For Sukkot: The significance of aesthetics in human life

In Judaism, the Torah indicates the esthetic aspects of several categories of objects.

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Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
INN: J. Fogel

Among the judgments that are performed by the human mind is what is known as the discernment of the esthetic quality within the objects of experience. Although the nature of this judgment and the reaction to it is fairly common among all cultures, the specific qualities of esthetic qualities are different in all cultures.  

In Judaism, the Torah indicates the esthetic aspects of several categories of objects.  The most famous of all is the raiment of the high priest.  God commands Moshe: “you are to manufacture sacred garments for your brother Aaron for the purpose of honor and glory.” Shemot 28:2.   Rashi elaborates, “these garments will assume the role of entering Aaron into the priesthood, that he should become a Kohen, from the term Kehuna, i.e. service.”   The Ibn Ezra states, “that they (the priests) should be glorified in them (garments) for no one else in Israel can wear such clothing.” Shemot 28:2, Ibn Ezra.  The Ramban adds, “that he (the High Priest) will be honored and glorified with these beautiful garments . . .for these are royal garments . . .such garments were worn by kings during the time of the Torah.” Ibid. 

At first glance, these commentaries appear to indicate that there was no intrinsic or inherent value to the esthetic quality itself.  After all, there was no greater human being than Moshe Rabeinu, and he did not wear any specific esthetically structured clothing.  Nevertheless, the esthetic importance of the priestly garments was to engender awe in the general population due to the association of these garments with royalty. 

A second category was the esthetic element associated with honor or praise of God by demonstrating the beauty of His sacred ceremonial objects.  Most of all, this applied to the beauty of the Tabernacle and the gold encased Temple in Jerusalem.  This also applied to the beauty of the instruments for performing God’s commandments.  This is indicated by the verse, “this is my God and I will beautify Him.”  Shemot 15:2.  Rashi states, “I will tell of His beauty and announce his praise to all the world.” Ibid.  

The Talmud lists various ceremonial objects which acquired an esthetic element.  These include a Sukkah, Lulav (this refers to the binding of the Lulav itself and the binding together of the four species, the shofar, Tzitzit, a properly written Torah scroll, Tefillin, Mezuzah, and the beautiful handwriting of a scribe.  In addition, one should model his behavior upon the pleasing Thirteen Attributes of God.  Shabbat 133b. 

The final esthetic category, and perhaps the most profound, is one where the esthetic quality is inherent in the very essence of the definition of the ceremonial object.  That occurs only in one instance, the requirement belonging to the four species which are held on Sukkot.  It should be noted, however, that even in this instance, there is a disagreement between Rashi and the Tosafot.

The Mishnah states that a dried out Lulav is disqualified from being used on the festival of Sukkot.  See Sukkah 29b.  Rashi maintains, that this is of a piece with all the other ceremonial objects which are subsumed by the verse, “this is my God and I will beautify Him.” Shemot 15:2.   
The Tosafot disagreed and maintained that the text “this is my God, etc” only applied to situations which occurred before the fact.  For example, the requirement to bind the Lulav.  After the fact, i.e. if the Lulav was used without being bound, the act is still valid.  See Sukkah 11b.  In a situation where a Lulav or any of the Four Species is totally dried out, it is not valid even after the fact.  In this situation, the esthetic element becomes part of the definition of the ceremonial object itself. 

The underlying basis for the esthetic definition for the Four Species is found in the Torah, “You are to take for yourselves on the first day (of the holiday) a beautiful fruit  . . .” Vayikra, 23:40.  All of the details which are included in that definition are based upon Rabbinic tradition going back to Moshe Rabeinu.  See Mishneh Torah, Laws of Lulav, 7:4.   The esthetic definition applies to each species in its own particular way, but the Four Species taken together make up one Mitzvah.

The significance of the esthetic definition and its requirement is found at the conclusion of the verse which requires us to take the Four Species.

 “And you are to be joyful before the Lord your God for seven days” Vayikra, 23:40.  
The esthetic element in man whereby he recognizes and accepts that which is beautiful in his culture is a necessary component of human happiness.  In Judaism, beauty opens the mind to God and enables one to appreciate the goodness of God as the creator of the universe.  This is a deeper sense which enables us to proclaim that the essence of Sukkot is Zman Simchateinu, the season or time of our experience of happiness.