Shlach-Lecha: Making Judaism Beautiful

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach Lecha

Greetings! Long before the world knew the names James Bond or Maxwell
Smart, the most famous spies in history were the 12 men sent by Moshe
to scout out the land of Israel; their story is the major part of this
week’s Torah portion, Shlach Lecha. After their mission and report to
the people – which didn’t work out so well- the Torah turns to
various rituals and laws of religious service, including the
instruction to tie tzitzit, or ritual fringes:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: ‘Speak to the Israelite people
and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of
their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to
the fringe at each corner.. . . ‘ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:37-38)

From this passage (recited daily as part of the three paragraphs of
the Shma) the rabbis learned that tzitzit, or fringes, were tied on
garments that had “corners,” (four of them, as it turns out), and thus
we get the practice of wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, which is
always a four-cornered garment upon which we can tie tzitzit in order
to fulfill this commandment. The tzitzit are visual reminders of the
mitzvot [commandments] but wearing a tallit during prayer is often
much more than that- getting wrapped up or draped in a special garment
worn during prayer is a way of achieving kavannah [focus/intention]
during prayer, a tactile and visual way of moving our bodies and minds
into greater spiritual openness and connection. [Many Jews also wear a
special undershirt with tzitzit attached so they can do this mitzvah
all day, but that’s different than the “outer” tallit one wears during
morning services.]

Personally, I love putting on a tallit, and I even have several
different ones for Shabbat, weekdays, and holidays. That’s probably a
bit over the top for some people, but for me, wearing a differently
colored tallit on Shabbat than during the week helps me experience
Shabbat as a special and holy day, one which I honor by doing things a
bit differently and with extra attention to aesthetics and “hiddur
mitzvah,” or “beautifying the commandments.” This is an important idea
in Judaism, going back to Biblical days, and can be applied to many
areas of Jewish life, including ritual objects, books, decorations,
dress, how we set our tables for Shabbat and the holidays, and so on.

What’s interesting to me is that “beautifying” the commandments
necessarily involves the application of personal, subjective standards
of taste and individual preference- a beautiful tallit for one person
might be one with purple stripes but another person would care more
about the quality of the fabric or the decorations on the atarah
[“crown” or band right behind the neck, which is often decorated.] In
other words, a “commandment” – like celebrating Shabbat or wearing a
tallit- is something we do as part of a community, but making the
commandments beautiful- “hiddur mitzvah”- is something we do as
individuals within that larger system of teachings and practices.

That’s why I think it’s such an important step of Jewish growth to own
one’s own talllit; by choosing the color, style, fabric, and size of a
tallit, one fulfills the mitzvah in a way that is personally pleasing,
which in turn helps one have kavannah while wearing it. Taking a
tallit “off the rack” when coming to synagogue is fine, but going to
the trouble of choosing one’s own is way of bringing our whole,
individual selves, with our tastes and preferences and styles- into
the community of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- here’s a bunch of links to follow up on the discussion above.

First, here’s a page which goes into greater depth explaining the idea
of “hiddur mitzvah,” or “adorning the commandments”:\

Here’s another take on it, from an Orthodox rabbi, who explores the
balance between aesthetics and communal concerns:

Here’s a history and full explanation of the commandment of tallit-
but please note, in egalitarian synagogues, the mitzvah is open to
women as well as men:

The spiritual significance of tallit:\

1 Comment »

  1. […] or “beautifying the commandment.” I’ve written about this idea before (see here, where you’ll also find links to further explorations of the concept), but the basic idea is […]

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