Rashi vs. Rabbeinu Tam
There are two manners in which to interpret the Gemara’s statement (Menachot 33a) that mezuzot may not be placed “in the manner of carpenters.” Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. Avida) explains that this forbids placing mezuzot horizontally, while Rabbenu Tam (cited in Tosafot ad. loc. s.v. Ha) believes that it forbids placing them vertically. Whereas the non-Moroccan Sephardic tradition employs Rashi’s vertical orientation (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 289:6 and Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 285:5), Ashkenazic and most Moroccan Jews (as noted by Rav Mordechai Lebhar in his Magen Avot), following the recommendation of the Tur (Yoreh De’ah 289), customarily attempt to compromise between the two opinions, placing their mezuzot on a slant (see Rama ad. loc.).
Chacham Yitzhak Yosef’s Ruling
How should roommates of different Jewish backgrounds place the mezuzah in their shared living space? Chacham Yitzhak Yosef rules (this ruling is published in “Mi’Mizrach Umi’Maarav” by Rav Yonatan Nacshon) rules that even if there is only one Sephardic Jew in the group, the mezuzot should be affixed vertically without a slant. His reason presumably is that the vertical placement is acceptable even to Ashkenazic Jews, but the slanted approach is not acceptable for Sephardic Jews. Evidence that the vertical placement is acceptable for Ashkenazim is the fact that the Rama writes that “those who are particular” (medakdekin) place their mezuzot on a slant. This indicates that the Rama fundamentally accepts the ruling of Rashi that the mezuzah should be placed in a vertical position.
The Vilna Gaon, in fact, explicitly states that Ashkenazic Jews fundamentally accept Rashi’s approach (Bi’ur HaGra Yoreh De’ah 289:14). It is for this reason that Ashkenazic Jews place their mezuzot vertically in a situation where there is insufficient room on the doorway to place the mezuzah on a slant, as noted by the Pitchei Teshuva (289:14).
Most interestingly, I witnessed Rav Yosef’s ruling in practice. My family had the privilege of renting the bottom apartment located at 36 Jabotinsky Street in the Talbiyah/Komemiyut section of Yerushalayim in August 2012. I was delighted to learn while there that Rav Ovadia Yosef and his family resided in the apartment just above the apartment we rented. I distinctly recall the mezuzah for the common area etched in the wall in a vertical position. The Talbiyah/Komemiyut area in general and the specific building is predominantly Ashkenazic. Nonetheless, the mezuzah for the common area was placed vertically in accordance with the ruling of Rashi and the Shulchan Aruch! Thus, I am a witness that Rav Yitzhak Yosef seems to have adopted his ruling from his father’s practice in their home at 36 Jabotinsky.
An Alternative to Chacham Yitzhak’s Ruling
Nonetheless, there is room to disagree with this ruling. One may easily argue that it is acceptable for Sephardic Jews to place the mezuzah on a slant. The Vilna Gaon (ad. loc.) notes that logic of placing the mezuzah on a slant is that it satisfies both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion. Indeed, Rashi objects to the mezuzah being on its side and Rabbeinu Tam objects to its being upright. Thus, placing the mezuzah on its side avoids the objections of both approaches.
Indeed, this is the basis, as noted by Rav Lebhar, for Moroccan Jews to follow Rama’s recommendation. Had they understood that the Shulchan Aruch objects to having a mezuzah on a slant they would not follow the Rama’s recommendation.
If this is the case, then the identity of the majority of the roommates should determine the position of the mezuzah. This is similar to a ruling of the Chatam Sofer (Teshuvot Chatam Sofer Choshen Mishpat 188, in the addendum). The Chatam Sofer was approached by members of a town where two kehillot (communities), one Sephardic and one Ashkenazic, had formerly functioned. However, a pogrom had caused most of the Jews to leave, and since the remaining populace could not sustain two separate minyanim, the two groups now had to combine into one functioning synagogue. The Chatam Sofer ruled that they should choose which of the two synagogues would continue to function based on the identity of the majority of the remaining Jewish residents, and then all follow the minhagim of that synagogue. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 6 Orach Chaim 10) cites numerous authorities who concur with the Chatam Sofer’s ruling.
Conclusion: Rav Mordechai Willig: Shalom Bayit
However, the language of the Shulchan Aruch “it must be placed vertically” would seem to support Chacham Yitzhak’s understanding that the Shulchan Aruch requires the mezuzah to be specifically placed vertically. This would explain why non-Moroccan Sephardic Jews specifically place their mezuzot vertically. Thus, our question is a difficult one to resolve.
I posed this question to Rav Mordechai Willig, who wisely responded that whichever way one resolves this issue it should be done in a manner that maintains shalom bayit, peace and harmony among the roommates. With good will on the part of all the roommates and consultation with a mutually trusted rav, the issue can and should be resolved to the satisfaction of all the roommates.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.