Mezuzahs: Jewish declarations of devotion enter the realm of collectibles

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

Early Israeli folk art mezuzah on velvet mounting with ornate gilded body, engraved “israel 1948” at base, 6.2” long, 1948. Courtesy Greenstein and Company, Inc., https://jgreenstein.com

Early Israeli folk art mezuzah on velvet mounting with ornate gilded body, engraved “israel 1948” at base, 6.2” long, 1948.
Courtesy Greenstein and Company, Inc., https://jgreenstein.com

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

Mezuzah created from Polish WWII-plundered niche at Warszawa, Ul. Walicow 14, “Mezuzah from This Home” series, bronze, 4 1/3” long, available at Mi Polin, https://mipolin.pl.

Mezuzah created from Polish WWII-plundered niche at Warszawa, Ul. Walicow 14, “Mezuzah from This Home” series, bronze, 4 1/3” long, available at Mi Polin, https://mipolin.pl.

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

Israeli sterling silver mezuzah, circa 1950, 2.55” long, realized $345 including buyer’s premium. Courtesy Tiroche Auction House, www.tiroche.co.il

Israeli sterling silver mezuzah, circa 1950, 2.55” long, realized $345 including buyer’s premium.
Courtesy Tiroche Auction House, www.tiroche.co.il

These mezuzahs begin at under $100 each, but rise considerably, depending on their material, size, uniqueness, intricacy, and beauty. For instance, a 1920 one, featuring silver filigree crown and body, realized $625 in May 2018 and an exceptionally delicate 1915 creation, acid etched with organic and flowing designs, applied beading, finely spun wire work, and a central plaque depicting Queen Esther before King Ahasuerus, realized $8,750 at a J. Greenstein and Company, Inc. auction in May 2018.

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.

Scores are available online and at synagogue-affiliated Judaica shops (often with the option of purchasing ritually acceptable parchment scrolls). Prices vary. Perennial favorites, like wooden or laser-cut metal mezuzahs by Israeli Judaica artist Yair Emanuel, which bear pleasing hand-painted views of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, or Biblical symbols like grapes, figs, olives, and pomegranates, generally run less than $20 each. Small, slim stainless steel, glass, olive wood, Lucite, ceramic, or aluminum tubes or rectangles bearing simply the letter shin, run between $20 and $100, dependent on their size.

Novelty mezuzahs engage the young

Richly designed silver mezuzah including parchment, 8.46” long, circa 1900, possibly Continental, realized $1,093 including buyer’s premium. Courtesy Tiroche Auction House, www.tiroche.co.il

Richly designed silver mezuzah including parchment, 8.46” long, circa 1900, possibly Continental, realized $1,093 including buyer’s premium.
Courtesy Tiroche Auction House, www.tiroche.co.il

Novelty mezuzahs, designed for the young and the young-at-heart, also abound. Polymer or hand painted brass or pewter basketball, butterfly, ballet slipper, Big Bird, Batman, and Sleeping Beauty-themed ones, for instance, are sure to please. So are pewter or enamel Tree of Life mezuzahs for genealogists, deep-sea ones for divers, and attorney ones, adorned with tiny gavel and scales of justice. Most cost under $50.

On the other hand, sterling silver filigree mezuzahs, or those featuring minutely engraved Hebrew prayers or blessings, easily top $100. Those worked in natural Jerusalem stone (a yellowish limestone common around Jerusalem), depending on their intricacy, may cost many times more.

Twentieth century vintage mezuzahs, often available at auction, however, may be far more interesting. Recently, a shimmering, rainbowed Yaakov Agam mezuzah in sterling silver and Perspex realized $129 and a delicate, enameled cloisonné example topped $300.

The exquisitely detailed masterpieces by Ilya Schor, which embody the folk culture and imagery of small Jewish towns of Eastern Europe, however, are the most collectible of all. They generally command between $10,000 and $50,000 each.

Mezuzahs with contemporary designs

Metal mezuzah with embroidery, contemporary, 6 3/4” long. Courtesy Judaica artist-Yair Emanuel, www.emanuel-judaica-israel.com

Metal mezuzah with embroidery, contemporary, 6 3/4” long.
Courtesy Judaica artist-Yair Emanuel, www.emanuel-judaica-israel.com

Exclusive contemporary signed mezuzahs, which are available from private studios and select Jewish museum shops, are the most exciting of all. Some, like the navy blue, gold accented Kate Spade Oak Street Mezuzah, are up-to-the-minute beauties. Others, like Henryk Winograd’s tiny silver portrayal of a Ten Commandments tablet guarded by a ramping lion amid floral arabesques, or Shuki Freiman’s gold- and silver-crowned, engraved confection, embellished with rubies and sapphires, evoke historic pieces. Mi Polin’s “Mezuzahs From This Home” series, which feature rough, bronze imprints painstakingly cast from documented Polish WWII-plundered doorpost niches, honor the past far more poignantly.

Elegantly textured nickel, aluminum, and pewter minimalist mezuzahs portend the future. However, Laura Cowan’s sleek, rocket-shaped, patinated copper, pewter, and sterling silver pieces, inspired by space travel, are out of this world. Literally. In 2008, Jewish astronaut Greg Chamitoff carried versions of her Shuttle and Apollo models on the 17th Expedition to the International Space Station, hundreds of miles above the earth. 

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