When the grandmother of the Bat Mitzvah was wheeled to the door of the sanctuary in her wheelchair, she wanted to kiss the mezuzah. She was so overjoyed at the occasion, she wanted to show her gratitude in that moment by reaching up, touching the mezuzah, and bringing her fingers to her lips. But the traditional mezuzah was well beyond her reach affixed in its traditional spot, one third from the top of the doorway.
A mezuzah is a small, usually decorative box that has a rolled-up piece of parchment inside. On the parchment are the words of belief in one God, Shema Yisrael, and included are the instructions: You shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:8-9) The purpose of the mezuzah is to be a reminder that a dwelling place is a miniature sanctuary and a home for holiness. When you cross the threshold, remember God is everywhere, including right here.
Traditionally, the mezuzah must be hung on the upper third of the doorpost. This is, according to Rabbi Yosi in the Talmud, because the mezuzah is like tefillin, the “sign on your hand.” Just as the hand-tefillin is worn on the upper arm near the heart, so the mezuzah should be on the upper part of the door. It also must be placed near the outside of a deep doorway so that “so that people might encounter [Heb. vayifga] the mezuzah immediately” (Menachot 33a-b). This became Jewish law.
The Talmud’s words allude to a story in the Torah. When Jacob arrives at Beit El (“the House of God”), we read, vayifga hamakom - “he encountered the place” (Genesis 28:11). When Jacob has a vision of a ladder and angels connecting heaven and earth and exclaims, “How awe-inspiring this place is! Certainly, this is the house of God and the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:17). The lesson here is: When you come into a home, you should be like Jacob, seeing this place as a house of God.
But what happens if you cannot “encounter” the mezuzah because it is way above your head, out of your natural sight-line and out of reach? How do we enable a person who uses a wheelchair to show their reverence and gratitude by kissing the mezuzah and show their feelings like Jacob?
In many synagogues, the custom has become to place a second mezuzah lower down in addition to the traditional one. This innovation enables all of us to “encounter” the place.
There is a precedent for this modification. Rabbi Avraham ben David (1125-1198 C.E., France, called “the Rava’ad”) commented that for very tall doorways, such as a grand archway, one puts the mezuzah at shoulder height (Siftei Cohen 289:4). Rather than measure from the lintel, one measures from the person. In addition, in preschools, a second, lower mezuzah is now often found for educational purposes, to get the children used to seeing a mezuzah by having it catch their eye at the appropriate height as they enter their classroom.
Being inclusive of people with disabilities and people at all heights is part of how we create holy space and are worthy of the awe that Jacob felt. Isaiah taught us, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:7). “All people” means all of us together. Then we not only encounter God in our physical places but also in the divine image in each other.