Beautifying the Mitzvah

By Leslie Cook, MCJC Member

I spent a lot of time at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning (formerly Spertus College) in the 70s, 80s and 90s, both as a student and on the staff. I learned a lot while I was there! But the most important things I learned were outside the classroom.

One of my teachers was Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer, who was my guide and mentor in Jewish education. Yes, there were the specifics of teaching Jewish topics to various ages, but what remains in my mind and heart are chance phrases that came up from time-to-time like hiddur ha-Mitzvah, “beautifying the commandment.”

Hiddur ha-Mitzvah means we don’t do things half-heartedly or carelessly. We consider what we are going to do and how we can enhance it to make it as rich and beautiful as possible. We don’t just stick a mezuzah on our doorposts, we make or select something beautiful, invite friends over, and place it lovingly, with blessings and songs and thoughtfully share the moment.

The Torah, which we are required to read, is covered with a beautiful garment and silver ornaments. Getting it out involves lovingly and ceremoniously taking it out, parading it, undressing it, chanting the portion, and later redressing it.

We don’t just go to synagogue on Shabbat, we plan ahead how we are going to make the day unique and beautiful. We have beautiful ritual objects, special foods lovingly prepared, songs, and friends.

I remember once having a group of friends over for dinner Friday evening, and one of my friends, a wonderful cook, made a main dish. He had had little time to prepare that day due to work, so the dish was . . . well, thrown together. His nephew, visiting from Israel, said, “Well, yes, it’s good. Not like your usual. It wasn’t prepared with enough love.” That was true.

Hiddur ha-Mitzvah takes time and thought, but when a group of people cooperate, each putting in a little energy, something magical happens. Even a simple dish prepared with love becomes memorable. A beautifully set table adds to the moment. Every smallest thing contributes to making the “Palace in Time” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) that is Shabbat.

Hiddur ha-Mitzvah is an idea to practice at home in big and small ways, in Jewish and not specifically Jewish ways. Here’s one that has all those qualifications: reducing or eliminating waste.

30-40% of the food in this country never ends up on tables. It is wasted. Bal tashchit (בל תשחית), “do not destroy,” is a basic principle in Jewish law. It comes from Deuteronomy 20:19–20, a commandment that forbids cutting down fruit trees to assist in a siege.

The rabbis expand the idea to include other forms of senseless damage or waste. It’s easy to imagine painless ways to beautify this commandment: making special containers for veggie waste destined for the garden, recycling garbage, or creating ways to repurpose food and other items. Making gifts from found materials. Sharing food with others in a timely way if you can’t finish it yourself.

Practice ways to beautify those things you take time to do in your life. Then apply what you learn to beautifying our Shabbat experience at MCJC. Learn to chant a Torah portion. Sponsor a Kiddush or part of one. Share thoughtful food. Help set up the table Friday evening or Shabbat morning. Is cleanup your thing? Storing what we use on one Shabbat to use the next Shabbat beautifies both and reduces waste.

We are going to begin running a list in the e-nouncements each week (and possibly in the Newsletter) of which Shabbat meals and kiddushes have sponsors. We’ll invite you to choose any open dates to sponsor. We hope you’ll take advantage of this opportunity to beautify Shabbat at MCJC.

Here’s a resource to check out:

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