by Rabbi Avi Billet
On a whim I checked out the website of a renowned Judaica store to see what’s available these days. Leaving aside that the only Judaica I really buy these days are books, I felt a little out of touch when I clicked on the garment section of the website.
Of course size (the amount of fabric) will change the price a little. But after going through the “Talis Wizard,” I found that buying a basic tallis with no trimmings was to cost $160. Once you start throwing in hand-tied strings (especially techeiles – blue strings), and even a remotely ornate atarah (not sure how to translate… it’s a head-band for the tallis), the tallis gets into the realm of $300-$400. Throw in a silver or crystal atarah, and the price has gone up anywhere from an additional $250 to $1000.
And the decisions! Do I want a weekday tallis? A Shabbos tallis? Cashmere? Texture? Summer wool? Winter wool? Non-slip? Traditional/classical slippery?
Then I moved onto kittels. And while the cheap ones were $60, the elegant and ornate kittels cost as much as $250.
Challah boards – the low end ones cost $20. The highest? $460! More decisions! Wood, glass, tempered glass, artistic, metal, silver? With a salt dip, with a place for the knife, with a built in challah cover?
Candlesticks? $13 to $690!
Please do not misunderstand. I do not begrudge the store for giving people options. I do not begrudge those who can afford the higher end items, who would like to beautify their Shabbos table. Similarly, those who believe a beautiful tallis and kittel will enhance their davening and connection with God, more power to you. Thank God, gartels are affordable!
However, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the only reason we spend this kind of money on “things” is to glorify God.
The second verse in “Az Yashir” (15:2) includes the phrase “Zeh Keli V’anvayhu” – This is my God, and I will glorify Him.
It is Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Berokah who asked “Is it possible for a person to glorify God? Rather, glorify Him through the performance of mitzvos. Have a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzizis, beautiful tefillin.” (Pesikta) The Talmud (Shabbat 133b) adds a few more items: a beautiful shofar, a beautiful Torah (written with beautiful ink, a beautiful quill, etc.)]
The Talmud (Shabbat 25b) has the following comments about wealth: Who is wealthy? Anyone who takes pleasure in his wealth. These are the words of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Tarfon says, Anyone who has a hundred vineyards, a hundred fields, and hundred servants. Rabbi Akiva says, Anyone who has a wife beautiful in deeds, Rabbi Yose says, Anyone who has a bathroom close to his table.
Maharsha explains Rabbi Yose’s opinion to mean that one’s ability to live longer (equating wealth with health) is enhanced by having convenient access to good hygiene behaviors.
All of this simply indicates that wealth priorities are in the eye of the beholder. Certainly the teaching of Rabbi Yishmael is that the people at the sea essentially pointed to God and said, “Zeh Keli!” This is my God! “V’anvayhu” and I will glorify Him!
Today, it seems that many people forget that the word “Keli” (ק-לי) (my God) is actually modified from its correct pronunciation, because we do not want to say God’s name in vain. As a result, it sounds like we are saying “Zeh keli” (כלי) – this is my vessel (a “klee” is a vessel) and I will glorify it!
When men come hours late to davening on Shabbos, then pull out their tallis with the 7 inch deep silver-atarah, throw it over their heads in a fitting display of “Do you see how fancy my tallis is?,” then sit engrossed (Don’t disturb me!) in catching up to the davening, the focus is on the klee (the vessel) (כלי), and not on God (ק-לי).
The people at the sea were so enamored by their God that all they could do is point and say “I want to glorify HIM.” Because it’s not about me. It’s about how I can use the gifts He has given me to enhance my relationship with Him!
Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Tarfon remind us that those who are blessed with financial wealth are only truly “wealthy” when they can use the money to glorify God, whether through charitable or philanthropic work. Rabbi Akiva reminds us that true wealth can be found at home, if we only let the best of others bring out the best in ourselves. Rabbi Yose reminds us that wealth can be described as making good choices for one’s health, mostly in hygiene decisions and opportunities.
Rabbi Yishmael’s view focuses on physical items. But he never recommends that the items become the goal. They are the means for better serving God, and not for showing off.
Buy the fancy tallis, the fancy kittel! But be the most humble and inspiring “mispallel” (one who prays) in the synagogue! Have the fancy candlesticks, the fancy challah board, esrog box, sukkah, etc. But make sure that the observance of these mitzvos is elevated. That the Shabbos table is elevated. That the mitzvah-experience becomes a source of inspiration to others. All rounded by the humility that should accompany a person who is serving the Almighty.
When one uses wealth to properly glorify God, without glorifying the wealth itself or the vessels it buys, one is truly reaching the heights of the service of God.