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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


Beauty and holiness are thought to be  two opposing poles around which the world turns. One is concerned with the material universe, the other with the spiritual dimension of life. One glorifies the body, the other venerates the soul. One is concerned with space, the other with time. One is rooted in Athens, the other in Jerusalem. One is a product of the pagan world, the other an offspring of the Bible.

In one of his essays, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks discusses the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. He argues that Judaism is a culture of the ear more than the eye: "As a religion of the invisible G-d, it attaches sanctity to words heard, rather than objects seen…" In other words, Jews saw the beauty of holiness, while pagan culture tended to see the holiness of beauty.

Although we don’t always stop to think about it, aesthetics plays a role in Jewish life as well, particularly on Sukkot. Hiddur Mitzvah, literally 'beautifying the commandments,' is considered to be an important aspect of how we fulfill G-d's laws. It is not enough to simply perform a mitzvah one should try to perform it in an aesthetically pleasing way.

In the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, there is a flurry of activity in Jewish communities. Not only are we busy building sukkot, but people seek out the most beautiful lulav and etrog they can find. If you visit certain Jewish neighborhoods around the world you find customers painstakingly inspecting each lulav and etrog to find the most beautiful specimens with which to fulfill the commandment of rejoicing on Sukkot. Each has to be perfect. The myrtle and willow leaves have to be succulent and green. The etrog has to have just the right shape without any blemishes. The lulav has to have a perfect spine that reaches the tip of the palm branch.

This is more than just a matter of fulfilling the legal requirements of the law. The Sages point out that in the pasuk from Exodus (15/2), zeh eli vei'an'veihu, "This is my G-d and I will glorify Him," the word vei'an'veihu comes from the word naveh or noy, which means "beautiful." They explain the verse in this way: "This is my G-d and I will make G-d beautiful." Rabbi Ishmael commented on this interpretation "Is it possible for a person of flesh and blood to glorify G-d? Rather, it means, I will be beautiful before him with a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful fringes, and beautiful Tefillin.”

Jews are not indifferent to aesthetics. Rather, for Jews, aesthetics are a means rather than a goal. It was not beauty for beauty's sake but beauty in the service of G-d. In the words of Rabbi Sacks, "Art in Judaism always had a spiritual purpose: to make us aware of the universe as a work of art, testifying to the supreme Artist, G-d."

To read more of Rabbi Sacks’ article, click here.

Hag Sameach