While we often hear the word “mitzvah” used to mean a “good deed,” it really means “commandment” and there are 613 of those in the Torah. One of the Big Ten is “keep the Sabbath,” and we do that by sanctifying the time and setting aside our normal work. We get out the fancy kiddush cup and candlesticks, set a pretty table, and serve up special foods. Would it be the Sabbath if we had frozen fish sticks on a paper plate, with wine in plastic cups? Yes, but we could do the commandment more fully by making it beautiful—hiddur mitzvah.
Creative expressions within Judaism help along the doing of a mitzvah. Ornate rimmonim adorn the tips of the rollers - etzim - of a Torah scroll, and we drape a beautiful cloth called a ben gavrah over the scroll between readings. Some talaysim (prayer shawls) are made of the finest silk and are decorated with gorgeous designs. A mizrach - the Hebrew word for "east" - is placed on the wall of a home or synagogue to remind us to face Jerusalem as we pray.
Mizrachim have been created for centuries as folk art. In addition to serving a ritual purpose, some of them are very distinctive. As the artist creates a mizrach, he or she is helping to create kavanah, intention, during the time of prayer. Certainly, one may pray any time, any place. Facing east is a lovely custom, made lovelier by a beautiful mizrach. The mizrach shown here also serves to help count the omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.
How do you beautify the commandments?
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