Talmud pages

Bava Metzia 102

Leave the mezuzah.

Today, one of the most important ways of marking a Jewish home is affixing a mezuzah on the doorposts. We know from both the Mishnah and the writings of the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, Egypt, that mezuzah was a central ritual practice for Jews in antiquity as well.  

Both Philo and the rabbis lived in multi-religious societies: Alexandria was home to worshippers of ancient Egyptian gods, followers of traditional Roman religion and, of course, Jews. Similarly, the rabbis of the Galilee lived alongside Christians and worshippers of Roman gods. As Elizabeth Shanks Alexander has argued, the mitzvah of mezuzah, therefore, wasn’t just a way of following God’s law — it was also a way to visibly mark a home as Jewish, and as a space where Judaism matters — for both other Jews and everyone else.

But just because a space is currently Jewish doesn’t mean that it will remain so. After all, people move. It’s that reality which today’s daf addresses: 

The sages taught in a beraita: If one rents out a house to another, putting up a mezuzah is the job of the renter. 

The mitzvah of mezuzah is incumbent upon the person living in the house, not the owner. That means it’s on the inhabitants to write (or buy) a mezuzah and hang it correctly. But just because the inhabitants have to pay for the mezuzah and hang it themselves doesn’t mean that they get to keep it:

And when he leaves, he may not take it in his hand and leaveBut from a gentile, he may take it in his hand and leaveThere was an incident in which a renter took his mezuzah and left, and he buried his wife and two sons.

If the owner is a Jew, the renter is required to leave the mezuzah in place when they leave. But if the owner is a non-Jew, the renter can take their mezuzah with them. It seems that keeping the mezuzah in place is more important than worrying about who paid for it, and the story of the renter who took his mezuzah and consequently lost his wife and sons chillingly emphasizes the enormous stakes of this rule. But it also raises a question: 

Is the incident cited to contradict (the last statement about taking the mezuzah from a home owned by a non-Jew)? Rav Sheshet said: It relates to the first clause (where the home is owned by a Jewish landlord).

Taking a mezuzah from a Jewish person’s home — even if it belongs to you — puts your immediate family at dire risk. But, Rav Sheshet reassures us, removing it from the home of a non-Jew is not a problem.

The Talmud doesn’t explain the reasons for the ruling, but commentators try to explain the rabbis’ thinking. Tosafot explains that one is forbidden to take down the mezuzah from a Jewish-owned home because demons will enter into a Jewish home without a mezuzah and live there, ultimately causing harm to its new inhabitants. According to Tosafot’s logic, demons don’t like to live in homes owned by non-Jews. 

It’s worth noting that a mezuzah scroll handwritten by a qualified scribe on animal parchment is not cheap, and that’s before you factor in the cost of an elegant case. If your home has more than one doorway, the price of fully outfitting it with mezuzot can be prohibitive. So a real consequence of this rule is that it is cheaper to rent from non-Jews than from Jews and therefore Jews are financially incentivized to rent outside their own community. Some later commentators address the financial problem by insisting that renters are required to leave their mezuzot in a Jewish-owned home but can demand compensation for the cost. Ultimately, if you’re in the process of moving and want to know the current Jewish legal position on whether you can take your mezuzot, it’s best to ask your local rabbi.

But whether today’s beraita is still in force or not, it offers us important insight into the dynamism of the rabbinic world where Jews and non-Jews lived next to each other and moved in and out of each other’s properties. Amidst that dynamism, the ritual of mezuzah defined certain spaces as distinctly Jewish, at least for a while.

Read all of Bava Metzia 102 on Sefaria

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 9, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Gittin 88

Forced divorce.

Gittin 87

Bilingual get.

Kiddushin 68

The limits of kiddushin.