Recently, I found myself in a Judaica shop, picking out a kiddush cup for a family friend’s son who was becoming bar mitzvah. As I searched around, I wanted to find one that both was beautiful and reflected the young man’s personality. Browsing up and down the shelves, there were countless objects, each one artistically designed, speaking out and saying—I am beautiful, and I want to help beautify your rituals!
In reality, one does not need anything more than a paper cup to make kiddush. We only need a stick of cinnamon for havdallah, not a formal spice box. A tallit is constructed out of a four cornered piece of fabric, with tzitzit tied on the corners. I even once used a small branch as a yad for Torah reading, because for my life, I could not find a proper pointer.
Walking around any Judaica store, I am struck by the thoughtfulness, creativity, and beauty that goes into the making of our ritual objects. Judaism is not world-famous for its material culture; yet, our community has constantly created beautiful objects to be used in our most sacred of moments.
The want for this beauty comes out of a concept known as Hiddur Mitzvah, which is the enhancement of a mitzvah (commandment) through aesthetics. We are commanded to affix a mezuzah on the doorpost of our house. Take a small wooden box with the proper small scroll, set it diagonally on the doorpost, and say the blessing—there, we have fulfilled the mitzvah associated with mezuzah. But how does that plain, small box draw our attention to our obligation? Beautify the box, making it interesting and eye-grabbing, and suddenly the mezuzah has transformed into an attention grabber for something that we—as the Jewish community—are supposed to do.
Hiddur Mitzvah, our efforts to beautify the things that we as Jews do, is also made meaningful by memories created around the times those ritual objects are used. My favorite example of this was the tallit that I gave my brother and sister-in-law when they were married. My brother picked it out. It was a large tallit with a blue geometrical pattern that was woven into the stripes along the edges. We incorporated that tallit into their chuppah. It was the canopy under which they were married. And now, my brother wears that tallit each Shabbat. All the more so, we wrapped his daughters up in that tallit when I performed their baby namings, welcoming them into our community as daughters of the Covenant. We have charged that tallit with great power. The mitzvah that is fulfilled each time my brother puts it on is beautified by the memories of these various moments and the anticipation of other meaningful moments.
I am confident that I am not alone in the practice of placing meaning on family heirlooms, along with the want to beautify the rituals that we perform in the contexts of our families and our community. When we embrace and practice Hiddur Mitzvah, we bring light and life further into the commandments and rituals, the meaningful moments of our Jewish experiences.
Bringing light into our community is something that Anita Winer z’’l was dedicated to. She understood the power of aesthetics in our tradition. That is why I am so proud of what our congregation has done to keep Anita’s memory and blessing alive through the Open Your Eyes fund and the Shine a Light initiative.
Beginning last month, and going well into 5775, our congregation will have the opportunity to engage, learn, connect, and create in different ways, all designed to lift up the beauty of our tradition, through the context of visual and performing arts. We hope that this initiative will involve everyone within the congregation in some way or another.
The beauty of our tradition—through the glow of Channukah candles or the light that shines through a stained glass window—has the power to enhance our relationship to Jewish life. Hiddur Mitzvah calls us to consider what we do as Jews, and how we work to make it meaningful and special. I hope you will join in one of the many opportunities over the next months to bring beauty to our tradition.