Mezuzahs: Jewish declarations of devotion enter the realm of collectibles

Fine antique Mezuzah detail

Mezuzahs are small, hollow, narrow cases that Jews, since ancient times, have affixed to the entranceways and door frames of their homes. Each contains an identical, tiny, handwritten parchment scroll inscribed with Biblical passages which not only confirm the essentials of Judaism, but also, some believe, symbolically guard against evil. Because these scrolls are meticulously hand written by learned scribes, they are often costlier than mezuzah (sing.) cases themselves. Many purchase mezuzahs with handwritten scrolls intact, or alternatively, purchase hollow ones, then seek scrolls. Others are charmed less by their religious significance than by their beauty and diversity.

Mezuzahs through history

The earliest mezuzahs, which were affixed to city gates and outer doors, may have been purely functional and unadorned. By the 17th century, however, their small, rectangular shapes, rather than limiting artistic expression, inspired creations in a wide variety of materials and designs.

Jews of Eastern Europe, home to great forests, for example, often carved mezuzahs from wood. From illustrations and museum holdings, we know that hand wrought copper, pewter, bronze, brass, and silver ones were also common. Though so small, many of these works of art were resplendent with painted, engraved, or hand-chased images of palmettos, views of Jerusalem, trees of life, ramping lions, decorative columns, arks, crowns, or Stars of David. Others featured graceful arabesques or openwork echoing popular paper cuts. Most also bore the decorative Hebrew letter shin (ש, the first letter of the Hebrew word ‘Almighty’).

Before World War II, the doorposts of most Jewish homes across Europe bore mezuzahs. A few, hidden away or spirited to safety, find their way today to Jewish museums, private collections, or exclusive auction houses. Most, however, leave behind only traces of their existence — gutted doorpost grooves or niches.

Mezuzahs survive

Indeed, most early 20th century mezuzahs reaching the market hail from lands more hospitable to Jews. These include embroidered and pierced silver ones from Northern Africa, brass cylinders from India, silver repoussé from Russia, as well as brass, pre-state Israeli mezuzahs shaped like oil jugs.

In addition, pre-state Israeli artists, influenced by the Arts & Crafts Movement and growing nationalism, designed and created very collectible ‘Bezalel’ olivewood and sterling silver mezuzahs. Their distinctive “Hebrew” designs typically feature camels, palm trees, Stars of David, Biblical images, menorahs, stylized scenes of Jerusalem, ornamental Middle Eastern arabesques, or motifs based on ancient mosaics. Delicate, finely worked silver filigree mezuzahs, a time-honored specialty of Yemenite immigrant craftsmen, also date from this era.

Collectible value of mezuzahs

These mezuzahs begin at $200 each, but rise considerably, depending on their material, rarely, age, size, uniqueness, intricacy, and beauty. Today, mezuzahs are popular not only among observant Jews, who affix them to inner doors as well as entranceways, but also among collectors. In response, contemporary Judaica artists, inspired by traditional designs, modern materials, and innovative techniques, create mezuzahs in myriad styles and sizes.

Novelty mezuzahs engage the young

Twentieth century vintage mezuzahs, available at Menorah Galleries, are collectible and interesting. For example, shimmering, rainbowed Yaakov Agam mezuzah in sterling silver and Glass. Another great examle is the exquisitely detailed masterpieces by Ilya Schor, which embody the folk culture and imagery of small Jewish towns of Eastern Europe.


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