“The Lord is my strength and my defence,He has become my salvation.He is my God, and I will praise him,My Father’s God, and I will exalt him."
and neither is my wife, but time and time again the phrase 'Hiddur Mitzvah' keeps coming back to us. It often seems to be significant to something we do, or something we are talking about. And probably because of our own heritage (Puritanical British Protestant? I don't know!) there's no phrase quite like it in our culture that holds the same meaning.
With a little online 'freesearch' (lazy research that takes little effort) I can discover that it supposedly stems from a Traditional Rabbinic Commentary of Exodus 15:2 and how it interprets the Hebrew word that most English translations read as 'exalt' or 'extol' (see verse above). The Hebrew verb here holds a lot of different meanings, and can mean to 'abide' or 'dwell' but also to 'adorn' or 'beautify' (which is why the KJV translates this verse quite differently) So Rashi, this Medieval Jewish Commentary, interprets this passage as "I will tell of His beauty and His praise to those who enter the world". And from this idea of trying to convey the LORD's beauty to the world, has arisen the custom of 'Hiddur Mitzvah'. It means to beautify the LORD's commands. The concept is that whilst we could do something for God in a basic or simple way, we instead give it significance and emphasise our devotion by doing it in a beautiful or generous way. We show the beauty of the LORD by obeying His commands in a beautiful way. This blogpost here explains a bit more of the modern Jewish use of Hiddur Mitzvah.
I have been brought up with the phrase "It's the thought that counts" ringing in my ear. The principle behind this is that when we are not able to spend a lot of money on someone, or not able to put a lot of effort into something, we know that the fact that we want to is still significant. Now this is very true but for me the phrase is more likely used to justify the forgetfulness and laziness of my poor efforts. Shame on me!
But do we also find that having the 'thought' as what counts in Christian life also leads to keeping things simple in Church too? We perhaps even look down upon extravagant ceremonies and lavish Church spending, seeing it as unhelpfully pompous and distracting from the supposedly more important issues. But Hiddur Mitzvah gives me a framework to recognise that beautification can be an amazing way to worship when done with the right attitude and directed at the right person (Always Christ). It also tells me that poor efforts are exactly that - poor! When it comes to our service to God, being quick, sloppy and cheap when using our time, effort and money is not really acceptable.
At home, Hiddur Mitzvah can start to saturate into a lot of things too, which is why it gets talked about a lot by my wife and me. We realise that if enjoying our marriage is a command [Ecc 9:9], and making our family work well is pleasing to the LORD [Col 3:19-21], then we have the opportunity to do it 'beautifully'. This usually means going the extra mile, and recognising when the other half has done the same. So we might suddenly serve up tea in a teapot on a nice tray with our nicest china. Not for any reason - but just to beautify the act of making tea for our spouse. Whilst this might be diluting the original intention of Hiddur Mitzvah a little, it's still helpful to realise that sometimes, it is both the thought and the effort that counts.
But what does that say about my freesearch?