July 24, 2019
The concept of hiddur mitzvah comes to us through Talmudic commentary in the verse, “This is my G-d and I will glorify G-d” (Exod. 15:2). But how do we glorify a Being from whom all glory is said to stem? On this, the Talmud teaches that we can strive to glorify G-d through the way mitzvot are performed, through the beautification of ritual acts.
Hiddur means “to make beautiful.” Mitzvah literally means “commandment,” but is also colloquially understood as a good dead. Hiddur mitzvah, then, is usually understood as the commandment to make our mitzvot as beautiful (typically physically) as possible, whether that be through an intricate ketubah or a hand-embroidered tallit.
However, that is only one lens through which we can view this commandment. The Hebrew root of “I will glorify G-d” [anveihu] can be understood as either nah’eh, meaning “handsome” or “pleasing,” or nah’veh, meaning “dwelling place” or “home.” Looking at hiddur mitzvah through these lenses, we are invited to explore an alternate understanding than what we may think of as creating beauty: it calls on us to create a home for the Divine presence through our actions. The most beautiful way we can fulfill mitzvot is to make within us a dwelling place for the source of all beauty.
But then, what do we mean by beauty? Aesthetics are far from universal: What is deemed beautiful by one person could repel another. “Outer beauty” is highly subjective, determined by context, timing, and personal experience; but as for “inner beauty,” the concept is much deeper. Inner beauty is the divine spark in all things, which can never be dimmed or diminished. Human beings are imbued with this spark, and this is what drives us toward beauty, to have physical representations of the innermost parts of ourselves. In that way, we strive to find our likenesses in the world and places in which those likenesses reside.
The Hebrew root of hiddur connects it to Hod, the Kabbalistic sefirah which represents splendor, beauty, and glory. On the topic of Hod, Rabbi Arthur Green writes, “Beauty lies in that which is, if only we open our inner eye to behold it” (from Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, Jewish Lights, 2002). To accept any kind of beauty into our lives, and that includes physical beauty, we must first be willing to live with our hearts and eyes open to what surrounds us. This is where our knowledge of “inner beauty” becomes key; when we hold the idea of the divine spark at our centers, we can allow ourselves and our actions to be guided toward a beauty that reaches deep into our souls. A hand-painted silk tallit or a shining pair of sterling silver candlesticks are only as beautiful as the intention the person using them brings to their actions and practice.
It can be very easy to let ourselves become lost to going through the motions of life, of doing things because we care about how they look rather than how they feel—and this is just as true in our spiritual lives as it is in our personal, interpersonal, and professional lives. In fact, not only is it easy, it is often encouraged—the faster we move, the more we can get done. But Jewish tradition calls on us to ask questions, to show up and engage in our actions as fully as we can. Like Moses, we are called to say hineini, “here I am,” to embody that which lives within us so deeply.
In prayer, in meditation, one way that we can tap into the true intentions of our actions is to slow down. To pause and ask ourselves: what is most important to us? Is it love, gratitude, connection? Recognition, power, respect? The Jewish art of asking questions is sacred. When we have answered the question of what matters to us, we can then ask if those things are being reflected by our spiritual practices, and if they are not, it is our duty to reflect on why that is and how we can get to a place of acting with intention.
The beautification of mitzvot refers not just to physical beauty—it speaks to the beauty of spirit we bring to our rituals. Ritual acts are a kind of relationship, between ourselves, between us and our ancestors, between us and the Divine, and the more we open ourselves to those relationships, the more we can notice and appreciate the beauty in and around us. Physical beauty, in our candlesticks and our menorahs, does not replace the intentionality that generates meaningful connection and inner beauty, but it can be a spark that reminds us to appreciate the beauty in our traditions.
Whether you are lighting the candles for Shabbat, lifting spices to celebrate the havdalah ritual, or preparing to wrap yourself in a tallit, there is merit and worth in taking a moment to reflect on the beauty of the moment. Breathe in: set your intention. Breathe out: let it guide you.
Alec Reitz is Kolbo’s Blog Coordinator and resident crafting enthusiast. They spend most of their time investigating bouts of everyday magic and and studying Jewish mysticism. Their writing can be found on My Jewish Learning, and in The Grief Diaries, Pithead Chapel, and Electric Literature.
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