Taking Hiddur Mitzvah Too Far

Sunday was the Jewish holiday of Purim. For those who are not familiar, the holiday celebrates the story found in the book of Esther. I am not going to tell that story as it is available all over the web, and in the Bible. The holiday of Purim has three main Mitzvot. A Mitzvah, for my non Jewish friends, is not defined as a “good dead” as is often the case. A Mitzvah is a commandment, somehow based on the 613 original commandments found in the first five books of the Bible. In this case the three Mitzvot are hearing the reading of the scroll of Esther (the Biblical book), giving gifts to your friends and enjoying a festive meal with your family and friends on Purim day. That sounds great and these three are very easy Mitzvot to perform. Go to Synagogue to hear the reading, give a few gifts and have dinner. Not too difficult. And, in fact, our Synagogue was full on Saturday night for the reading of Esther. Kids dress up in costume and everyone has a great time. I think there were over 300 people at the Synagogue!

Now here comes my rant. There is another principal in Jewish life called Hiddur Mitzvah or making the Mitzvah beautiful. The concept of Hiddur Mitzvah is derived from Rabbi Ishmael’s comment on the verse, זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Exodus 15:2): “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 MitzvotI shall prepare before Him a beautiful Lulavbeautiful sukkah, beautiful fringes (Tsitsit), and beautiful phylacteries (Tefilin).” [Midrash Mechilta, Shirata, chapter 3, ed. Lauterbach, p. 25.] The Talmud [Shabbat 133b] adds to this list a beautiful Shofar and a beautiful Torah scroll which has been written by a skilled scribe with fine ink and fine pen and wrapped in beautiful silks. One of the most well-known ways observant Jews today fulfill Hiddur Mitzvah is to buy very beautiful Etrogim for Sukkot. Some people will, in fact, spend quite a lot of money on an Etrog, often well over $100.

Now I have no problem with enhancing our observance of Mitzvot. I am all for it. But there has to be a limit. It seems to me that people are using Hiddur Mitzvah as a means to “one up” their neighbors. “They” spent $50 per gift basket this Purim so next Purim I am going to spend $75 per gift basket. This year I saw two different families being driven around in stretch limos delivering their Mishloah Manot (Purim gift baskets). This made me quite angry (I saw it last year too but for some reason it got me more this year). I think there needs to be a limit to Hiddur Mitzvah. How much money did these families spend up Purim? I have no idea on the cost of their baskets but I am sure it was not small. It is not impossible to think that their Mishloah Manot cost over $1000 when you include the limo. For what? Of course it was to fulfill a Mitzvah, so that is good, but they easily could have fulfilled the Mitzvah with small baskets that they themselves drove around town. Perhaps the $900 they saved could have been donated to Mazon or many other charities whose missions is to deal with the problem of hunger in our society. It is time for the Rabbis in these communities to put their feet down and say enough! No one should spend more than $36 for an Etrog. No one should build 500 square foot Sukkot and move their living room into it. No one should deliver Mishloah Manot by Limo.

And now, a little Torah. The holiday of Passover is fast approaching. In the center of the Haggadah are verses that we spend much of our Seder discussing. Many people will recognize these verses:

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב:  וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה: ז וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָֹה אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ וַיַּרְא אֶת־עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת־לַחֲצֵנוּ: ח וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָֹה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים: וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and lived there with a few people and there he became a great nation, large and strong. And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery. And we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression. And the Lord took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders. And he has brought us to this place and given us this land flowing with milk and honey.”

In the Torah’s context (not the Haggadah’s) this mini-history of the Jewish people is to be recited when a person brings their first fruits to the temple for a sacrifice. One interesting thing is that, according to the Talmud, a person did not just recite these verses, but the priest in the temple would recite the verse word by word and the person bringing his first fruits would repeat the words and the priest said them. Another example is during a wedding ceremony. When a bridegroom says the special verse of betrothal: הֲרֵי אַת מְקֻדֶשֶת לִי בְטַבַּעַת זוּ כְּדַת מֹשֶׁה וְיִשְׂרָאֵל “Behold you are consecrated to me, with this ring, according to the laws of Moses and Israel”, it is also said by the groom repeating the words as the officiant says them under the Huppa. Also at a wedding it is traditional for a groom to say some words of Torah at his Tisch (literally a table, but a small ceremony before the wedding when certain legal documents are signed) but the attendees interrupt him with song so he cannot say anything.

All of these things are done so that one person is not set above another. In the first two cases, some people may know Hebrew very well, and some not. But if they have to repeat word for word the verses, then everyone is the same. Even the greatest sage has to repeat the words that are said to him. In the third case, at the Tisch, the friends interrupt with song so that no matter the groom’s abilities or learning, all grooms are seen the same.

Similarly, I think it is time for us to start letting all people be the same in terms of Hiddur Mitzvah. Rather than some people being able to buy the most beautiful Etrog, perhaps a Synagogue should collect money to buy Etrogim for all members and make sure they are all the same. People with more money can pay more in and people with less money can pay in less. But no matter your wealth, you will get the same Etrog. On Purim people should be encouraged to make modest gift baskets for their friends. The only requirement is that there are two different kinds of foods in the basket. I don’t think it is wrong to ask people to be more modest with their baskets (plus we only have four weeks to get rid of the baked goods before Passover and less is better!)

I am not a Rabbi and I have no authority to get people to do anything, but I feel very strongly about this issue. I hope that others, who are reading my blog will think about this and if you have similar feelings about this, speak with your Rabbi to learn his or her views.

Hag Kasher V’sameakh!

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