The synagogue where I grew up, Ahavath Achim in Atlanta, Georgia, had a gift shop with floor-to-ceiling windows displaying a varied assortment of items. Among my earliest memories of shul-going, I loved to look at the glittering kiddush cups and havdallah sets,magen david jewelry, ironic aprons and sports-themed kippot sitting in the windows. It seemed like almost every week something small would be different-a new piece added, something familiar no longer in the window because it now sat on someone's shelf at home or wrapped up in anticipation of a bar mitzvah or wedding.
For many of us, the gift shop feels as integral to a synagogue as the ark or the ner tamid. Gift shops as we presently know them emerged during the post-World War II boom of middle-class American Judaism, 1 but ornate ritual objects are hardly a new phenomenon. Anyone who has visited a Jewish museum knows that for many centuries, back to the time of the Temple, Jewish ritual objects have emphasized form as well as function. Intricate engravings on kiddush cups and Torah crowns, richly colored illuminations on haggadah manuscripts, and delicately woven sukkot tapestries all reinforce what Rabbi Milton Steinberg, of blessed memory, called a "fundamental Jewish attitude:" the concept ofhiddur mitzvah, "beautifying the mitzvah." 2
Our Sages locate the source of hiddur mitzvah in the Torah:
It was taught: "This is my God, and I will glorify Him" 3-make yourself beautiful before Him through mitzvot: a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzitzit, a beautiful Torah scroll written with holiest intent in superb ink, with a fine quill, by an expert scribe, bound with beautiful threads. 4
From the very beginning, our Rabbis applied hiddur mitzvah as broadly as possible: for every mitzvah, we should seek the most beautiful, dignified, honorable form. Given the choice between two tallitot, for example, the Talmud actually requires us to purchase the more beautiful of the two, at a premium of up to one-third the value of the less-attractive item. 5 In one extreme case, we are told, Rabban Gamliel paid a thousand zuz for an etrog-the equivalent of eight months' wages for an average worker.6
We're not expected to take things as far as Rabban Gamliel-the Talmud itself evinces some discomfort with the extravagance of his purchase-but Sukkot does bring out the clearest examples of hiddur mitzvah. In addition to our quest for the best lulav and etrog, our Sages instruct us to furnish our sukkot with our nicest couches, linens, and dishes. 7 One of the favorite games I remember from my in-laws' sukkah is the nightly "silver count," to make sure none of their best dessert forks ended up in the trash by accident. Anyone who builds a sukkah knows we inevitably end up with an ever-growing collection of bins full of decorations. I have a passionate love for decorating a sukkah, sometimes to my wife's dismay; but even I was surprised to learn just how important the gourds, paper chains, and colored lights really are.
We build sukkot out of ordinary stuff, but the first time we recite the blessing leishev ba-sukkah, "to dwell in the sukkah," the structure of the sukkah itself becomes holy. For the rest of the week, we may not use its materials for any other purpose-even if, God forbid, the sukkah collapses and can no longer be used for its original purpose. 8 Even after the holiday, anything we aren't keeping for next year may not be unceremoniously dumped; we must find ways to reuse or dispose of them with dignity.9
All of this makes sense: our using the sukkah to fulfill a mitzvah transforms otherwise ordinary things into holy objects. What I didn't expect was that the Talmud would treat the decorations in the exact same way:
If they covered [the sukkah] with s'khakh according to the halakhah, and then crowned it with tapestries or illustrated sheets; if they hung nuts, almonds, apricots, pomegranates, or grape clusters; [glass vials of] wine, oil, or fine flour; or wreaths of corn — they are forbidden to make use of these items until the end of the final holiday of the festival. 10
The point here is subtle but crucial: sukkah decorations, which have been commonplace at least as far back as the third century, take on sanctity in the same way that the sukkah itself becomes holy for the week. Decorating the sukkah is not just a nice thing to do, or a way to involve children in the holiday; our adorning the sukkah plays an integral role in the mitzvah itself.
That is what Rabbi Steinberg saw as so quintessentially Jewish about hiddur mitzvah: the fundamental assumption, in every mitzvah, that it's not enough to do the technical minimum when we have the ability to do something beautiful. The next time you are in synagogue, look around and take in the different tallitot andkippot people wear. When the ark is opened, see how the sifrei Torahstand there with gleaming crowns and embroidered jackets. Browse a synagogue gift shop. Examples of hiddur mitzvah surround us.
The sukkah provides us with a blueprint for a meaningful life. On Sukkot we actually inhabit a space filled with hiddur mitzvah. The beauty surrounding us emphasizes our need to put some beauty, some dignity, into everything we do. "Few people attain great lives," Jim Collins observes, "In large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life."11 At its broadest and most ambitious, hiddur mitzvah calls each of us to a life of greatness. Will we stop at minimal performance of mitzvot, or can we find a way to add beauty as well? When we consider our relationships, do we assess how much is "enough," or will we go above and beyond in service of others? Our tradition challenges us, in all areas of life, to claim our work: to stand up and declare, "I did this"-and do it beautifully.
1 Joellyn Wallen Zollman, "The Gifts of the Jews: Ideology and Material Culture in the American Synagogue Gift Shop," American Jewish Archives Journal 58:1-2 (2006), 52-54. Available online: http://americanjewisharchives.org/publications/journal/PDF/2006_58_01_02_zollman.pdf
2 Milton Steinberg, From the Sermons of Rabbi Milton Steinberg: High Holy Days and Major Festivals , ed. Bernard Mandelbaum (New York: Bloch, 1954), 99.
3 Ex. 15:2.
4 Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 133b.
5 Bava Kamma 9a-b, following Rashi.
6 Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 41b.
7 Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 28b.
8 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar, Sukkah, and Lulav 6.15.
9 Mishneh Berurah, 638.24.
10 Babylonian Talmud, Beitzah 30b, following Rashi; cf. Tosefta (Lieberman ed.), Sukkah 1.7.
11 Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 1.