Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few weeks back on Unorthodox, host Mark Oppenheimer blithely blathered something about how it was a nice tradition for Jews, when vacating a house, to leave behind the mezuzahs on their doors. Unsurprisingly, he had no idea what he was talking about. As ever with Jewish law and tradition, the truth is much more complicated than most podcast chatter can allow. For although many Jews, when moving out, do in fact leave a mezuzah on the front door—so often that the New York Times devoted a 2010 article to the practice (“In Mezuzas, a Custom Inherited by Gentiles”)—they aren’t really supposed to. Not always, anyway.
“Mark,” wrote super-listener Jeffrey Blustein, of Windsor, New Jersey, with a whiff of intimacy, “you’re going to have to ‘bless up,’ or retract somewhat. It’s my understanding when a Jew moves out, the mezuzahs are to be removed unless another Jew moves in. There’s the Avodah Zarah issues of either the gentile taking the amulet as something to be prayed to, or simply ripping them out in home improvements and improperly disposing the scroll inside.” (Avodah Zarah is, loosely translated, “idol worship”; it’s also an awesome name for a superhero.) “This could be something to cover in another episode.”
Well, maybe not a whole other episode, Jeffrey, but it is worth an Ask Unorthodox column. And so, having been challenged, we set out to respond. First we looked to in-house Tablet rabbinic expert Menachem Butler, who had thoughts (as he always does), but he then passed us on to Rabbi Gil Student, editor of the Orthodox blog TorahMusings.com. And Student schooled us.
“I believe that standard practice is to leave mezuzot if Jews are moving in,” Student said. There’s more (naturally). “But you can insist they pay for them (and remove them if they refuse). Most people just pay it forward, so to speak, rather than negotiating with the incoming tenants.” Which is big of them. But matters get complicated when the next tenants aren’t MOTs. “If gentiles move in, you remove the mezuzot because they might treat the scrolls disrespectfully.” And this comes straight from Talmud, as we can read in this article.
But wait—might not Jews also treat the scrolls disrespectfully? This is 2018, after all, when most Jews wear their ritual ignorance like college sweatshirts. And the answer, according to Student, is yes, they might. “But they are obligated to have mezuzot, so you are helping them with the mitzvah. Anything else they do is their problem, not yours.”