A Jewish Esthetic

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein




Dedicated in memory of 
Joseph Y. Nadler, z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi





A Jewish Esthetic

Adapted by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish



“And you shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother, for honor and for splendor.” (Shemot 28:2)


This verse evokes the splendor and beauty of the priestly garments. The Torah’s description of these garments leads us to conclude that the Torah takes a positive view of elegance and grandeur, as least in connection with the Temple. This positive view is reflected in other sources, too, as in the concept of hiddur mitzva (literally, “beautifying a commandment”):


“This is my God and I shall adorn Him’ – [this means,] adorn yourself before Him, with the commandments.” (Shabbat 133b)


There are two aspects of hiddur mitzva. In some areas, the concept refers to complete or perfect fulfillment of the commandment. This has nothing to do with esthetics: on Chanuka, for example, lighting more candles is defined as hiddur mitzva although there is no esthetic advantage of two candles over one. However, there are areas where hiddur mitzva means, literally, “beautifying” our fulfillment of the commandment – such as in choosing the “four species” (lulav, hadas, arava and etrog) for Sukkot. It may be that importance of physically beautifying this mitzva lies in the fact that the four species are meant to express praise and thanks to God. When we approach God to give praise to Him, we should do so in the most dignified manner possible. (The Rishonim likewise explain that this is why the concept of a “mitzva that comes about through transgression” applies to a lulav, whereas in some other instances it does not.) In this regard, the four species are like the Temple and the sacrifices, and therefore the issue of esthetics has relevance. (Similarly, the concept of a “mitzva that comes about through transgression” applies in both of these areas.)


The idea of beauty itself would seem to comprise two aspects.


1.            A person who comes before God should do so in a dignified manner: “Adorn yourself before Him with the commandments.” In a number of places, the Gemara explains various stringencies related to sacrifices on the basis of the verse (speaking of kodashim kalim), “Were you to offer it now to your governor, would he be pleased with you or show you favor?” (Malakhi 1:8). Sacrifices should be offered in the proper manner, and an offering should not be defective.


2.            There are expressions of hiddur mitzva which are required in and of themselves, with no connection to man’s subjective intentions. A Sefer Torah, for example, must be written clearly and with well-formed letters; this has nothing to do with the scribe’s closeness to God, nor that of the reader. The same applies to the esthetic beauty of the Temple: it is an objective requirement. Ritual objects that represent God’s kingship in the world must look beautiful. The Temple must radiate grandeur because God’s Presence dwells in it. The Gemara comments, “There is no paucity in a place of plenty” (Shabbat 102b and elsewhere) – i.e., penny-pinching economics and destitution have no place when God’s honor and glory are involved. In this instance, beauty and grandeur are meant not only to impress the viewer, but in and of themselves should reflect the manifestation of God’s Presence in the world.  Although we cannot understand it, the verses attribute esthetic qualities to God: “Honor and majesty are before Him” (Tehillim 96:6); in our prayers we declare, “Honor and majesty to Him Who lives forever… beauty and eternity to Him Who lives forever.” Since we attribute absolute perfection to God, in our human perception this perfection must also include beauty. Therefore, that which expresses His kingship in the world must be as magnificent and splendid as possible.


From a more general perspective, too, we may say that Judaism views beauty and esthetics in a positive light. The Gemara (Berakhot 57) teaches that “three things expand a person’s consciousness: a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife, and beautiful utensils.”


Likewise, the Torah takes pains to describe the beauty of our matriarchs (and of Esther). The aspiration in Judaism is to combine external esthetics with an inner, spiritual beauty.


We might have concluded from the above that any act of Divine service should preferably include beauty and grandeur, but it would seem that this is not so. In this regard, we must take care not to equate the Temple with other forms of Divine service. The danger is that excessive emphasis on external esthetics will harm the inner dimension of our service. In America it is no longer customary to build synagogues of extreme opulence, since it the prayers that take place in such buildings become deficient: the physical structure certainly expands a person’s consciousness – but to the extent that there is little place left for God. A person is mesmerized by the grandeur and his prayer loses its urgent sense of supplication; it becomes rote recitation. Where there is not enough inner spiritual feeling, it is best to relinquish some outer physical wrapping; this leaves some chance of an inner awakening. Sincere, heartfelt prayer is more at home in a smaller, more modest synagogue than in a huge, imposing edifice. It is only when the spiritual state has become perfected that the external esthetic elements are appropriate. This is so in relation to the Temple: whoever visits the Temple has, in advance, an intense spiritual motivation, and this is amplified as he approaches and enters. In this scenario, esthetics and grandeur can only add to the spiritual experience.


In summary, the Temple should not be used as a model for instances where the spiritual preparation and motivation are not sufficiently strong. As an English writer once commented: “Clothes have turned us into humans, but we must take care that they do not turn us into wardrobes.”


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Tetzaveh 5755 [1995].)