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Hiddur Mitzvah: Making a Palace in Time

By Siân Gibby | Issue Date: September 2011

“This is my G-d, and I will glorify Him.” — Exodus 15:2

BJ Torah Breastplate  Photo: David KatzensteinHiddur mitzvah (the beautification of a mitzvah) contributes to the observance of Shabbat and holidays. The treatment of etrog and lulav provides a good example: The mitzvah is to obtain the four species and rejoice with them during Sukkot, but hiddur mitzvah means taking care to select a particularly pleasing etrog and a lulav that’s straight and well-shaped. It means to go beyond what’s required and to embrace instead what brings about delight.

As in the case of holidays, observing Shabbat in our tradition involves many activities: things we do especially for Shabbat, and things we deliberately cease doing on that day. We focus on transforming everyday consciousness into Shabbat consciousness. We help bring about this holy mindset when we don’t do workaday things (like using the computer or writing or cooking or fabricating things or altering the environment). And when we engage in hiddur mitzvah on Shabbat, we contribute to this transformation.

Examples of beautifying Shabbat include cleaning the house in advance of the day, selecting and preparing special food, setting a lovely table with a white cloth and candlesticks, putting out fresh flowers, dressing oneself carefully and beautifully—cultivating an atmosphere of happiness and joy, of peace and affection. We are encouraged to create for Shabbat a different kind of space, inside ourselves and in our environment. For just these 25 hours we remove ourselves from the gerbil-wheel of our thought processes and the routine of hurly-burly physical actions we habitually spend our lives in and step instead into what Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described as a palace in time. We turn from facing ourselves to face instead the holy.

The norms of behavior we embrace and expect on Shabbat and on holidays center directly on this sanctification. Using cell-phones, writing implements, or handheld computers on Shabbat disturbs and violates the specialness of the day. All the more so is this true inside the synagogue itself, which is after all a sanctuary, a safe place apart from weekday ordinariness on Shabbat. For example, photography on these special days, including at bar and bat mitzvahs inside the shul, detracts from the celebrations themselves. To create, even a photograph, is to step outside G-d’s space and go back to our everyday efforts to control and to make. On Shabbat we can relinquish that compulsion and simply rest and enjoy.

Donning a tallit before prayer, every morning including Shabbat, fulfills the mitzvah of wearing tzitziot (fringes on a four-cornered garment)—but having a clean, elegant tallit adds to the mitzvah, bringing to life the poetic imagery in Psalm 36: “[T]he children of men take refuge in the shadow of Thy wings. … [I]n Thy light do we see light.” Wearing a kipah is not a mitzvah but rather a sign of one’s humility in prayer or in participation in the community. It’s the custom for men to wear kipot when eating, studying, or praying. To cover the head communicates to G-d that one dedicates these activities to something bigger than himself. In an egalitarian community, women can feel comfortable choosing to employ any of the traditional signs that men do, including putting on tallit and kipah (and tefillin on weekdays).

Everything we do on hagim and on Shabbat should be indicative of our deliberate and happy turning toward something hallowed and special on those days. As the week wanes and Friday night approaches, we begin shifting our minds and hearts to the uniqueness of Shabbat. Probably every one of us has had the experience of enjoying a particularly perfect Shabbat where, when it draws to a close, we feel sad, bereft. We feel we’ve been on a mini-vacation, and now we have to go back to the “work” of living our normal New York City lives: the bustle, the noise, the dirt, the hassle, the anxiety.

Shabbat offers us a break from all that, every week. Our loving enhancement of Shabbat flows from our desire to fully celebrate it and to contribute to the beauty of a day set aside for beauty, for loving community, for praise, and for peace.

Siân Gibby is copy editor for ProPublica and Tablet Magazine. She has been a BJ member for six years.