Beautiful ritual objects enhance holiday celebration.
This article is excerpted from “Hiddur Mitzvah: The Aesthetics of Mitzvot.” It is reprinted with permission from Gates of the Season: A Guide to the Jewish Year (Central Conference of American Rabbis).
The sources delineate the minimum requirements of the mitzvot [commandments]. A sukkah must have certain dimensions and must be constructed in a particular manner. The cup for Kiddush must be large enough to hold a specified minimum amount of wine. While some may be satisfied with minimum standards, the Jewish tradition recognizes and encourages the addition of an aesthetic dimension.
Beauty enhances the mitzvot by appealing to the senses. Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension. The principle of enhancing a mitzvah through aesthetics is called Hiddur Mitzvah.
The concept of Hiddur Mitzvahis derived from Rabbi Ishmael's comment on the verse, "This is my God and I will glorify Him" (Exodus 15:2):
"Is it possible for a human being to add glory to his Creator? What this really means is: I shall glorify Him in the way I perform mitzvot. I shall prepare before Him a beautiful lulav, beautiful sukkah, beautiful fringes (Tsitsit), and beautiful phylacteries (Tefilin)." [Midrash Mechilta, Shirata, chapter 3, ed. Lauterbach, p. 25.]
The Talmud [Shabbat 133b] adds to this list a beautiful Shofarand a beautiful Torah scroll which has been written by a skilled scribe with fine ink and fine pen and wrapped in beautiful silks.
"In keeping with the principle of Hiddur Mitzvah,"Rabbi Zera taught [Bava Kama 9b], "one should be willing to pay even one third more [than the normal price]." Jewish folklore is replete with stories about Jews of modest circumstances paying more than they could afford for the most beautiful etrog to enhance their observance of Sukkot, or for the most delectable foods to enhance their observance of Shabbat.
A silver apple-and-honey dish by Israeli artist Yaakov Greenvurcel.
Photo used with permission.
The Midrash suggests that not only are mitzvotenhanced by an aesthetic dimension but so is the Jew who observes it: "You are beautiful, my love, you are beautiful, through mitzvot . . . beautiful through mitzvot,beautiful through deeds of loving kindness, . . . through prayer, through reciting the "Shema," through the mezuzah, through phylacteries, through Sukkah and lulav and etrog…” [Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 1.15].