Recently I was introduced to a Jewish religious concept called “hiddur mitzvah” or הידור מצוה. I was immediately intrigued when the meaning of the phrase was explained to me, but in the Gospels Jesus is clear that traditions of men are repulsive to Him, so I knew that I needed to answer the question “What does God think of hiddur mitzvah?” I’d like to share with you what I discovered because I think there is some deep value in the exploration of hiddur mitzvah.
It’s important to note that, unlike English, Hebrew is written right to left, so in the title above, “mitzvah” is the second word in the phrase and it’s the word on the left. As I began my study on this topic I quickly recognized the word mitzvah, having heard of the terms “bar mitzvah” and “bat mitzvah” before. But honestly even though I had heard the word before, I still had no idea what it meant.
It turns out that the Hebrew word mitzvah is used nearly 200 times in the Old Testament! If you have access to Strong’s Concordance you’ll find mitzvah listed as H4687. Most often this Hebrew word is translated “commandment” but it’s also translated “precept”, “law” and “ordinances”. Mitzvah is used 22 times in Psalm 119 alone including verses 6, 10, 19 and 21. Here is another example of the use of mitzvah in context:
So the word “mitzvah” is clearly very Biblical but what about “hiddur”? Unfortunately my knowledge of Hebrew is limited, so thus far I have been unable to determine if “hiddur” is in the Old Testament — I’m not saying it’s not there, I’m just saying that if it is there I have been unable to find it. Hiddur roughly expresses the idea of beautification, elevation or enhancement.
So, the entire phrase hiddur mitzvah means ‘To beautify the commandment.’
Jewish people explain hiddur mitzvah by examples similar to the following: The image that accompanies this blog post is a lovely carved wood reading table from a Jewish synagogue. An inexpensive card table would suffice to set The Towrah upon during scripture reading, but this particular synagogue labored to create (or added the additional expense of purchasing) this lovely, handcrafted piece of furniture. God does command His people to hear and read His Word, so reading The Word is a mitzvah. If God’s Word is set on card table while it is being read and heard, His commandment is obeyed, BUT, if His Word is set on a hand carved wood podium while The Word is read and heard, the commandment is being not only obeyed but it is also being beautified.
I like to say that hiddur mitzvah isn’t simply obedience, it’s obeying beautifully. It's critical to note that beautiful obedience flows genuinely from a good heart and is not at all legalistic or forced.
After I got into my research, I quickly realized that my little flock has unwittingly practiced hiddur mitzvah in our Sunday Morning worship services. Our church has obeyed God’s command to gather together (see Hebrews 10:23-25) for worship on Sunday Mornings for over 35 years, but a few years ago we added a table in our sanctuary that holds 3 small candles that we light during the service in honor of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. The candles aren’t necessary for us to obey the mitzvah in Hebrews 10, but they are enjoyable to behold and remind us of The Trinity. This may seem like a simple example, but I believe God loves it when we not only obey, but we obey with style out of a pure heart.
There are numerous examples of hiddur mitzvah in The Bible including The Good Samaritan who doesn’t simply obey the command to love his neighbor — he lavishes and lavishes upon the injured man! Also, the woman who anointed Jesus in Luke 7:36-47 didn’t simply ‘love The Lord her God with all her heart, soul and mind’ she also loved Him with her hands, her tears, her lips and her bank account as the oil that she anointed Jesus with was VERY costly. What beautiful, beautiful obedience her actions prove.
I believe it’s also clear that Jesus Himself beautified His Father's command through His death on the cross. The Father’s will was that Jesus die for all mankind, and in Matthew 26:38-39 Jesus promised to do His Father’s will. But Jesus didn’t simply die a quick, painless death, He died the slow, gruesome death of crucifixion. He didn’t take the easy way out, rather He went voluntarily, like a lamb to the slaughter (see Isaiah 53:7). Paul and Timothy describe Jesus’ hiddur mitzvah in this way:
Jesus didn’t simply die, He died the death of the cross. What beautiful obedience! Hiddur mitzvah isn't just a Jewish concept, it's a Biblical truth for all of God's true children.
If you obey God’s commands, then how do you obey? Do you expend the least amount of energy necessary to obey, or do you hiddur mitzvah?
Below is a list some Biblical examples of hiddur mitzvah.
Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Note that Abraham “rose early” to obey, proclaimed to his servants that both he and Isaac would return and told Isaac that The Lord would provide: See Genesis 22:1-8
Israel's generous Tabernacle offerings: See Exodus 25:1-8 and 35:29-36:7.
David’s desire to upgrade The Tabernacle: See 2 Samuel 7:1-3 and 1 Chronicles 22 (especially verses 3-7, 14-16, 19).
The anointing of Jesus at Simon the Leper’s home: See Matthew 26:6-13
The good Samaritan: See Luke 10:30-35
Please leave a comment below with a Biblical example (or two) of hiddur mitzvah that you can think of.
Additional scriptures: Exodus 28:1-2, Exodus 28:40, Colossians 3:22-24 and Titus 2:9-10