Q. I read that the Israeli chief rabbinate recently issued a ruling stating that mezuzot must be placed on doors of a yacht. Where else is a mezuzah required and why?
The criterion is whether a particular place is a dirah – a dwelling. If the area is about 8 square feet and one eats there, it needs a mezuzah.
A new dimension to the law emerged recently. The Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel ruled that a yacht in the Tel Aviv marina needed mezuzot on the doors if people were going to be on board for long enough to make it their dwelling place during this time. The same would obviously apply to ocean-going liners and cruise ships with Jewish crew members and/or passengers.
It would be different if all you were doing was crossing a river in a canoe, crossing a harbour on a ferry or something similar, because there is no element of “dwelling” involved. Maimonides (Hil’chot M’zuzah 6:9) even applies this exemption to a sukkah, even though the Torah specifies, Basukkot tesh’vu shiv’at yamim – “you shall dwell in sukkot for seven days” (Lev. 23:42).
For an additional reason, an elevator does not need a mezuzah (though some authorities take a different view) because it is constantly on the go and has no permanent lateral location; however, though a yacht or cruise ship also moves, people do use its facilities like their home.
Let us ask why a mezuzah is important at all. It is a mark of Jewish identity; a way for the residents of the place to express their Jewishness, like the Hebrews in ancient Egypt who placed blood on their doorposts (Ex. 12:7): but it is far more than a mere token of who one is.
It also symbolises a commitment. Like the prophet Jonah who said, “I am a Hebrew and I fear the Lord” (Jonah 1:9), the message of the mezuzah is, “I am Jewish, and my home is dedicated to Jewish belief, practice and principles”.
It is one of a group of outward signs that symbolise inner commitment. Other examples are circumcision (on the body) and tzitzit (on the clothes). Taken together, they show an individual’s and family’s dedication of their world to the word of God. The mezuzah bears the Hebrew letters shin-dalet-yod, short for Shaddai – “The Almighty”; this – according to the sages – indicates that God specially protects the people who keep His commandments.
Hopefully the Chief Rabbi’s ruling will help to ensure Divine protection for people who sail the seas. It also applies the teaching of the Shema, which tells us to remember God’s word wherever we go.
The Biblical wording speaks of “when you walk by the way”; these days walking by the way must certainly include flying in the air and sailing the seas.