Does God Care About Shoes?
In this week’s Talmud study, Jewishness is not just moral and theological matters. It is a way of life.
There are two reasons, the rabbis argue, that a woman might be tempted to remove one of these ornaments on Shabbat: if she needs to take it off to immerse herself in the mikveh, or if she wants to show it to a friend. Thus the rabbis forbid any jewelry or hair decorations that fall into these categories. “Woolen strands and linen strands” woven into the hair are forbidden, since these would have to come off in the mikveh. So is an item called a “city of gold,” which is mentioned in the Mishnah. But as often happens, the passage of centuries has left the Amoraim uncertain as to just what the Mishnah is referring to. It falls to Rabbah bar bar Chanah to explain that a “city of gold” is a golden ornament engraved with a picture of Jerusalem, “like the one Rabbi Akiva fashioned for his wife.”
Rabbi Eliezer, however, dissents from the Mishnah, ruling that a woman can go out on Shabbat with a city of gold. His reasoning tells us something interesting about class distinctions in Talmudic times. “Who is accustomed to go out wearing a city of gold?” he asks. Only “a distinguished woman, and a distinguished woman is not likely to remove her ornaments and show them to others.” It is a hint that the pious elitism of the rabbis has a class and power dimension as well. (Remember their contempt for the am haaretz, in whom poverty goes along with impiety.)
Throughout, there is a certain tension in the Talmudic attitude toward women’s adornments. The rabbis never question a woman’s right to beautify herself. On the contrary, in Shabbat 62b, Rava teaches that if a man can afford to buy adornments for his wife and refuses to, he will be cursed with poverty. Yet on the very same page, the rabbis interpret a verse from Isaiah that blasts female vanity. If women “walk with erect posture,” or “fill their eyes with makeup and beckon,” or use perfume, the rabbis promise them a series of cruel bodily punishments: decay, bruises, baldness, sores, lesions, and excessive pubic hair (“their openings became like a forest”).
Later on, in Shabbat 64b, Rav Sheishet teaches that “whoever gazes at the little finger of a woman is like one who gazes at the place of her nakedness.” Yet what is the purpose of adornments if not to attract gazes? There is in these discussions a combination of worldliness and Puritanism that is hard to make sense of. Perhaps the rabbis distinguished between adornments like the city of gold, which was primarily a display of wealth and status, and makeup and perfume, which were too physically alluring. What is clear is that in patriarchal cultures, the line women have to walk has always been a narrow and perilous one.
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