Beautifying Mitzvahs – Celebrating the Commandments of Torah

Celebrate What You Love 

Most anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to the Scriptures, though I love them (and by “love” I really mean “commitment” and not “love” like I love falafel and anything vivace orange), I tend to be pretty straight-forward with them. I usually don’t like to read things into the text or shoe-horn in theology that I don’t think exists plainly in the Hebrew. With that being said, I do enjoy celebrating the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah by going all out/above and beyond (where it is allowed, of course). This is referred to as “beautifying” a commandment. Let me elaborate. 

Tzitzit: Express Yourself. 

The Torah, which can be extremely specific in some cases, leaves a good amount of room for an individual’s interpretation on how to carry out a mitzvah in many instances. One of my favorite examples is tzitzit. Here is what the Torah says about the mitzvah of tzitzit: 

דבר אל־בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם ועשו להם ציצת על־כנפי בגדיהם לדרתם ונתנו על־ציצת הכנף פתיל תכלת
“Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner.”
– Numbers 15:38

 In another section of Torah, it says to put them on the four corners of your garments, but it really doesn’t say much more about them at all. Many people have asked me how to tie tzitzit. Really, there are so many different answers to this question. You can tie them Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Karaite, with the bunny going around the tree in and down the rabbit hole, or any other way you really want to as long as you include a strand of blue and no forbidden materials (no blood-soaked or pig-skin tzitzit, please). In all actuality, you could just have pieces of blue string hanging off the corners of your garment and it would fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit. You could even have tzitzit with one strand of orange to cheer on your favorite NBA basketball team (as long as you also have the blue)! Still, it’s up to you. Some choose to beautify this commandment with different knots and numbered wraps that represent different aspects of Scripture. These people aren’t doing anything wrong, but rather they’re just choosing to beautify the mitzvah of tzitzit. 

Sidelocks and Coffee Mugs

One of my favorite rabbis of all time is a rabbi I met in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) in 2009 by the name of Yom Tov Glaser. Rabbi Glaser talked about beautifying commandments in this way: 

“(Talking about peyot/peyos – the locks that many observant Jews grow long from the temples of their hands in keeping and beautifying the commandment to not shave the hair from the sides of one’s head🙂 You don’t have to grow them long. The reason I grow mine long – and you’ll see many hasidim and other types of people who grow them long – Yemenites grow them long – is our way of saying to G-d, ‘thank You for this opportunity to serve You by not shaving the sides of my head…’
…Kiddush (sanctifying an event with wine) – all I have to do is drink grape juice. You can grab a coffee mug – a plastic coffee mug. But what do I do? I take a $140 silver cup, a beautiful silver cup, handcrafted, and that’s what I make kiddush out of. That’s my way of saying ‘thank You’ to G-d for having given me that mitzvah. That’s what these are (points to sidelocks). Normally, we beautify a positive commandment. These are the rare case where we’re beautifying a negative commandment. It’s says don’t shave, so I grow.”

Mitzvot as My Security Blanket

ken lane side locks peyot

Being that I’m currently in a major life transition right now (recently divorced, trying to figure out life again, etc.), I’ve taken Rabbi Glaser’s advice and have been growing my peyot out long again just as another means of, like he said, beautifying a commandment. Does this mean that all Torah observant people need to grow out these long side-locks? Of course not. All the Torah says is, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard (Leviticus 19:27).” So, as long as you’re not shaving your temples, that is all that is asked. The reason why I am growing mine out longer than the rest of my hair is largely because my current situation has left me feeling vulnerable and I personally feel the need to celebrate Elohim’s Torah in any way I can. Will I ever trim them? Possibly, but for right now, the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah are just like a secur
ity blanket and they comfort me. I usually put my side locks behind my ears because they’re for me and the Father – not for anyone else. They are never, ever meant to be a symbol of piety. If anything, for me, they’re a symbol of weakness and need for help from the Father. Still, first and foremost, they are a “thank You” to my Heavenly Father for giving me the Handbook for Living: His Torah.

Torah: Customization Comes Standard

The beautiful thing about beautifying commandments is that it’s optional. Like Rabbi Glaser said, you can sanctify the Father’s Name with a plastic coffee mug. You can just wear blue pieces of yarn on the four corners of your garment. Still, I personally feel the the reason why so many of the mitzvot of the Torah are incredibly vague and open-ended is because the Most High wants to see us apply this commandments to our lives in a way that fits our own personalities. Maybe you like the traditional Ashkenazi style of tying tzitzit over the Karaite style or you prefer short hair on your temples over long – it’s your decision. When people talk about how restrictive the Torah of the Most High can be, I always want to show them how much room for personalization and growth exists within the Torah itself.

Making Your Own Prayer Book: Siddurim For Dummies

Lately, I had been growing somewhat spiritually lazy in my walk with the Most High. After a couple traumatic events in my life as well as some greatly beneficial occurrences, I’ve recently decided to rededicate myself to the God of Israel all over again. What this really means is that I’ve been trying to light a fire under my own tuchus to become passionate about the things of God on a daily basis. For the past several months, my prayer life and Torah study had been a touch less than regular – which was especially detrimental because it was when I needed both of those things the most. One aspect of my spiritual recharge has been daily prayer. By making genuine prayer a go-to activity, you’re helping to strengthen your bond with your Creator everyday and you feel like He’s not quite so far away. One great way to do this is to have set prayers for certain times that you attach your heart to while you pray in those times when you don’t know what to pray. Though certain denominations have their own prayers that they pray, the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), though full of prayers itself, does not require anyone to use any specific prayers at any specific times. While some say this is because that we are to follow the traditions of elders and sages to figure out which prayers to pray and when (you may already know how I feel about that), I personally feel like this freedom that HaShem has purposely inserted into a Torah-observant life is so that we can choose which prayers best jive with our hearts to make our time praying as meaningful as possible. One of the best ways to exercise this freedom of prayer is to make your own prayer book, aka: siddur (“see-door”).

Make a prayer book that reflects how to interact with the Creator.

If you were to look on my bookshelf many years ago, you would have found an entire row of different siddurim (prayer books). There were different translations put out by different publications and sects within Judaism. Some were long, some short, some English, some Hebrew, and the like. Why so many? Because I was having trouble finding a prayer book that really jived with my neshama (soul) to get me to a place of true kavanah (spiritual alignment/concentration) with HaShem. If prayer doesn’t ultimately help elevate your spirit to the Creator, it doesn’t do a lot of good. Some siddurim had prayers I liked, but disliked the service while others had some with prayers I felt no connection to and drove me to boredom. Overtime, I would pray with multiple siddurim – jumping to this book for this prayer, that book for that prayer, etc. This got to be very disruptive to my kavanah. One day, I had the idea to make my own prayer book. Sounds easy, right? Well, it all depends. Here are a couple of my tips.

The Obvious: Find prayers that speak to your soul.

Maybe you own many different siddurim and you’re fishing out which prayers you like the best. Maybe you don’t own any and you have no idea where to start. Before you drop a bunch of money on siddurim, explore online resources for possible prayer resources that jive with you. Resources can run from Chabad-Lubavitch Prayers to Karaite Jewish University’s Online Siddur and beyond. Check your local library to see if they have some siddurim (many do) as well as the library of a local synagogue. Borrow some siddurim from friends who don’t use them on a regular basis, but make sure to return them or they’ll haunt your shelves. (Just kidding…kind of.)

Even with all of these prayer books from great minds, never forget that some of the greatest prayers ever written/prayed were that of David ha’Melech (King David) and Shlomo ha’Melech (King Solomon) in Tehillim (Psalms) and Mishle (Proverbs) in the Hebrew Bible. Many siddurim make use active use of these works and some even simply reorganize the chapters for specific prayers. For instance, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism) used to pray what he called the “Tikkun Ha’Klali” (the Great Remedy) for helping remedy or immoral thought or for penitence. What is the Tikkun Ha’Klali? It is simply certain chapters from Tehillim prayed in a particular order: chapters 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150. Just as Rabbi Nachman did, search through the Scriptures to find passages that speak to your soul in certain situations. Organize these passages into sections and use them to make a prayer service custom fit to your heart. 

Make your prayers/prayerbook convenient enough for you to use. 

This tip has multiple implications. On one hand, this means to keep the length of the prayers in mind and on the other, it means to give thought to how convenient the physical book will be for you to take with you for years to come. If you assemble a prayer service for yourself that takes 45 minutes to an hour to pray, the chances of you going through this prayer service on the daily basis multiple times are slim. Keep the services within a time frame that would make them easy to pray in the morning before work or school, maybe a shorter one in the afternoons when you find time, one in the evenings possibly after dinner, and then one that you say right before you turn off the lights to go to sleep. Again, when you pray is still up to you. Scripture says that Daniel prayed 3 times a day facing Jerusalem, so many base their prayer schedule off of that. Still, you have quite a bit of freedom according to the Scriptures. Look to the text to see when certain characters prayed. Figure out a schedule that works for you. 

As far as a physical book goes, that’s completely up to you. Some people choose to just print out a prayer book they’ve made for themsel
ves while some even choose to have one especially bound – which can get expensive, especially for just one copy. Personally, I’m a fan of the Moleskine notebook. Moleskine is a brand, but it also denotes a certain style of notebook. Typically, it’s a blank notebook with either lined or unlined pages, a hard, leather-like cover, and an elastic band that can keep it closed when you’re on the go. I especially like the Moleskine notebooks because they’re fairly tough and they can fit even in your back pocket. While you can choose to go out and drop anywhere from $10-$20 on a new Moleskine-brand notebook from most any bookstore, you can also buy a similar style notebook from most office supply stores for $2-$5. The only difference would be brand name and possibly quality. Once you have your book, you can carefully hand-write your prayers into your book for a personal feel that will last for decades – if not longer. 

Leave room for hitbodedut – personal prayer. 

One of the downfalls of pre-written prayers is that they can limit your prayer life if spur-of-the-moment outpourings of the heart are not incorporated into one’s prayer life. Over time, if someone never prays in their own words, their prayer routine becomes just that – a routine. When you put your prayer services together, make sure to leave proper gaps for what Rabbi Nachman of Breslov would call “hitbodedut”, or secluded personal prayer. Nachman encouraged his students to pray to God every day for an hour in their own words. This was to be in addition to their daily prayers. Nachman would instruct them to speak to God in a conversational tone, as though the Holy One was sitting right beside them, listening like a dear friend. While your personal prayer doesn’t have to be quite an hour (I realize that we live in a pretty fast-paced world), inserting pockets for personal prayer surrounded by your favorite pre-written prayers can really help your kavanah while you pray. Just like the opening band of show gets the crowd warmed up for the headliner, pre-written prayers when you don’t know what to pray can help open your spirit to what’s really on your heart.

Most of all, never feel like you must be locked in to one set prayer service. Just as your heart is always changing, let your prayers change to reflect it. Still, from getting your day started out of a sleepy stupor to wanting to pray when you’re lost for words and you simply wish to cry out to the Creator, your trusty siddur is a great place to start.

Here is a video I made on the subject of liturgical prayer in 2009. Don’t mind the terrible jokes and other assorted nonsense.