Parashat Beshallah: Halakhah
Illustration credit: Rebecca Kerzner

Halakhah הֲלָכָה

These words are part of the song that Benei Yisrael sing at the yam suf.
זֶה אֵ-לִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ
This is my God and I will glorify God
In a midrash about these words, R. Yishmael wonders about וְאַנְוֵהוּ (ve-anveihu). We translated it as “I will glorify God,” but it could also mean “I will beautify God.”
רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל אוֹמֵר: וְכִי אֶפְשָׁר לְבָשָׂר וָדָם לְהַנָּווֹת לְקוֹנוֹ? אֶלָּא אֲנַוֶּה לוֹ בְּמִצְוֹת - אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפָנָיו לוּלָב נָאֶה סֻכָּה נָאֶה צִיצִית נָאֶה תְּפִלָּה נָאָה.
R. Yishmael says: Is it actually possible for a human to beautify their Creator?
Rather, it means “I will beautify God through mitzvot” - I will prepare before God a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzitzit, and beautiful tefillah.
R. Yishmael’s teaching is the source for a principle in halakhah called הִדּוּר מִצְוָה (hiddur mitzvah), which means that we should try to make our mitzvot as beautiful as possible. Because of hiddur mitzvah, we try to make and use beautiful ritual objects, such as beautiful kiddush cups, decorations for the sukkah, shofarot, and Torah scrolls. These can enhance our experience of performing mitzvot.
There are some guidelines for how to do hiddur mitzvah.
  • R. Zeira teaches that the maximum you should spend on hiddur mitzvah is one-third above the standard cost of doing the mitzvah (Bavli Bava Kama 9b). There’s some debate about what exactly this means. One opinion is if an etrog normally costs $60, you shouldn’t spend more than that plus ⅓ - so, $80 - to get a really nice one. The other opinion is that you shouldn’t spend more than $90, which itself is ⅓ more than $60.
  • If you have to perform a mitzvah, you should not wait in the hopes that you will find a more beautiful object to perform it with. It’s best to use what’s available to you just in case you can’t get one that is more beautiful (Sefer Hasidim 878).
  • There’s a difference between the object that’s used to do a mitzvah and its accessories that come along with it. Hiddur mitzvah applies to the actual mitzvah object, not the accessories. So getting a really nice tallit or a really nice hallah for Shabbat is hiddur mitzvah. But getting a really nice bag for your tallit or cover for your matzah is not really hiddur. Don’t worry though - those things still show כָּבוֹד (kavod, honor) for your mitzvot, and that’s still a big mitzvah! (Sefer Hasidim, 129)