Enriching Life Through Hiddur Mitzvah

by Sarrae Crane

Several years ago, my husband and I spent Labor Day weekend in Vermont. As we wandered around a local crafts fair, we wondered if we would find any Judaica. And of course we did. Several artisans displayed Jewish art, ranging from pictures to ritual objects.

One particular craftsman’s metal and glass pieces caught our attention. Among the beautiful Torah pointers, oil-burning yahrzeit lamps, and chanukiot, what interested me the most were the dreidels. I have a particular love of dreidels and own more than 300. When I examined the ones on display I discovered that the letters were out of order. Assuming these were errors, I asked the artist if he had any more. On each of his dreidels the letters were in a different order, none correct.

The artist could not understand why this bothered me. He pointed out that each had the proper carefully written letters, which he had been taught by his young nephew. He looked at me perplexed and asked, “You mean there is an order?” I explained about the phrase from which the letters are derived (nes gadol haya sham – a great miracle happen there), which determines the order in which they should appear (nun, gimel, hey, shin). The craftsman had little Jewish education and thought that a dreidel was a spinning top whose letters were the equivalent of dots on dice. But he was connecting to Judaism by creating ritual objects and was eager to learn how to produce them properly.

I bought the dreidel, a unique addition to my collection because of its imperfection, which represented a port of entry into Jewish life for its creator. Here was a Jewish man, born of Jewish parents who knew little about Judaism, who was finding his way to Judaism through his ability to create the beautiful objects found in Jewish homes and synagogues.

We also bought a chanukiah and a yahrzeit candle. Interestingly, their creator understood the mitzvot connected to them; he had fashioned permanent wicks to burn for the requisite amount of time.

This year Women’s League for Conservative Judaism embarked on the Hiddur Mitzvah project. Hiddur mitzvah means taking the time and making an effort to enhance our observance of mitzvot. It is about acquiring or creating beautiful ceremonial objects to enrich our observance of a commandment. The origins are to be found in a comment of Rabbi Ishmael on a verse in the Song of the Sea: “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Exodus 15:2). Rabbi Ishmael taught: “Is it possible for a human being to add glory to his Creator? What this really means is: I shall glorify Him in the way I perform mitzvot” (Midrash Mechilta, Shirata, chapter 3).

In recent years there has been a surge in the creation of Jewish ritual objects. Just a generation ago, who would have predicted that so many Jewish artisans around the globe would be crafting so many stunning pieces of incredible variety? Indeed this is a healthy indication of the lasting strength and vitality of the Jewish people.

Think of the cottage industries devoted to fashioning tallitot and kipot for women or to creating the countless versions of Miriam’s Cup for the seder table. I still find it astonishing that each year there are new variations of dreidels for me to add to my collection. It is amazing how many media and styles there are of what is basically a top with four Hebrew letters.

While hiddur mitzvah may be the material extension of an idea, it is important that the idea be concretized and rooted in Jewish tradition. Embellishing a mitzvah requires knowledge and understanding. The goal is making it more meaningful, not changing its meaning. This year Women’s League is working with its members to enrich their religious observance by rooting them in our tradition while encouraging their creativity.

Our lives are enriched when we use special ritual objects. For some it is using candlesticks or a kiddush cup passed down from previous generations. For others it is using a spice box received as a wedding present or acquired on a trip to Israel. For yet others, it’s the needlepoint tallit bag, which someone labored over. Underlying all of these is the concept of hiddur mitzvah, of enhancing the aesthetics of Jewish life.

By engaging in hiddur mitzvah, by going beyond the minimum, we glorify God and bring beauty to our world.

Sarrae Crane is executive director of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

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