Category Archives: Try This At Home

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: https://www.jewishlearningmatters.com/AC1-Beautify-(Hiddur)-Mitzvah-1191.aspx

Baby It’s Cold Outside…But Meditating Over A Hot Drink Might Help

This week brings us record low temperatures, but here’s an idea! Share a “Jewish Drinking Meditation” with the family over a nice hot chocolate.

Or you can try it with wine, as the video suggests, as part of your Shabbat dinner.

Here’s a video from BimBamJewish Drinking Meditation: A Unique Practice for Staying Present. Watch the video.

“Drinking meditation is when you can be completely present while enjoying a beverage of your choice. Follow teacher and coach, Alison Laichter, through a Jewish drinking meditation in our step-by-step video.”

The Day After Tu b’Shevat: 10 Ways To Celebrate The Trees Year-Round

Maybe it’s spring in Israel, but in our area, Tu b’Shevat found us buried in snow with well below freezing temperatures.

We sang and danced with Rabbi Tom…

Still, the celebration went forward at MCJC even though we didn’t get to plant trees outdoors as we enjoyed the first warming rays of spring sunshine. And we have some great pictures to show for it! Here we are, singing and dancing with Rabbi Tom — and making bird feeders for our feathered friends.

Here are 10 things to do year-round to celebrate trees and birds and the natural world that surrounds us:

  1. Take a family walk through the woods — even when it’s filled with snow. Robert Frost thought it was especially beautiful then. You can enjoy it too!
  2. Try growing fresh veggies from food scraps.
  3. Keep the faith: warmer days will come. You can get more from your garden when it does get warm enough to plant if you get things started indoors early.
  4. Enjoy this great Ted Talk about the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, how it is becoming a carbon “sink” for the world.
  5. Talk about what the Tanach (Jewish Bible) has to say about the environment.  When you finish the quotes in this article, follow the links to more material. Family members can take turns tracking down quotes from the Bible and from rabbinic texts, bringing one to each meal to share with the family and discuss.
  6. Share a “sourced” meal. Ask family members to share in some

    We made bird feeders for our feathered friends.

    detective work, finding out where each food item came from. Where and how was it produced? Were animals involved? How were they treated? Were people involved? Were they respected and pair fairly for their labor? What kind of energy was involved in producing the food item?

  7. Inventory your home to see how you can reduce food waste.
  8. Inventory your home to see where you use plastic. How can you reduce the impact of plastic on the environment by using less or repurposing what plastic you do use?
  9. Read together as a family these two books by forester, Peter Wohlleben: The Hidden Life of Trees and The Inner Life of Animals. 
  10. Conscious choice: it’s a buzz phrase today, but conscious choice is what kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, are all about. Now we know that what we eat impacts the environment as well. What can you learn together about how food is produced in the U.S. today? What Judaism says about the food we eat? (Hint: it depends). Richard Schwartz, founder of the Jewish Vegetarian Society, JVS.org, has gathered a significant body of material from Tanach and rabbinic texts about vegetarianism and the environment. You can find this material here: The Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights and here: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/rabbinic-teachings-on-vegetarianism

These activities all have a common purpose: thoughtful renewal of our relationship to the environment and the food it provides. Great ways to celebrate Tu b’Shevat year-round.

From BimBam: Get with the Giving — Tzedakah

Is your family ready to talk about giving and Tzedakah?

The Plonys are feeling selfish. The kids fight over their toys, and Papa and Mama can’t seem to take the community charity drive seriously – Papa wants to donate his leftover beans and tuna! ”SHABOOM!” The Sparks magically help the Plonys donate everything they own, from the shirts on their back to all the furniture in the house. Ay yi yi! In the process, the Plonys learn about generosity: giving doesn’t just make us feel good; it’s tzedakah and it’s our important job.

From BimBam: The Chanukah Shaboom

Can the Plony family get the house ready in time for their Chanukah party? Looks like they are in need of a Chanukah miracle.

Watch this special Chanukah episode to see how Gabi and Rafi fix the world, one Chanukah party at a time.

ABOUT US Shaboom! is a kids cartoon by BimBam. Gabi and Rafi explain kids about Jewish values, holidays and traditions. BimBam’s digital storytelling sparks connections to Judaism for learners of all ages. Watch something Jewish at https://www.bimbam.com.