Mitzvot: Beautiful vs. Functional

The Torah gives instructions for building the Aron Kodesh, the Ark of the Covenant; and it says that it is to be made of wood, and covered in pure Gold. As I thought about it, the Ark would have been completely functional without the gold. It could be argued, after all, that what made the Ark holy, was that it contained the Luchos, the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, and the Jars of Manna, and Aaron’s Rod. Even moreso, it was holy because the Divine Presence rested on it. So why the gold?

First of all, gold, being the most precious metal, covered it because it was to be the resting place of the Divine Presence. Second, because it housed holy objects. Third, because of what it was, it was holy in and of itself.

Second, when God commanded the Ark be covered in gold, it was so people would place the highest value on what they were, and what they represented. If the Ark was just a wood cabinet, people would not have thought of it as highly. Covering something in pure gold, indicated it was something special, not something that was just another piece of furniture. Not only the Ark, but the Altar of Incense, the Menorah, the articles used in the Temple were all made of gold.

It was not just that it was gold, but that it made those things beautiful and precious. When Solomon built the first Temple, he had them make two enormous bronze pillars that stood outside the sanctuary. They had chains strung between them on the top, but these pillars didn’t hold anything up. There was no function to them, except that they made the Holy Temple more beautiful, and this is the question I am raising: How important is it that our mitzvot be beautiful? Making our mitzvot beautiful is important. I remember as a young boy sitting in Shul, watching the Torah being taken out of the Ark. The silver crown and breastplate looked magnificent and it captured my imagination. It added to the sense of holiness because there was something about them that seemed special.

When I was a younger man, and my children were young, we didn’t have much money and the Judaica items we had were cheap items that we could afford. We had Shabbat table items made of Armenian pottery, that chipped very easily, and by the time we finished using them, were probably 50% Elmer’s glue. I used a silver plated Kiddush cup which had the silver worn off years before, and the base metal made the wine taste awful. The candle sticks were brass, bent in one of many moves over the years. The Challah cover was grape juice stained,and was getting a bit tattered. My wife and I would struggle with our children to get through the blessings until dinner was served. When I got into the Judaica business, I was able to get (at wholesale), sterling silver cups, candlesticks, wine decanter, beautiful plates for Challah and beautiful covers. When we set the table and lit the candles, the effect on my children was noticeable. It was like night and day. By making the mitzvot beautiful, my children were drawn to them. It was breathtaking. My daughter asked if her friends could come for Shabbat dinner. When one of her friend’s came, and sat at our table, I overheard her telling my daughter how special this was. When we make our mitzvot beautiful, it inspires us and those around us. When we use cheap, common items, it communicates a lack of specialness.

I realize some people can’t afford silver objects, but the issue is not silver. The issue is making a mitzvah as special as we are able. Poor Jews in the Shtetlach in Eastern Europe, couldn’t afford silver, but they did the best they could. There are examples of small Kiddush cups only slightly bigger than thimbles, beaten out of silver coins, that poor Jews used for Kiddush. It wasn’t much, but it was the best they had. Making a mitzvah as nice as possible said that this was something we value. I have been in the homes of many poor Jews and celebrated Shabbat with them. They had almost nothing, but it was special because they did the best they could. The attitude was what made the difference. If they could have afforded better, they would have had better. Bargain basement mitzvot don’t communicate the same thing if you can do better.

In the movie Ushpizin, Moshe, a poor man, receives a charitable donation just before Sukkot. He can’t even afford a Sukkah, but someone “procures” him one. He goes shopping for an Esrog,and buys the most expensive one in Jerusalem. Why? To honor God as he performs the Mitzvah. When we celebrate a holiday, do we buy the best Matzot or the cheap stuff? On Shabbat, do you make a nice meal and invite people in, or do you light the candles and send out for a pizza?

I see people drive new cars, have beautiful homes, expensive electronic equipment, but have the cheapest junk when it comes to doing mitzvot. It tells me this is something they don’t place much value upon. It makes me wonder what its worth to them.

I can’t afford gold, so I don’t have gold. I can barely afford silver, but I use what I have. We should strive to do the best we can in performing a mitzvot, and not strive to see how cheaply we can get away with doing it. When we cover our mitzvot with the gold of our heart intentions, people are drawn to God and their spirits are lifted to him. If you can do better, do it!

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7 thoughts on “Mitzvot: Beautiful vs. Functional

  1. Einstein,

    The showbread was on the table, not in the ark of the covenant together with Moses’ original copy of the Pentateuch, the first (broken) tablets, the replacement tablets and Moses’ staff.

    I don’t know what your doctorate is in, but clearly it has not rendered you a competent exponent of the Jewish religion!

    Oh, and Jews never used thimble-sized cups in their blessings over wine since their religious law sets forth minimum capacities for those vessels rather than a requirement they be made of silver. Sheesh!

    • If you were a competent exponent of the Jewish religion, you would have read the article more carefully, and you wouldn’t have been so quick to act like a shmuck. Go to the Jewish museum in NY and look at the collection of old silver bechers used by Ukrainian Jews. They are thimble shaped and not much bigger. I am quite aware of Halachic prescriptions, but also aware of Minhag accommodations made for the poor. You were right to mention the showbread, I meant to say Jars of Manna, which I corrected. Your lousy attitude was totally unnecessary. If this is the best attitude you can bring to a discussion, stay off my blog. There is no excuse for bad behavior.

  2. “Just so you know,” who in the he– are you? I don’t think I have EVER heard a Jew make reference to the so-called “Pentateuch.” Your pontification was arrogant and insulting to one of the most educated and knowledgeable Jews I have ever met, or ever expect to meet. Your comments sound a lot like the many Christians who get into our Movement and then think they know so much they need to straighten us out. Are you one of those? If so, please go back to church and straighten them out first.

    After you have learned a lot more about Torah and about Judaism, and after your conversion to Judaism is complete, come back and see us. We might then be a bit more receptive to your remarks.

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