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Shelach-Performing Mitzvas Beautifully Old, New; Big, Small


Old, fraying tzitzis… yellowed, worn tallis… the iconic Jewish garments – or are they?

“Ze Keili ve’anvehu” is a pasuk from Shiras Hayam that teaches the mitzva of beautifying items used for mitzvos.

Should a tallis be pretty? Is there a mitzva to buy a new one when the old one is, well, old? How much should be spent on these items? What if I don’t have the money? Is there a mitzva to spend money on a nice beged – the garment on which the tzitzis strings are tied? And if so, wouldn’t it make sense to, likewise, spend a lot of money on a nice house because it is necessary for affixing the mezuzah? This, and more, is the topic of the following article.

Beautiful Tzitzis

The final mitzva discussed in the upcoming parashah is the mitzva of tzitzis: “Speak to the children of Yisrael and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations… ” (Bamidbar 15:38).

The Gemara (Maseches Shabbos 133b; Nazir 2b) explains that it isn’t enough to simply tie the tzitzis strings – tzitzis must also be made beautifully. What counts as beautiful? Since beauty is in the eyes of its beholder, if it cannot be seen because it is, for example, worn under clothing — is it still necessary? Is there any difference if people (other than the wearer) can see it or not? And how great is this obligation?

The following article will investigate the obligation of beatification – when it applies, its sources, reasons and practical financial requirements.

Hidur Mitzva

The Source

The Gemara in Yerushalmi infers this mitzva from a passuk in Sefer Shemos: “Ze Keili Ve’anvehu – this is my G-d I will make Him a habitation”: ּ Ve’anvehu also means beautify: How can one make his G-d beautiful? And the Gemara answers: Beautify yourself before Him in mitzvos. Through making items of mitzva beautiful, we will be “making Hashem beautiful”.

The Breita (Shabbos 133b; Nazir 2b; Yerushalmi ibid) further illustrate the matter: Beautify yourself before Him in mitzvos. Even if one fulfills the mitzva by performing it simply, it is nonetheless proper to perform the mitzva as beautifully as possible. Make before Him a beautiful sukkah; a beautiful lulav; a beautiful shofar; beautiful ritual fringes; beautiful parchment for a Torah scroll: write His name in it in beautiful ink, with a beautiful quill, by an expert scribe, and wrap the scroll in beautiful silk fabric.

The Best – And The Worst

Beautifying items of worship is a concept that appears very early in world history. When the first children, Kayin and Hevel served their sacrifices, Kayin is noted to have brought his sacrifice “of the fruit of the soil”: of the most inferior produce (Bereshis 4:3, Midrash Raba), while Hevel’s sacrifice sourced “of the firstborn of his flocks and of their fattest” — the choicest animals in his flock. And the end of that sacrifice was as expected – “…And the Lord turned to Hevel and to his offering.” G-d accepted Hevel’s offering, and rejected Kayin’s.

Later in history, when the infant Jewish nation just began sculpting its relationship with G-d by means of the Korbanos, they are informed of the Korban Tamid – the daily offering: “The one lamb you shall offer up in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon” (Bamidbar 28:4). The Gemara learns from the words “the oneechad” that the sacrifice should be the choicest animal in the flock. The same is deduced from the words “The choice of vows…” (Devarim 12:11) — when vowing to bring a korban, the pledge must be filled by the best animal. [See the Sha’agas Arye (part 1, end of chapter 3) who explains that this halacha is one of the halachos of hidur mitzva, learned from the passuk “Ze Keili v’anvehu“.]

Later in history, the last navi, Malachi, admonishes the nation for their choice of sacrifices: “When you offer a blind [animal] for a sacrifice, is there nothing wrong? And when you offer a lame or a sick one, is there nothing wrong?” (1:8) Those who had better animals but chose those of lesser quality are accused in these psukim of disparaging G-d.

Although chazal teach us that “Rachmana liba ba’ei – G-d wants the heart” and the actual quality of the korban does not determine its worthiness, this holds true when doing the best one possibly can. Nevertheless, one who is stingy despite having the means to do more is branded by Malachi as a ‘cursed’ individual (1:14).

In the same chapter, Malachi outlines the test to determine a sacrifice’s validity: “Were you to offer it to your governor, would he accept you or would he favor you?” (1:8). The poskim view this test as the yardstick to measure all items chosen for mitzvos – if one could gain favor with it in the eyes of his governor—if it is worthy of the King’s table — it is worthy of G-d’s service. [Examples: Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch, (Orech Chaim 296:3; Yoreh Deah 108:6) regarding wine and besamim for Havdala; Prisha (Orech Chaim 282:2-3) and Magen Avraham (282:1) regarding wine for Kiddush; Magen Avraham (53:8) regarding a shliach tzibbur, and many more.]

In the psukim speaking of separating and giving the trumos and ma’asros we are admonished: ” From all your gifts, you shall set aside every gift of the Lord, from its choicest portion, that part of it which is to be consecrated” (Bamidbar 18:29). Terumos and ma’asros must come from the highest quality fruit. And furthermore, Sifri (ibid; Maseches Yevamos 89b; Maseches Temura 5a) teaches that it is an aveira to remove (and donate) the poor-quality produce to absolve the higher quality crop. The Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos, ase 129) sees this obligation as part of the mitzva of giving teruma, while the Ramban (Hasagos l’Sefer Hamitzvos, 328, negative mitzva 7) counts this as a separate negative mitzva.

Ze Keili Ve’anvehu – D’oraysa, or proof?

The Ra’avad (Maseches Succa 13a) and Derech Tamim (Maseches Berachos 38a) both agree that Hidur Mitzva is a Torah-obligated mitzvah. The Sha’agas Arye (part 1: 50) takes it even further – according to the Sha’agas Aryeh, when performing a mitzva that “trumps” Shabbos, if one wants to “re-do” it again for the hidur, it is permitted on Shabbos.

On the other hand, Tosefos (Maseches Menachos 41B) and the Ritva both hold the opinion that Hidur is a mitzva m’drabonon, and the passuk “Ze keili v’anvehu” serves only as an asmachta – an indication.

Maharam Ben Chaviv takes another route in determining the status of this mitzva: according to his opinion (Kapot Tmarim, Succa 29b) Hidur Mitzva is a mitzva m’deorisa, but the Torah gave the rabonon the power to decide which hidurm are just lechtchila i.e. are preferable and which are required-if one performs a mitzvah without them the entire mitzvah is invalid.

Who Needs Beauty?

Rashi (Maseches Succa 36b) explains why beauty is a necessary component of mitzvos. When performing a mitzva, we recite a bracha, and uttering Hashem’s name should only be on the best.

The Rambam (Hilchos Issurei Mizbeiach, chapter 7, halacha 11) writes:

One who desires to gain merit for himself, subjugate his evil inclination, and amplify his generosity should bring his sacrifice from the most desirable and superior type of the item he is bringing. For it is written in the Torah [Bereishis 4:4]: “And Hevel brought from his chosen flocks and from the superior ones and G-d turned to Hevel and his offering.”

The same applies to everything given for the sake of the Almighty. It should be of the most attractive and highest quality. If one builds a house of prayer, it should be more attractive than his own dwelling. If he feeds a hungry person, he should feed him from the best and most tasty foods on his table. If he clothes one who is naked, he should clothe him with his attractive garments.

How Much Hidur Mitzva?

The Gemara (Maseches Bave Kama 9b; Yerushalmi, Peah 1:4) quantifes the amount one should spend on Hidur Mitzva – up to one-third. In the works of the Rishonim we find several understandings of this measurement:

  1. The Yerushalmi (Peah 1:1), Rabbenu Chananel (Bave Kama 9b) and Rashi (Bave Kama 9b) maintain that when buying objects for a mitzva one should add a third of the price for additional beauty.
  2. The Tosefos (Bave Kama 9b) attributes the hidur to size – if the object can be larger by a third in size, it should be purchased.
  3. Rabbeinu Tam (Smag, ase 43) combines the two opinions: the definition of hidur is in the size – one should buy a larger esrog, for example – and add up to a third in the price.

[It is interesting to note that the Rosh in Sukkah 3:12 follows the first opinion but in Bava Kama 1:7 he takes the third.]

The Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 656:1) quotes the third opinion l’halacha but also makes mention of the first one.

Measuring 1/3

The gemara in inconclusive as of how to measure this one-third: from within or from without: i.e. do we take the cheaper/smaller object and add another third to it (133%), or does the minimum available consist of 2/3, and the final 1/3 act as Hidur Mitzva (150%)?

To illustrate the question, let us use for example an esrog. A kosher esrog cost $100 [or, according to the Tosefos – is the size of 3.381 fl oz]. Is one obligated to buy an esrog for $133 [or 4.508 fl oz] because of Hidur Mitzva? Or, according to the other opinion, if one can buy a kosher esrog for $100 [or 3.381 fl/oz.] is he obligated to buy one for $150 [the size of 5.071 fl oz] for Hidur Mitzva? (In this case $100 is the minimum necessary and $50 serves as fulfillment of the chiyuv of Hidur Mitzva.)

The gemara here remains undecided, and the Rishonim are divided in their opinions. Rabbeinu Chananel (Bava Kama 9b) and others rule stringently in this matter, while the Rosh (Bava Kama 1:7) rules leniently. The Shulchan Aruch determines the halacha leniently (Orech Chaim 656:1) while the Mishna Brura quotes the more stringent opinions.

Exchanging the Esrog

Another difference in opinion relates to the stage in which a better esrog becomes available. Rabbenu Chananel and Rashi (Bava Kama 9b) agree that the obligation to buy the better item is only before the purchase. On the other hand, Tosefos (ibid), Rabbeinu Tam (Smak, ase 44) and the Rosh (Sukkah, chapter 3:12) maintain that even if the better esrog was only found after the purchase, one is obligated, if possible, to sell the esrog of lesser quality and buy the better one in compliance with the halachos of Hidur Mitzva. Nevertheless, the Magen Avraham and the Mishna Brura both agree that if selling the first esrog is impossible, there is no obligation to buy the second esrog and have two esrogim for Sukkos.

L’halacha, the Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 656:1) follows the first opinion – one must exchange his esrog if the size meets only the barest minimum requirement. There, he quotes Rabbeinu Chananel and Rashi’s opinions as an additional opinion. Mishna Brura quotes the Gra, and maintains that perhaps also Rabbeinu Chananel and Rashi would agree that it should be exchanged, as opposed to the Shulchan Aruch’s understanding of their opinion.

Nevertheless, the Biur Halacha writes (656) that all the above is said and true if the first purchase was unquestionably kosher, and the only issue is the size or appearance. If the first purchase was only kosher according to some opinions, although one can rely on them halachically, if it is possible to exchange it for something kosher without doubt at an added 1/3 of the cost, one must do so.

Halacha Lema’ase

Practically, the Shulchan Aruch (656:1) quotes as the first opinion (“Stam”) that exchanging must take place only if the second object is larger in size, not in appearance. Nevertheless, he does quote the opinion (“Yesh omrim”) that obligates exchanging for appearance. The rule in this case is that the halacha follows the first opinion and it is praiseworthy to be stringent and follow the second. The Mishna Brura, though, sides with the second opinion (“Yesh omrim”), i.e. even if the second object is only superior in its appearance, it must be exchanged.

At which point in time the two options become valid is also subject to different rulings: the Shulchan Aruch writes (as “Stam”) that one is obligated to try and exchange his purchase even post facto, while quoting the other opinion as well (as a “Yesh omrim”) — that the obligation to exchange is only if the two appear before him before the purchase. The Mishna Brura (Sha’ar Hatziyun 2) agrees that one is obligated to make the effort and exchange it even after the purchase. Therefore, the halacha requires one to try to exchange his purchase.

Regarding the difference of opinion as to how to measure the third, the Shulchan Aruch maintains that it is a third of the cheaper esrog (133%), while the Mishna Brura notes that some are stringent in adding 50% of the price of the cheaper esrog (and reaching 150% of the price).

A Third and Beyond

The Gemara in Bava Kama (9b), after determining how much one should spend on Hidur Mitzva, adds: “But from this point forward [beyond the 1/3], any additional sum spent on purchasing a more beautiful item comes from the largesse of the Holy One, Blessed be He.” The Rishonim disagree on the meaning of this quote.

  1. The Aruch and Rashi maintain that the obligation of Hidur Mitzva is up to an additional 1/3, and the reward for it will be reaped only in the Next World. However, one who spends more than that amount will be repaid in this world, and for this mitzva he will “eat the fruits in this world and the principle is preserved for the World to Come.”
  2. The Ra’avad and Nimukei Yosef (quoting the Rama) understand that one is obligated to make the effort for Hidur Mitzva only up to a third. Nevertheless, a person of means should do more than the calling of the law, even beyond the 1/3.

L’halacha, the Mishna Brura quotes both opinions and writes (Biur Halacha) that obviously, one in a tight financial situation is not obligated to spend money for Hidur Mitzva, and this case does not fall within the Gemara’s parameters.

Hidur Mitzva – Tzitzis

The mitzva of tzitzis is an extraordinary mitzva. Usually, the mitzva is connected to the object it involves, whereas with tzitzis, the garment on which the strings are tied is not the mitzva – it is the vehicle for performing the mitzva. There is no obligation to actually wear a four-cornered garment, only to tie the strings on it if he chooses to wear such a garment. And indeed, in our version of the Gemara it is written only that one should make a beautiful tzitzis – i.e. the fringes should be made beautiful. The Rishonim [Rashi, Bava Kama 9b; Rif, Sukkah 16a; Rosh, Sukkah chapter 3:12) had a version of the Gemara that extended the obligation of hidur in tzitzis not only to the fringes but also to the tallis, as is written in the Midrash (Sechel Tov, Shemos 15:21): “I shall make for His honor a beautiful tallis, properly fringed.” The Devar Avraham questions this: since the garment is not the actual mitzva — the mitzva is in tying the fringes — why does the garment have to be made beautiful? Is there any obligation to build a beautiful house in order to affix a mezuzah on its doorpost?

The Aderet (Over Orach, p.211) differentiates between the two: a tallis is clearly part of the mitzva, therefore it must be made beautiful. This is especially true nowadays, that the tallis is worn only for the mitzvah and not for other purposes, e.g. to keep warm. A house, though, is not built solely for its mezuzah, and there is no clear link between the beautiful home and the mezuzah.

From the discussion found in Rashi (Menachos 41b) and Nimukei Yosef (Halachos Ketanos, Hilchos Tzitzis) involving untying the tzitzis strings from the tallis because it is degrading to the tallis, we learn that they, too, obviously see the tallis as an object of a mitzva. The Piskei Rid (Shabbos 22a) also clearly indicates that one must honor his tallis as an object of a mitzva, resulting in the necessity to make the tallis beautiful, not only the fringes.

These are the sources from which Rav Moshe Sternbach shlit”a (Teshuvos V’hanhagos, volume 3, chapter 7; volume 4 chapter 246) deduces that the tallis itself is an object of the mitzvah. He delineates three levels of performance of the mitzva:

  1. If the garment is repulsive, the wearer did not fulfill a mitzva, just as some of the halachos of hadar render a lulav unfit.
  2. If it is not nice, but still wearable, the wearer does fulfill the mitzva, but he does not fulfill the obligation of Hidur Mitzva.
  3. If the garment is beautiful, the wearer performs the mitzvah properly.

He adds that since a bracha is recited over the tallis, and according to Rashi the reason for the mitzva of hiddur is because G-d’s name is pronounced on the object, therefore the tallis should be made beautiful. [This differs from a house, where one does not recite a blessing on the house but only on the affixing of the mezuzah.]

On the other hand, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in Iggros Moshe (Orech Chaim part 1, chapter 187) opines that there is no obligation to make the garment beautiful, and the mitzva is reserved only to the strings. The only issue of making one’s tallis beautiful is because it is an object of prayer — used only during prayer.

Invisible Clothing

An additional machlokes regarding Hidur Mitzva revolves around the visibility status. If the article of the mitzva cannot be seen does it have to be made beautiful nonetheless? For example, most people wear their tallis katan under their shirt – does the tallis katan still need to be nice? The parshiyos of tefillin are always covered – do they need to be made beautiful?

Rabbeinu Tam (Tosefos, Menachs 32b) and the Rambam (Hilchos Tefilin chapter 1:12) both agree that the concept of beauty is irrelevant for something that is always covered. The Mordechai, (257: 969, end of Halachos Ketanos) disagrees and writes that tefillin must be made beautiful inside and outside, just as the Beis Hamikdash was gold-plated also on the inside. Therefore, he maintains that one should make his tefillin with beautiful writing. This is also the Rema’s opinion (Orech Chaim 32:4. See also Moshna Brura 147:10).


Buying a Tallis

When going to purchase a tallis, if there are two tallisim in the store – one larger and more beautiful and the other smaller and of lesser beauty, according to he Shulchan Aruch one must pay more for the larger and nicer one, up to an additional third of the price of the smaller one. According to the Mishna Brura, one should even add up to half of the price of the smaller one.

If the difference between the talleisim is only in appearance, according to the Shulchan Aruch one is not obligated to pay more for it, but it is praiseworthy to do so, up to a third of the price of the simpler tallis, while according to the Mishna Brura it is a chiyuv m’ikar hadin and one should add up to an additional half of the price of the simpler tallis.

If the cheaper tallis is kosher only according to some shitos, one is obligated to add up to a third [or half] of the price of the cheaper tallis, and buy the one that is more kosher.

In any case, spending more money on a prettier, nicer or more mehudar tallis is certainly praiseworthy, to whatever extent one is financially capable. In merit of his additional expenditure one will merit “eating the fruits in this world and the principle will wait for him in the World-to-Come.” According to the Mishna Brura, a man of means must certainly spend more.

According to the Aderet and Rav Sternbuh, one who uses his tallis to keep warm and not only during tefilla is nevertheless still obligated to have a nice beged, while Rav Moshe Feinstein narrows the obligation of hidur only to the strings.

Old Tallis

If the price of a new tallis is up to a third (or half) of the sum more than one can receive from selling his old, yellowed tallis, he is obligated to do so. Practically speaking, this is unrealistic – I don’t think I ever saw a tallis in a second-hand clothing store or thrift shop – therefore, one is not halachically obligated to exchange an old, frayed tallis. Nevertheless, it is certainly praiseworthy to do so, and there is Hidur Mitzva involved in doing so.

According to Rav Moshe Sternbuch if the tallis is very unpleasant it cannot be used for the mitzva, and it must be exchanged.

Tallis Katan

According to the Rama, Hidur Mitzva pertains even to people who wear their tallis katan under their shirt.


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