Beautification of Mitzvah

Reb Yirmiahu Halevi

In Talmud Baba Kamma 9a, Rashi and Tosfos argue as to what constitutes "beautification of a mitzvha", or "hiddur mitzvah". According to Rashi, hiddur mitzvah is expressed by spending up to a third more on the mitzvah's cost. For example, if an esrog costs $30, one fulfills hiddur mitzvah by paying a third more, $40. Spending that additional $10 is a hiddur. Thus, Rashi holds that beautification of mitzvah refers to the degree of "dedication to, and relationship with mitzvah", that beautifies it. It is the "personal act" which qualifies as hiddur mitzvah.

In contrast, according to Tosfos, the obligation does not operate in the sphere os human expression, but rather, in the sphere of the "object of mitzvah". Beautification of mitzvah therefore refers to buying a more beautiful esrog, in this case. 

In defending his position, Tosfos adds (Tal. Kesuvos 50) that a person is not obligated to spend more than a fifth of his wealth on the mitzvah, lest he become impoverished and need to bother people for charity. It is implied that this injunction is independent of the extent of a person’s wealth. This seems to be incongruent with Rashi in his understanding of hiddur mitzvah. The Gemara suggests a source for the injunction of a fifth with the following verse: "And all that You give me, I will certainly give a tenth to You". (Gen. 28:17) This declaration punctuates a narrative which describes the awe which is evident in Jacob upon his waking from the dream of the ladder. Jacob stated, "How awesome is this place!This is none other than God's house and this is the gate to heaven."

The details of the dream and the description of the ascension of God's angels, leave no doubt that this must have been a powerful, religious experience. And yet, this is precisely the moment that Jacob uses to delineate the extent (up to 1/5) of his financial obligation in mitzvah. Jacob may have been moved from this experience to promise everything, to give boundlessly, but nonetheless...he tempered this with his intelligence.

While extending oneself financially for the performance of mitzvah, "abandoning" oneself to religious emotion even in dedication to mitzvah is dangerous, and contaminates mitzvah.

Maimonides is unusually voluble in his description of this injunction in the very last halacha of Archin: 

 "Never must a person sanctify and destroy all his possessions. And one who does, violates his intelligence. And this is not piety, but rather, stupidity...for he destroys all his wealth and must rely on others [for charity]. And one must not pity such a person. And this and similar cases the Rabbis termed a "pious fool", in the category of one without a world.

Rather, all who scatter money on mitzvahs must not spend more than a fifth."

A person should understand that there is a proper psychological zone for the performance of mitzvah, and it lies somewhere between enthusiasm and zealotry.