The beginning of the rainy season—please G-d it should be so—gives us an opportunity to discuss the laws of mezuzah, and specifically the laws of checking one’s mezuzos.
The basic obligation to check one’s mezuzah derives from weather-related factors. As we see, given conditions including rain, humidity, and sun, there is a certainly possibility that a mezuzah will become invalid over time. Due to this concern, and given the fact that even a small smudge can render a mezuzah invalid, there is an obligation to check mezuzos regularly.
In the present article we will discuss the obligation to check one’s mezuzos. How often must the mezuzah be checked? To what extent does the obligation depend on weather conditions? Must a new beracha be recited upon returning the mezuzah to the doorpost after checking? Must the mezuzah be replaced in the interim? These questions, and others, are discussed below.
The Obligation to Check
Based on the Gemara (Yoma 11a), the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 291:1) rules that a private mezuzah must be checked twice every seven years. It is therefore proper practice to check the mezuzah approximately once in three-and-a-half years. The custom in Frankfurt was to check the mezuzos every Adar Sheini of a leap year, which falls seven times every 19 years, to ensure the fulfillment of the obligation.
The Mateh Efraim (581:10) and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (128:3) add that those who are meticulous check their mezuzah once a year, in the month of Elul.
So as not to burden the public (which would discourage people from taking responsibility), for a public building Chazal lowered the bar, and obligated checking the mezuzah only twice in fifty years. This, too, is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch. This halacha refers to a fully public building (belonging to the state or the city), and not to a mere partnership (Pischei Teshuva 3, citing Chasam Sofer 283).
The obligation to check one’s mezuzah applies to all of one’s mezuzos. The Pischei Teshuvah (1) writes explicitly that unlike other cases of checking (such as for certain types of infestation in foods), in checking mezuzos one cannot rely on a sample of one’s mezuzos (checking three and thus assuming that the others are also fine). Rather one must check all the mezuzos in the home.
While most Poskim assume that the halachos above apply even to mezuzos of today, some authorities state that if a mezuzah is kept in a glass tube or wrapped very well with plastic wrap, as many do today, and there is no reason to fear that the mezuzah was stolen, and is not exposed to the elements and does not even touch the wall, the requirement to check regularly no longer applies (see Shulchan Gavoah, Yoreh De’ah 291:1; Halichos Shlomo 1:4; Devar Halachah 52).
By contrast, where the mezuzah is exposed to extreme weather conditions, such as exposure to rain, to sprinklers, to direct sunlight, and so on, one must check the mezuzah more often than the mandatory twice in seven years (Aruch Hashulchan 291:1). This also applies if the doorposts are painted and the mezuzos were not removed (see Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 1:183 who states that one must remove mezuzos prior to painting).
Finally, Teshuvos Maharil (94) writes that in case of misfortune (for an individual or his family), it is proper for a person to check his mezuzos.
Taking Down a Mezuzah
Of course, in order to check a mezuzah it needs to be taken down, and later replaced after checking. For a time, the doorpost is left without a mezuzah on it. Does one need to ensure that he has another mezuzah to place on the doorpost while the mezuzah is being checked? And is a new beracha recited upon replacing the mezuzah?
Checking the mezuzah does not necessarily entail a lengthy procedure. The Chasam Sofer (as cited by the Pischei Teshuvah, loc. cit.) states that the obligation to check mezuzos does not require an expert. Even somebody not expert in writing mezuzos is qualified to check them. The reason for this is that a mezuzah that becomes invalid generally has telltale signs: smudged ink, wet parchment, stains, and the like. However, it is not sufficient to merely scan the mezuzah. Rather each word—and each letter, in fact—must be carefully checked.
If a person only takes down a mezuzah for a short period, to check it and then replace it on the doorpost, he does not have to place a different mezuzah on the doorpost in the interim (Da’as Kedoshim 291:1; Emek Beracha, Mezuzah 11).
Likewise, upon re-placing the (same) mezuzah on the doorpost, no beracha is recited. Although the Pischei Teshuva (289:1) notes a doubt concerning this matter, he compares it to taking off one’s tallis and then putting it back on (though he suggests a distinction), so that for the Ashkenazi community no new beracha is recited. This is also the agreement of most Poskim.
While the process of checking a mezuzah can be short, it is certainly recommended to take mezuzos for checking to an expert, which can take a day, or even several days in some cases. What should be done then concerning keeping a mezuzah on the doorpost, and concerning reciting a beracha?
The beracha question is the easier of the two issues.
When a mezuzah is removed for a significant time—certainly if removed overnight, and even if only for several hours—a new beracha is recited when it is re-placed. This is in keeping with the comparison, as noted above, with taking off one’s tallis: even if a person intends to put the tallis back on, if taken off for several hours a new beracha is required.
Of course, if the existing mezuzah found to be disqualified, and a new mezuzah is needed, a beracha is recited over the new mezuzah even if it is placed immediately. A new mezuzah requires a new beracha. The same applies to a disqualified mezuzah that was fixed, which is also considered a new mezuzah.
The problem of leaving one’s doorpost without a mezuzah is thornier.
A home should not be left without a mezuzah overnight. When a mezuzah is taken down for checking for a significant period of time, the mitzvah of mezuzah obligates a person to find an interim solution.
In fact, the Pri Megadim (cited in Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 285:1) states that it is forbidden to remain in a house or room without a mezuzah. If there is no mezuzah on the door, even temporarily, one must leave the room or house.
In order to remedy the problem, one should buy or borrow a mezuzah to replace the mezuzah being checked. As in the case of a new mezuzah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky has written that a beracha must be recited when affixing even the temporary mezuzah on the doorpost (Mezuzos Beisecha 289:6; see also Kuntres HaMezuzah 289:6). However, others rule that for a temporary mezuzah no beracha should be recited (see Ohalei Yeshurun, p. 22, citing Rav Moshe Feinstein).
An alternative, where hanging a spare mezuzah is not practical, is to renounce ownership of one’s home while the mezuzos are being checked. The idea of this is that a home is only obligated in mezuzah if it belongs to a Jew. If ownership is renounced by making it hefker, it follows that the house is not halachically owned by its Jewish owner, and therefore not obligated in mezuzah. One must realize that by doing so he is runs some risk that someone may actually take possession of his house and beis din would rule that the other person is the true legal owner.
This creative idea is suggested by several halachic authorities (see Mikdash Me’at 285:3; Mezuzos Melachim 285:19) in situations where there was no other solution since the mezuzah fell off on Shabbos or it was noticed that it had been placed incorrectly only a few minutes before Shabbos, and follows a number of other halachic fields where the hefker solution is raised, such as for tzitzis (see Mishnah Berurah 13:15 based on the Gemoro in Shabbos 131 b). For instance, Sefer Tevilas Keilim (p. 84) cites Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach that in extenuating circumstances a person who needs to use utensils that have not been immersed can renounce ownership of them, and then use them without prior immersion.
The hefker solution should be relied upon only in special circumstances (taking the mezuzos down for a short time, or finding replacements), since some authorities find it problematic. One argument is that this hefker is entirely insincere since the person continues to live in the house. Another point is that the hefker cannot work, since the house remains legally in the person’s full ownership.
Somebody who does resort to the solution should renounce ownership in front of three adults (See Rema, Choshen Mishpat 273:5; see also Sema 273:11, and Mishnah Berurah 246:15). Before replacing the mezuzos, the person should perform an act that will enable him to once again become the owner of the house, such as opening and locking the door, since otherwise he may be making a brocho levatolo.
One should be very careful in the mitzvah of mezuzah, and should be careful to check mezozus regularly—certainly for mezuzos in any way exposed to the elements. The Birur Halacha, for instance, takes issue with people who were lax concerning the obligation to check mezuzos, and cites a number of sources condemning those who do not fulfill the obligation.
Some people are wary of leaving homes without the protection of the mezuzah, even for a short period of time. Yet, it is certainly more important to ensure that our mezuzos remain valid. As noted, a person can first check on his own, if he has the ability and the patience to read through the text carefully and meticulously—and provided the mezuzah was valid when first affixed on the doorpost (i.e. certified valid by a trustworthy authority).
Of course, if a person checking his own mezuzos comes across a potential problem, he should consult with an expert sofer to ensure that the mezuzah is fixed, if needed, before replacing it on the doorpost.