times in which we live, so changed from the past.
As for the mezuzah, it is clearly intended by Deuteronomy 6.9 as a command for Jews to observe, with the intention that it acts as a reminder of the commandments and a mark of identity. It means that a mezuzah is obligatory for Jews and has a practical purpose to it. It is not incumbent on non-Jews, but neither is it forbidden to them. So is there any objection to them having one ?
Obviously, it would be wrong if non-Jews wanted to obtain a mezuzah to mock it or damage it. It would also be inappropriate if it were used as a good luck charm or pretty decoration, thus reducing its significance to a trinket.
It was for this reason that the Jews of Salzburg in the 14th century refused the local bishop’s request for one to be put on his castle gate, because he thought that it would help him ward off evil spirits.
However, if you were to give a mezuzah to your friend on the basis that this was an important religious symbol which carried meaning for you and which you wanted to share with her as a token of friendship, then, providing she was happy to receive such a gift, I cannot see an objection.
It may be that it would be better if it was not put up on the door — which would be an active sign of religious commitment and imply that this was a Jewish house — but was put in a presentation case, so that it could be displayed on a shelf as an object of value in an age of interfaith harmony.

Last updated: 11:26am, July 1 2010