For the week ending 22 December 2007 / 13 Tevet 5768

New House on the Prairie

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Susan in Akron, OH
Dear Rabbi,

I will be moving into a new house in the near future. Is there any special dedication service for such an occasion?

Dear Susan,

Congratulations on your upcoming move. May you have a “yishuv tov” – meaning may your dwelling be good.

There is definitely an idea and practice of inaugurating a new dwelling.

First and foremost, several places in the Torah and Scriptures describe and emphasize the great significance and joy accompanying the dedication of the House of G-d. For example:

Regarding the Tabernacle in the desert, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Take Aaron and his sons with him and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the sin offering bull, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread...And assemble the entire community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.... And Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting. Then they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces” (Lev. Ch. 8,9).

Regarding the Temple in Jerusalem, “And when Solomon finished praying, and the fire descended from heaven and consumed the burnt offerings and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the House...And all the Children of Israel saw the descent of the fire, and the glory of the Lord on the House, and they kneeled on their faces to the ground on the floor, and they prostrated themselves and said: Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His loving-kindness is eternal.... Now Solomon observed the Feast at that time seven days, and all Israel with him, a very great assemblage...rejoicing and delighted of heart for all the goodness that the Lord had wrought for David, for Solomon, and for Israel His people (II Chronicles 7)”.

Yet, the significance of dedicating a new dwelling is not limited to the House of G-d. The Torah includes one who has built a new house among those who are exempt from military service (such as newlyweds): “When you go out to war against your enemies...the officers shall speak to the people, saying, What man is there who has built a new house and has not yet inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man inaugurate it” (Deut. 20). Such an inauguration is even more relevant when one views his home as a mini-sanctuary for G-d.

Even a house which is not newly built but which one has newly moved into also needs “inaugurating”. Regarding the Israelites’ pending entrance into the Land of Israel, G-d commanded that any house whose walls became plagued with a condition called “tzara’at” must be dissembled and rebuilt. Eventually the Canaanite-built houses that they occupied became plagued and the walls had to be dismantled.

The question is, after blessing the Jews with the Land, its planted fields and built houses, why did G-d cause the houses to become plagued and torn down? Rashi (Lev. 14:34) explains that the Canaanites, fearing the Israelite’s invasion, hid their wealth in the walls. The plague and consequent deconstruction revealed an extra goldmine of wealth in addition to the Land, fields and houses.

However, it would seem that this is not the only reason for the plague, since G-d’s favor toward that generation would not have been expressed as such a blessing in disguise. Rather, there was literally more going on beneath the surface. The Zohar (3:50a) notes that when the idolaters built their houses, each stone was placed in the name and in honor of their gods. Desiring to eradicate idolatry from the Land, G-d plagued the houses so that their deconstruction would purge the idolatrous impurity. When the Jews then rebuilt their houses, they instead dedicated them in the service of, and as an abode for, G-d.

This is the spirit behind our dedication of a house, whether one has built it, bought it or is even just renting it. Regardless of who the previous inhabitants were, we inaugurate our use of the house by purging it of spiritual impurities through expressing our thanks to G-d for giving us the resources to obtain a place to live, while simultaneously affirming our dedication to use our home as an instrument for doing His will. In this way, our dwelling truly becomes an abode for G-d.

The most conspicuous and well-known “service” associated with the dedication of a house is the affixing of a mezuzah in all of the appropriate doorways in the house. This a Torah commandment whose relevant verses are actually written on the parchments rolled in the elongated boxes attached to the doorway. [Some mistakenly call the box the “mezuzah” thinking it is the mitzvah, but the mezuzah is really the parchment inside, which, if not prepared and written according to strict specifications, disqualifies the mitzvah].

Another less known service, practiced mainly (but not exclusively) by Sefardi Jews is called “Chanukat HaBayit” – dedication/inauguration of a house. It was compiled by Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulay (the Chida) and is comprised of excerpts from the Mishna, Gemara, Zohar and Rambam’s Mishna Torah. It is recited in a minyan concluded by Kaddish and followed by a meal peppered with words of Torah and songs of thanks and praise to G-d.

  • The detailed texts and order of the Chida’s “Chanukat Habayit” are as follows: the complete mishnayot of Berachot, Yom Tov (Beitza) and Tamid (whose first letters beit, yud, tav spell “bayit” or house, and whose total number of chapters equals 21 which is the numerical equivalent of one of G-d’s names - alef,heh,yud,hey); Zohar 3:50a; Gemara Baba Matzia 107a; Rambam’s Hilchot De'ot 5:11-13 and Hilchot Beit HaBachira 1:1-20. These sections are often divided among the participants and read simultaneously by each so as to shorten the service while still having the whole session learned in the presence of a minyan.

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