Tefillah Tuesday: Hiddur Mitzvah

The final major element in Pesukei d’Zimra is שירת הים, the “Song of the Sea” [Shirat Hayam] from Exodus 15, which Moses and the Israelites sang upon escaping Egypt for good, when “they saw Egypt dead on the sea shore.” The simplest semantic meaning of this line is that they saw a great mass of Egyptian soldiers dead, and in its totality, this mass takes on a singular noun, as in the English examples of “fish” and “grass.” But, in this case, that singular noun carries the additional poetic resonance that not only were “the Egyptians” dead, but at last “Egypt” itself was gone, and it was time for the Israelites to turn their backs on the past and heard into the wilderness.

This poem is so rich with material that stimulates good davening – and some that poses obstacles to it – that it is worth lingering over for a couple of weekly posts.

Let me note again that Shirat HaYam is a late addition, not originally integral to Pesukei d’Zimra. This collection of praises centers on the final six chapters of Psalms, from 145-150, bracketed with an introductory blessing, Barukh She’Amar, and a concluding blessing, Yishtabah. Only sometime in the middle ages, Shirat HaYam became a standard element. In the immediate post-Talmudic age in Iraq, some localities recited the song only on Shabbat, while others did not recite it at all. Reflecting this diversity, Maimonides [Prayer 7.13] states that some communities recite Shirat HaYam only after Yishtabah – that is, outside Pesukei d’Zimra – while other communities recite the poem Ha’azinu [Deuteronomy 32] instead. In contrast, in Italy, France and Germany they recited Shirat HaYam daily.

Today I want to reflect on one of the early phrases in the song: זה א’לי ואנוהו, “This is my God and I will beautify Him.” How can a person beautify the Creator, the Sages ask [Mekhilta Beshallach 3; Talmud Shabbat 133b]? By doing the commandments in aesthetically beautiful ways. For instance, one should seek out beautifully calligraphed Torah scrolls, build beautiful Sukkot, blow a beautiful shofar and wear a graceful tallit.

This teaching – known in Hebrew as הידור מצוה, Hiddur Mitzvah, “beautifying the commandments” – calls our attention to the aesthetic dimension of religious life. When you daven this verse, try to focus on making your worship lovely and graceful.

The point is not to get prayer over with as quickly as possible. The point is to make art from your worship, and imagine yourself an artist. For some of us, the most natural arena for Hiddur Mitzvah is the poetry of the prayer book and those poems added by later writers. Others feel beauty most easily in music. Still others, the Betzalels among us, are drawn to material culture, and Jewish art, for synagogue and home. Certainly each person can find a way to make his or her Jewishness into a work of art.

And in doing so, you shape the art of your own character. The Talmud’s words expresses this call to beauty perfectly: התנאה לפניו במצות, “make yourself beautiful” or “be beautiful” through mitzvot.