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The Talmud’s Guide to Jewish Feminine Beauty

The ancient text takes up the problem of ‘new circumstances’ in maintaining vows, and in so doing stumbles on what makes women attractive

Adam Kirsch
August 04, 2015
Inset photo: Wikipedia
Bess MyersonInset photo: Wikipedia
Inset photo: Wikipedia
Bess MyersonInset photo: Wikipedia

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

In a recent Daf Yomi column, we saw that the rabbis had a physical ideal for Torah scholars: They were supposed to be frail, emaciated by study. A Torah scholar with a ruddy glow was an anomaly that attracted attention and even insults, as when someone called Rabbi Yehuda a “pig-breeder” because he looked too well-fed. (Yehuda rebutted the charge by explaining that his health secret was not big meals, but regular bowel movements.) In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in chapter 9 of Tractate Nedarim, we learned that there was a corresponding physical ideal for Jewish women. “Rabbi Yishmael wept and said: The daughters of Israel are beautiful, but poverty makes them ugly,” a flattering statement that earned him a reputation as a defender of women. But what did it mean for Rabbi Yishmael to call a woman beautiful?

The answer comes in the negative form of a list of traits that were considered ugly. The Gemara on Nedarim 66b tells the story of a certain man who was so disgusted by his wife’s appearance that he vowed, “Benefiting from me is konam for you until you show some beautiful part of your self to Rabbi Yishmael.” This was a nasty vow, but at least the man chose as judge of his beauty contest the rabbi who was most inclined to find beauty in Jewish women. In this case, however, Yishmael was hard put to find even one good quality:

He said to his students: Perhaps her head is beautiful? They said to him: It is round. Perhaps her hair is beautiful? It resembles stalks of flax. Perhaps her eyes are beautiful? They are narrow. Perhaps her ears are beautiful? They are double in size. Perhaps her nose is beautiful? It is stubby. Perhaps her lips are beautiful? They are thick. Perhaps her stomach is beautiful? It is swollen. Perhaps her legs are beautiful? They are as wide as a goose’s.

By contrast, therefore, we can conclude that beauty, for a Talmudic-era woman, meant a long head, fine and smooth hair, wide eyes, small ears, a full nose, thin lips, flat stomach, and narrow legs. This checklist shows that women’s appearance was as carefully policed and judged 1,500 years ago as it is today, though the exact definition of beauty has changed with the times.

Thwarted in every attempt to find something to praise in this woman, Rabbi Yishmael finally asked if perhaps she at least had a beautiful name. No, it turns out: Her name was Likhlukhit, which in addition to being a mouthful, is related to the word for “dirty,” melukhlekhet. But here Yishmael found his opening: “It is fitting that she is called Likhlukhit, as she is dirty with blemishes,” he decided. In this sense, her name could be considered pleasing, and so Yishmael ruled that she could go back to her husband and derive benefit from him. The anecdote is cruel toward the woman, but ultimately the joke is on the man, as Yishmael turned the tables on him and his insulting vow.

The Gemara offers several other examples of how the rabbis would go to great lengths to reconcile husbands and wives. One story concerns a man who was so disappointed in his wife’s cooking that he made the sages into judges on a Talmudic version of Top Chef: “There was a certain man who said to his wife: Benefiting from me is konam until you have given Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon your cooked food to taste.” Here is another vow based on an insult, not just to the wife, but to those two sages, who were being dragged into a trivial domestic dispute in a way that was far below their dignity.

But as it turns out, Rabbi Yehuda willingly tasted the food, because of the principle that nothing is more important than creating harmony between a husband and a wife. After all, he reasoned, the Torah prescribes a ceremony for testing a suspected adulteress, a sotah, which involves writing God’s name on a scroll and dissolving it in water. If even God would allow his name to be treated this way in the service of domestic harmony, surely Rabbi Yehuda could lower himself for the same purpose. Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, refused to taste the food in no uncertain terms: “He said: Let all the children of the widow die, and Shimon will not budge from his place.” In other words, he didn’t care if the husband died, leaving his wife a widow, and then all his children died too; he wouldn’t participate in what he saw as an insult to the dignity of Torah scholars.

How much more cause for complaint, then, did Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel have when a man said to his wife: “Benefiting from me is konam for you until you have spat on Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel.” The woman duly spat on the leading rabbi, causing him great humiliation. This is a good example of a vow that seems conceived in a wholly malicious spirit, almost more like a dare than a solemn promise. No wonder the rabbis discouraged vowing altogether.

The question of what makes a woman beautiful is entangled with the subject of vowing in an interesting fashion. In chapter 9, the rabbis return to a subject they have addressed several times before: the grounds on which a vow can be legally annulled. There is some disagreement about how lenient the courts should be in finding such grounds. For instance, should a court “broach dissolution”—that is, suggest to the vow-taker that he annul the vow—on the basis of “the honor of his father and mother”? After all, a vow like the one involving spitting on a rabbi would presumably bring disgrace to the person who took it, and thereby shame his parents. Perhaps the court could suggest to the vow-taker, then, that if he had known that his vow would make his parents look bad, he would never have taken it? Rabbi Eliezer says yes, but the rabbis disagree: Parental honor and shame can be taken into account only if the vow directly affects one’s parents. It can’t be grounds for annulling vows in general.

A better way to go about annulling vows is the consideration of “new circumstances.” Many vows, the Talmud reasons, are implicitly conditional: They are taken because of anger or dissatisfaction at a particular set of circumstances. If those circumstances change, then, the vow can be considered annulled. Rav Hisda finds a biblical example of such a vow in the Book of Exodus, where Moses vows never to return to Egypt but changes his mind after God tells him that “all the men are dead who sought your life.” In this case, clearly, the basis for Moses’ vow was that he was afraid of being punished (for the murder of an Egyptian overseer) if he went back to Egypt; once that threat was removed, the grounds of the vow disappeared.

In other cases, a vow might be explicitly conditional. If you vow not to enter a certain house because a “bad dog” lives there, and the dog dies, then the vow loses force. A variation on this occurs when you take a vow based on bad information—and here is where the subject of women’s appearance comes in. “If a man said: Marrying ugly so-and-so is konam for me, and she is in fact beautiful,” he is permitted to marry her, since his vow was taken on a false premise. Such a case occurred with a man who vowed not to marry his niece because she was ugly. Her family brought her to Rabbi Yishmael, and “he beautified her,” whereupon the man was released from his vow. The Gemara explains just what form this beauty treatment took: Yishmael paid for the woman’s false tooth to be replaced with a gold tooth. To us, a gold tooth might itself look odd enough to count as a disfigurement, but for the Talmud it counted as a definite improvement. No wonder that when Rabbi Yishmael died, “the daughters of Israel raised a lamentation.”


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.