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Parshat Beshalach: Which mitzvot must be beautiful?

Shevat 5783 | January 2023


Tags: hiddur mitzvah, zeh Eli v’anvehu, etrog, 4 species, parsha, halakha, halacha

Beautifying the mitzvot

The midrash brings several explanations for the words “zeh Eli v’anvehu,” generally explained as “this is my God, and I will beautify/glorify Him”:[1]

“Rabbi Yishmael says: Is it possible for one of flesh and blood to beautify their Master? Rather, I will beautify Him through the mitzvot I do before Him – a beautiful sukka, beautiful tzitzit, beautiful tefilla/tefillin (prayer or tefillin).[2]

Abba Shaul says: I will be like Him, just as He is merciful and gracious, so you shall be merciful and gracious.[3]

Rabbi Yossi ben Durmaskit says: I will build a beautiful Temple before Him…[4]

Rabbi Akiva says: I will speak of His beauty and praise…”[5]

Rabbi Yishmael asks how mere humans can beautify the incorporeal Almighty. Rabbi Akiva explains this is done through verbal praise, which fits the plain meaning of the text as an introductory verse to the praise of Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. Rabbi Yishmael’s exegesis teaches us that our Creator’s incorporeality does not cancel the value of using physically beautiful objects for spiritual mitzvot.

Although less consistent with the pshat (plain reading) of the text, Rabbi Yishmael’s opinion is popular, and he’s quoted in several parallel sources that end with similar lists of mitzvot. Massekhet Shabbat lists sukka, lulav, shofar, and a Sefer Torah, all ritual objects used to perform mitzvot bein adam laMakom, between a person and God.[6]

Often referred to as the concept of “hiddur (beautifying) mitzvot,” Rabbi Yishmael’s words are far more than theoretical advice. There are practical halakhic ramifications that are learned from our obligation to fulfill “zeh Eli v’anvehu.”

Beauty don’t come cheap: How much must we spend on mitzvot?

The Mishna in Peah lists mitzvot that do not have an “amount.”[7] This leads to a discussion on the maximum one must spend to perform mitzvot. Rav Huna teaches: “For mitzvot up to 1/3.” The gemara asks if this is the sum total one must spend on all mitzvot, or the amount one should spend on a single mitzvah.[8] Rabbi Avun explains that to perform one mitzvah one should spend up to 1/3 of their wealth. Rabbi Chaviva brings an alternative explanation from the rabbis, that if one has bought an object to perform a mitzvah and then sees a nicer one, he should spend up to 1/3 of the price to buy the nicer object. For support the gemara cites Rabbi Yishmael’s explanation of “zeh Eli v’anvehu.”

The Talmud Bavli questions whether one is required to spend 1/3 of the original price or of the nicer object’s price.[9] Although many Rishonim rule that it’s the greater amount, Rosh calculates based on the original price and Beit Yosef states that we follow this lenient opinion since hiddur mitzvah is a rabbinic obligation.[10]

Tur and Shulchan Aruch bring this law when discussing buying an etrog. Shulchan Aruch rules that if one bought an etrog that only fulfills the minimum obligation (a small k’beitza, or walnut size) and then finds one that is larger he must spend up to 1/3 of the price to exchange it for the bigger one.[11] He adds that some say if one has the option to buy several etrogim they should purchase the nicer one if it is not more than 1/3 more expensive than the price for a basic etrog.[12]

What’s the difference between these opinions?

Some explain the first opinion is that one must spend 1/3 more than the minimum cost necessary to fulfill the mitzvah, and the latter calculates according to what is available at the time of purchase.[13] Many commentaries point out that the first opinion only requires one to spend more money if the less expensive option may not fulfill the mitzvah, either because of its size or possible blemishes.[14] Similarly, Mishna Berura explains that the first opinion requires someone who has already bought an etrog that only fulfills the minimal requirements to spend 1/3 more on one that is more clearly valid, as long as they can return or exchange the first etrog. The second opinion refers to someone who does not yet have an etrog and is choosing between equally large (and valid) etrogim; in this case they must spend 1/3 more for one that is aesthetically pleasing.

Some Acharonim clarify that this only applies to someone who is financially able to afford the higher price. Mishna Berura brings an opinion that someone who is well off should add more than 1/3 of the price for hiddur mitzvah, this is a way of acknowledging that their wealth is a blessing from God.[15] Rav Eliezer Melamed adds that this is especially true if someone regularly spends more to buy better quality items such as clothing and furniture – at the very least one should approach mitzvot with the same financial considerations they use when buying mundane objects. (i.e. If you buy Gucci, buy a mehadrin etrog.)

Yam Shel Shlomo claims that the obligation to spend more money for hiddur mitzvah only applies to an etrog, because the Torah calls it “pri etz hadar,” but not to other objects used to perform mitzvot such as a shofar. Magen Avraham disagrees, as the gemara discusses hiddur mitzvah in general based on the midrash we saw above, and Rashi specifically uses buying a Sefer Torah as an example.

Indeed, hiddur mitzvah is required for other mitzvot as well. The mishna teaches that a dry lulav is invalid.[16] The Talmud Bavli states the reason is that  the 4 species must be “hadar,” meaning beautiful. Rashi and Sefer Mitzvot HaGadol both explain that this is because the mitzvah requires “zeh Eli v’anveihu.”[17] Tosfot disagree, explaining that there is a unique requirement of hiddur for the 4 species, which is derived from the terminology the Torah uses for the etrog: “fruit of the hadar tree.” They question how Rashi could require criteria derived from “v’anvehu” to fulfill a mitzvah when it is generally used to encourage going beyond the basic requirements to embellish or beautify a mitzvah.[18] Must our mitzvot be beautiful or is it enough to get the job done?

Brit Mila: Is beauty an intrinsic part of mitzvah observance?

The Mishna permits “all the needs of a Brit Mila” on Shabbat. The gemara asks what the word “all” adds. The first answer offered is that “all” refers to removing parts of skin that do not invalidate the circumcision .

The mitzvah of Brit Mila in its proper time, on the 8th day after a baby boy is born, overrides Shabbat prohibitions such as cutting skin and spilling blood. One may think that these prohibitions are only suspended until the minimum of the mitzvah is performed but based on this gemara the halakhic ruling is that while the mohel is cutting they may continue past the minimum to fulfill the ideal form of the mitzvah.[19]

The gemara suggests comparing this ruling to a dispute regarding the flaying of the Korban Pesach, since offering the Korban Pesach also overrides Shabbat prohibitions. A Baraita teaches anonymously that on Shabbat one may only flay up to the chest, since that is sufficient to remove the parts offered on the altar, and then brings the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael ben Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka that one may flay the entire animal. The gemara rejects the possibility of comparing these two halakhot, as one could claim that mila requires “zeh Eli v’anvehu,” but flaying the entire Korban Pesach does not.

Why allow cutting more than the minimum on Shabbat for mila but not for Korban Pesach? Rashi on Shabbat explains that once the parts that are burned on the altar are removed there is no longer a concept of “zeh Eli v’anvehu,” presumably because this is not an intrinsic part of the actions of the mitzvah, but an act done to prepare (hechsher) for the next stage of roasting.[20]

Rav Asher Weiss learns from these laws of mila on Shabbat that “zeh Eli v’anvehu” does not only apply to beautifying the object used to perform the mitzvah, as we have seen until this point, but to the act of the mitzvah itself.[21] He brings several examples of hiddur mitzvah that are now taken for granted as standard mitzvah observance, such as refraining from eating meals on erev Pesach later in the day so we can eat the matzah with an appetite at the seder and answering the chazzan’s prayers when it is sufficient to listen.[22]

This leads to several more questions and concerns. If one performs a mitzvah in a way that is less than ideal should they try to do it again in its ideal form? Should one spend more money or time to fulfill all halakhic opinions? Should one delay performing a mitzvah to do it more ideally? When discussing hiddur mitzvah some halakhic authorities remind us not to prize aesthetic beauty over halakhic requirements, and not to risk missing a mitzvah opportunity because we are waiting for a better one.[23]

Beautiful mitzvot

Based on the examples in Rabbi Yishmael’s midrash we initially posited that hiddur mitzvah related specifically to beautifying objects. While hiddur mitzvah is often applied to ritual objects, even those beyond the original list such as kiddush cups and synagogues, Rav Asher Weiss reminds us that “v’anvehu” also obliges us to enhance other aspects of our mitzvah observance.[24]

The halakhic system sets minimums and maximums for certain mitzvot. But that does not mean we should suffice ourselves with these minimums. There is a rabbinic requirement to spend a bit more to beautify a mitzvah when possible. Beyond that, we learn from the laws of Brit Mila on Shabbat that there is an intrinsic obligation to approach mitzvot with the intention of fulfilling them in the most complete and beautiful way. If we do not succeed or it is beyond our means or disproportionately expensive, it is sufficient to fulfill the basic requirements.

Mitzvah performance is not just about checking the boxes, we are meant to “serve our Lord with happiness.”[25] If we strive for professional or academic excellence and spend money and effort to have an aesthetically pleasing appearance and beautiful home, how can we settle for less when we approach our Creator?

Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch seemingly blends the different aggadic interpretations of “zeh Eli v’anvehu” in his commentary on the verse, teaching, “I will attempt to be a pleasant abode for Him, I will attempt to sanctify all my being and life for His glory, a dwelling place for the revelation of the Divine Presence.” If we want a closer relationship with our Creator we must put in the effort and offer service with a smile.

[1] Shemot 15:2, Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 12:2:1, 15:2. Parallel sources include TY Pe’ah 1:1:12, Shemot Rabba 1:12, Shir HaShirim Rabba 3:9, Rashi ibid.

[2] This version of mekhilta lists tefilla, but TY Pe’ah 1:1 lists tefillin.

[3] Abba Shaul splits the unusual word to two smaller words – “ani v’hu” – “this is my God and I will be like Him.” The latter is related to the mitzvah of walking in God’s ways that we explored in Parshat Vayera.

[4] In addition to beauty, the root n-v-h means abode, and the prophets use it to describe the Temple. At this miraculous event the People of Israel finally understand that there are imminent aspects of the Almighty and commit to making a dwelling for the Divine Presence revealed to them.

The Hebrew word “zeh,” “this,” is connected with pointing. The midrash explains that the Israelites witnessed such a clear revelation of the Shekhina (Divine Presence, Glory) by the Sea  that it exceeded even that of the prophet Yechezkel, so clear that they were able to point to it and say “zeh.” This is reflected in current customs to point at matzah and maror during the Pesach seder (we don’t point for Pesach since we don’t have the Korban Pesach) or at the Torah when saying “v’zot haTorah” – “this is the Torah” – during hagba, when the text of the Torah is displayed after Torah reading.
Some commentaries purposefully reject this reading, probably because of the danger of corporealizing God. See Chizkuni, Tur Ha’Arokh,

[5] Both Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva read “anvehu” as beautify or glorify, from the root n-v-h, an alternative of n-a-h.

[6] TB Shabbat 133b. A beautiful Torah is described as “written in His Name by an expert scribe with beautiful ink and quill, wrapped in beautiful silk.”

[7] Mishna Pe’ah 1:1, TY ibid 12. The list includes pe’ah (corners of the field left for the needy), bikkurim (first fruits), rei’yon (“appearance” before God at the Temple, or the accompanying offerings), gemilut chassadim (acts of lovingkindness), and learning Torah.” The Talmud Yerushalmi asks if this means there is no minimum quantity to fulfill these mitzvot or no maximum cap. When discussing gemilut chassadim the gemara states that there is no maximum amount of kind acts one may physically perform, but if the act requires spending resources then one may only give up to a 1/5 of their property or yearly income.

[8] Rema rules that one does not need to spend more than 1/5 of their wealth on a passing mitzvah, such as an object that will only be used briefly, like the Four Species (or wine for kiddush). He adds that this only applies to positive mitzvot, as one must spend all their money to avoid transgressing a prohibition. The mitzvot this applies to and specific amounts are debated among the poskim,

[9] TB Bava Kama 9a-b. For example, if someone bought an etrog for 60 NIS and sees a nicer one for 90 NIS, according to the latter they would have to buy it, according to the former they would not (he would only have to spend up to 80). Shulchan Aruch rules according to the former – that it is only 1/3 of the original price, although many rishonim such as Ran and Rabbeinu Chananel rule the latter.

[10] Beit Yosef on Tur OC 656. There are some that see hiddur mitzvah as a Torah obligation, at least in some cases. See Ra’avad on Maor HaKatan on Sukka 13a “Amar Rav Gidel” (Rif Sukka 7a)

[11] Gra and Mishna Berura (4) explain that if he can’t return or exchange the first, he does not have to buy the second.

[12] Shulchan Aruch OC 656:1. Several rabbanim point out that this can go on forever, as there will always be a better one, and several solutions are offered. Yam Shel Shlomo explains that one only needs to add 1/3 of the cost if the object is 1/3 better than the other option.

[13] Bikurei Yaakov 656:7

[14] ibid Magen Avraham 3, Be’er Heitev 1

[15] ibid Yam Shel Shlomo, Magen Avraham, Mishna Berura 6

[16] TB Sukka 29b

[17] ibid 31a, Rashi there Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Asin, 44

[18] For example, the Bavli on 11b explains that it is preferable to bind the lulav, because of “v’anvehu,” but if one does not it is still kosher. Tosfot explain that because the term “hadar” is specifically connected to the 4 species, all connected halakhot are intrinsic criteria necessary to fulfill the mitzvah; halakhot based on “v’anvehu” do not invalidate the mitzvah as it is a separate  rabbinic mitzvah to go above the minimum requirement.

[19] Shulchan Aruch OC 331:2. Based on the gemara, if the mohel has “removed his hand” he may only “return” if the circumcision is not valid, if it is valid he may not remove anything else. See Kaf HaChayim there.

[20] Roasting is done after Shabbat, so the flaying can be completed then. Meiri on Shabbat 133b rules that one should flay the Korban Pesach on Shabbat the same way they do during the week, because of hiddur mitzvah.

[21] Shiurei Parshat HaShavua, B’Shalach, Hiddur Mitzva u’Mitzvat Mila

[22] Rashi Pesachim 99b. Tosfot Brachot 21b, TB Sukka 38a Tosfot state that even though we rule “shome’a k’oneh” one who listens fulfills as if they answered, nevertheless because of hiddur mitzvah they should actively answer the chazzan.

[23] This is an important discussion. Do we value alacrity or expedience over quality? Should we daven mincha in a corner of our office or hope we get to minyan on time? Should a new mother quickly say morning blessings the first chance she gets or hope she has time and strength later to say them with intention?

Sefer Chassidim 878 rules that one should not search for a nicer object if it will prevent them from performing the mitzvah – such as pushing off buying a tallit for several days. Chayyei Adam 68:1 cites Shulchan Aruch 426, that one should wait to say kiddush levana (prayers that accompany seeing the New Moon) until Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) when they are dressed in their Shabbat finery. Rema says this is only if this falls out before the 10th of the month, because delaying any longer risks missing the opportunity because there may be a string of cloudy nights that obscure the moon.

[24] Hilkhot Issurei Mizbeakh 7:11, Be’er Moshe 3:56

[25] Tehillim 100:2, Devarim 28:47

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.