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Biblical Beauty

Our society very much values beauty, even though it can be hard to define in any timeless way. It is hard to step away from what we now think of as beautiful, and try to understand what the concept might have meant in other cultures and time periods. In no small part, this is because the Greek ideals of symmetry and proportionality have, in one form or another, been broadly accepted ever since, even as the ideal size of women has varied considerably, all the way from anorexic to obese.

It will come as no surprise that I am interested in what the Torah has to say on the subject of beauty, just as I am interested in understanding the text in its own words, instead of using modern concepts.

There are a couple things that jump out immediately. Nothing in the Torah is ever described using an expression for beauty except a few people and – in the case of Pharaoh’s dream – cows. There are no beautiful rivers or mountains, no attractive trees or valleys. Instead, all such features are described by their utilitarian features, e.g.,

For your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with streams of water, springs and groundwater that emerge in valley and hill. A land of wheat and barley, and grapes and figs and pomegranates; a land of olives and honey. A land where you will not eat bread in poverty, you will lack nothing there; a land whose stones are iron, and from whose hills you will mine copper. You will eat and be full, and you will bless your G-d for the good land He has given you. (Deut. 8:7-10)

All these wonderful attributes – but beauty is not among them. The obvious question is “why?” After all, people do perceive beauty in nature.

And I think the answer brings us directly back to the purpose of the Torah itself. It is not a text that teaches us what is beautiful. Instead, it is a guidebook for building good relationships with G-d and with man. That the Torah never describes nature as beautiful tells us that admiring natural beauty is not a way to grow in our relationships or in holiness! At best, appreciating nature is irrelevant to living a holy life – and at worst, it leads us to serving nature – think Sierra Club.

Indeed, it is not even obvious what Hebrew word translates into what we call “beautiful” today. There are two candidates: yefas mar’eh, and yefas to-ar.

Yefas Mar’eh is the most obvious of the two. We have it in the text:

As he was about to enter Egypt, [Abram] said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a yefas mar’eh woman you are.” And so it proves: “When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very yefas mar’eh the woman was.” So they take her for Pharoah’s harem.

This phrase, yefas mar’eh, clearly refers to being physically attractive, “pleasing to the appearance.” The phrase applies to only three people in the Torah: Sarai, who is taken into a harem, Rachel (who Jacob promptly falls in love with and seeks to marry), Joseph, who attracted the adulterous interest of Potiphar’s wife.

The absence of this phrase in any of the books of the Torah after Genesis tells us something very profound: physical beauty has no role, is not considered important or even positive for loving other people or G-d, for being a holy people. Beauty, being pleasing to the eye, should have no intrinsic value for the Jewish people.

That the phrase yefas mar’eh is never applied to mountains or rivers, the moon, stars or wind, tells us even more. The beauty within nature does not help us connect to G-d – indeed, it is usually a distraction. It is not accidental that the biggest concentrations of Torah Jews in the world have always historically been in ugly cities. The beautiful ones, like San Francisco or Seattle or Sydney, have always held other allures far from holiness. When someone looks out at sunset over the San Francisco Bay, Sydney Harbor or Puget Sound, they think they are having a spiritual experience – whether they connect with G-d or not. A mountain may well be beautiful, but it is the perceptions of the local tribes that have made every local mountain, at one time or another, into a deity. Which means that natural beauty subtracts from our ability to have a full relationship with the One G-d. All this goes to explain why the text does not praise beauty, or tell us to seek it or admire it.

But wait! There is a second expression that is also used in the Torah: yefas to-ar. It means attractive in some way – but what does to-ar actually mean? The first clue we get is with its first usage. In addition to being called yefas mar’eh, Rachel is also described as being yefas to’ar. What else do we know about Rachel? She was a shepherdess. Indeed, she is the only solo shepherdess in the entire Torah: Moshe’s wife Zipporah also tended the flock – but it was a group effort involving all seven daughters. The task of managing sheep is a man’s job, and for a simple reason: a shepherd needs to be able to not only tend the sheep and goats, but also, when needed to carry them. Neither goats nor sheep are particularly light animals – though modern adult sheep weigh 100-300 pounds, the sheep in the ancient world still weighed 40-70 pounds. Not many women now – or then – can lift and carry such a weight for the distances that were sometimes required. Yet Rachel could. Perhaps this is what to’ar means?

We have another clue with Joseph, the next person described as yefas to’ar. We know that he was physically capable, that he ran a grand household, and then a prison.

Until now, I have ignored the large mammal in the room: while yefas mar’eh and yefas to’ar are not used to described mountains or rivers, they ARE used to describe cows – specifically, the cows in Pharaoh’s dream. Curiously, when Pharoah has his dream, we are told that the cows are yefas mar’eh, but when he tells it to Joseph he changes this detail (and the underlying meaning) to yefas to’ar. Why would he do this? Perhaps it was not becoming for a ruler to admire the attractiveness of an animal – but it was entirely reasonable to reflect on the value or usefulness of that same animal. Indeed, in both the dream and the retelling, the animals are also described as “the creator of meat/flesh” – these were big animals. Cows, as opposed to bulls, were connected with fertility and motherhood, biologically primed to grow fat and make more cows – creating flesh. (Some Egyptian myths describe a cow goddess giving birth to the sun out of primeval waters – not so different from Pharoah’s dream of the cows emerging from the Nile.) Such cows were described as yefas to’ar by Pharoah: these were what we might delicately refer to as “big boned,” certainly not lithe and willowy!

Pharaoh goes so far as to call the ugly cows “bad” or “evil.” His view seems to equate beauty (in both appearance and capability) with goodness – but the Torah does not itself agree that beauty is a virtue, since “attractive” (yefas mar’eh) does not even appear in the other books of Moses.

The very last reference in the Torah to yefas to’ar is as follows:

When you take the field against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a yefas to’ar woman and you long for her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife. (Deut. 21:10-14)

If this captive is a woman like Rachel, she is physically strong (the phrase used here is not yefas mar’eh, attractive to the eye). If she is like Joseph, she is capable. And if she is like the cows in Pharoah’s dream, then she is large and her physique advertises fertility. The conquering soldier has a practical eye: the woman has the ideal physique for an ideal wife!

If so, then why the commandment to cut her hair, nails, and change her clothes? I think the precedent is established by another person described as a yefas to’ar: Joseph himself! Joseph was called yefas to’ar, and when he goes to elevate his status to go from a captive to a powerful position in Pharoah’s house, he must first have “his hair cut and changed his clothes.” Which means that Joseph’s experience informs the later commandment: when a person is elevated from captivity, he should cut their hair, change his appearance and become more presentable, just as Joseph did.

That the Torah does not call anything in nature beautiful is a reminder that we should be attracted to things that grow our relationships, that it is our choices, not our appearance or physique, that makes us virtuous. Indeed, beauty is clearly described as a dangerous attribute since in two of the three examples given, the beauty of Sarai and Joseph leads to immoral acts. This is a reminder that what really matters is not beauty, but the choices that people make, what we decide to do.

Comments are welcome!

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