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.

When Your Tzitzit Come Untied: More Than a Blog About Fringes

There is a Jewish tradition of making a brakha (blessing) over the ritual fringes that are commanded in the Torah: 

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 

The verse continues to explain why Israel is commanded to wear fringes with cords of blue in them: 
You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God.” – verses 39 & 40. 

That was just a little background on tzitzit (tassels/fringes). Now, I will get to the subject matter of the post. 

Anyways, like I was saying; there is a tradition of making a blessing to God for giving us the opportunity to wear these fringes everyday so that they might serve the purpose for which they were intended. That blessing goes like this: 
בָּרוּך אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-להֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעוֹלָם אַשֶׁר קִדְשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ עַל מִצְוַת צִיצִת

“Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us regarding the commandment of fringes.” 

There is another tradition that accompanies the first one; examining the tzitzit to make sure the fringes are suitable to be worn. This means checking out the strands of the fringes to make sure they are tied and that the strands are not overly frayed. In many instances, these fringes can be metaphors for one’s spiritual life. I had an encounter with this recently. 

Though I’m devoted to Torah observance, my practice of certain traditions that surround different mitzvot (commands) of Torah isn’t all that strong. I don’t always kiss a mezuzah when I pass it, I don’t always make a brakha before I eat, and I don’t always check my tzitzit. 

Lately, I had been pretty immersed in things going on at work, things going on with my band, my friends, hobbies, and additional activities to the point of it cutting in on my prayer life and my study of Torah. I was very stressed out about a whole number issues going on in my life one morning, when I went to don my tzitzit, I noticed that the double-knot in the bottom of a few of them had come completely untied. These were not easy knots to untie and I know my cat had not been in my room, they must have been coming untied over the course of a few days.  Instead of just immediately stopping to tie them, I sat on the edge of my bed, held them in my hands, and just stared at them for a couple minutes. 

A rush of shame washed over me. No, not shame of a couple knots that weren’t tied correctly (the Torah makes no law about how exactly tzitzit should be tied, so that part of it has been left up to the wearer’s discretion), but about myself. I had been so wrapped in my life that I had it took God causing my tzitzit to become untied to get my attention. In that instant, my tzitzit were me. They were starting to come untied just like I was letting stress and other activities make me begin to unravel. 

It took me a second to gather up my thoughts, make a blessing to God for my tzitzit, and get to work, but the thought stuck with me the entire day. Wearing tzitzits has been one of the weirdest experiences of my life, but also one of the most rewarding. Just like these strands of white and blue are never far from me, this helps me remember that God is never far from me either. 

Because we can’t see God just like we can’t see the wind, God instructed B’nai Israel to wear these weird fringes on the four corners of their garments so that we can begin to see the good that He brings to the world everyday. They are a reminder that He is always there. Baruch HaShem (Blessed be The Name [of God]).

– Ken