The Keys to Life

Physical Beauty in Judaism – Rabbi Zamir Cohen

Many great figures in the Torah were praised for their physical beauty. For example, the Torah says about Rachel Imeinu: “Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance”;[1] and about King David: “He was ruddy, with fair eyes and a pleasing appearance.”[2] There are many other examples. But doesn’t the Torah also say, “Grace is false and beauty is vain—a woman who fears Hashem she should be praised”?[3] If so, why is beauty regarded as a virtue?

G-d surely has a reason for programming human nature to be struck by beauty. Man’s purpose in the world is to attain spiritual perfection on his own. For this reason he aspires to achieve perfection from the depths of his soul. Beauty is an expression of perfection and when a person is awe inspired by beauty, he is essentially awe inspired by perfection. Outer beauty, however, is a manifestation of physical and temporary perfection.

A person who places a great deal of emphasis on his outer beauty because he considers it to be an important goal, will neglect his inner spiritual world. The verse says the following in this regard: “Grace is false and beauty is vain.” But when the fear of G-d takes center stage in a beautiful person’s life, he does not boast about his appearance, rather, he tries to prevent himself and others from stumbling upon it. It says about this person, “A woman who fears G-d she should be praised”—she should be praised for her beauty as well. She should be praised for what the verse describes in the beginning as “false and vain,” as the perfection of her outer beauty only adds to her inner grace and acts as a vehicle for the amplification of her inner, spiritual world.

The beauty of this kind of person is indeed a praiseworthy virtue as it completes the integrity of his or her character.

What Kind of Vessel Improves Wine?

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya was one of the great Tannaic sages who was highly valued by the Roman governor for his great wisdom. His outer appearance, however, was not so pleasing to the eye. The Talmud recounts that one time, the governor’s daughter asked him, “How can such beautiful wisdom be stored in such an ugly vessel?”

In reply Rabbi Yehoshua said, “In what kind of vessels does your father keep his wine?”

“In earthen vessels,” she replied.

“How is it fitting for a king to keep his precious wine in earthen vessels?” Rabbi Yehoshua exclaimed. “Would it not be more appropriate to keep the wine in gold and silver vessels?”

And so, the princess gave orders to have the wine transferred from the earthen vessels into gold and silver ones. The wine became sour in a short time and had to be thrown away.

When they came and told the governor what had happened, he called his daughter over and said, “Who told you to do this?”

“Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya” she replied.

They called upon the rabbi and the governor asked him, “Why did you tell her to do this?”

He replied and said, “I told her exactly what she told me” (so she can understand that wisdom improves inside an ugly vessel).

“But there are beautiful people who are also wise…”

“If they were ugly they would be wiser.”

In other words, a person whose mind is not preoccupied with his outer appearance has a greater ability to focus on wisdom and on his inner spiritual world. Therefore, outer beauty generally disables the true greatness and wisdom of a person. That’s why the Torah praises Sarah Imeinu for being like a twenty-year-old at the age of a hundred with regard to beauty, and like a seven-year-old with regard to sin.[4]

This is the way in which other great men and women among the Jewish people were praised for their beauty—because despite their outer beauty, their entire focus revolved around the shaping of their spiritual worlds.

A person who examines the Torah will see that many mitzvot were intended, according to the simple level, to preserve the natural beauty of the Jew and remind him that he’s the son of a King. Not only does the Torah praise the physical appearance of the body, it even forbids the Jew from destroying his body in any way—even during difficult times when he might feel a strong urge to do so.

When mourning the death of a loved one, we are strictly forbidden, despite our intense pain, to imitate the nations of the world who engage in self-mutilation and shave the front of their heads to make themselves appear ugly as a way to express their sorrow. Rather,

You are children to Hashem your G-d! Do not mutilate yourselves or make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy nation to Hashem your G-d and He has chosen you to be a precious people among all the nations on the face of the earth.[5]

In other words, you are the children of a King, and therefore, you do not have the right to conduct yourselves in an inferior manner like the commoners of society. After all, your dignity is the dignity of the King. You must represent Him in a respectable way with an appearance that is fitting, noble, and distinguished.[6]

If it is strictly forbidden for us to injure ourselves or shave ourselves in an ugly manner, as stated above, then destroying the physical appearance of our bodies by getting a permanent tattoo would certainly be off-limits. As it says, “You shall not place a tattoo upon yourselves—I am Hashem.”[7] The ending of “I am Hashem” is meant to be a warning for anyone who is thinking of getting a tattoo: Remember that I am Hashem, your King and your Creator. I loyally reward those who are loyal to Me, and punish those who violate My command.

This transgression, whose severity is unfortunately unknown to many young people in our generation, is so grave that the prophet recounts the abominations of the evil King Yehoyakim, who refers to the permanent change he had made to his body as something worse than all the abominations he had committed in his lifetime. As it says, “The rest of the deeds of Yehoyakim and all the abominations that he committed and that which was found upon him…”[8]

What was found “upon him,” meaning, upon his body? The Midrash says that some argue that he drew a tattoo on his flesh, and others maintain that he extended his foreskin to conceal his circumcision.[9]

The Kabbalah discusses these matters in a deeper way. The damage a person causes to his body exists after his death as well (that’s why it says, “that which was found upon him,” meaning, upon his soul—as the person who tattoos his body creates a corresponding blemish in the spiritual structure of his soul that fuses with his body). It turns out that this impulsive act creates a permanent destruction of the body and soul. But it does not end there. The damage is transported to parallel spiritual worlds from which his soul originates—as man is likened to “a ladder that is situated earthward with its head extending heavenward,” as previously explained. Every action that he performs down here, for good or for bad, is activated above and creates an impact below. If he arrives in the next world with this flaw in his soul without repenting for it,[10] the humiliation he will endure will be disastrous.

However, as previously stated, every mitzvah has a physical purpose in this world. In our case, we need to preserve the natural beauty of our body because we are the sons and daughters of the King of the Universe.

The Children of Kings

In Derech Hashem, the Ramchal writes about the significance of the Jews in relation to the nations of the world. He says that if the first man had not sinned, the world would have reached its perfection immediately after the sixth day of Creation. All his descendants would have been on a high spiritual level, though different ranks would have been issued to them. However, after man sinned, he reduced himself and all his descendants to a very low and dark status. A small part of the original loftiness has always endured in mankind—paving the way for man to return to that level.

There was however, one exception, and that was Avraham. He had succeeded in elevating himself, and as a result of his deeds was chosen by G-d. Avraham was therefore permanently made into a superior, excellent tree, conforming to man’s highest level. The world was then divided into seventy nations, each with its own particular place in the general scheme. All of them, however, remained on the level of man in his fallen state, while only Israel was in the elevated state.[11]

(Regarding the mitzvah of circumcision, which seems to damage the appearance of the body—it actually completes it. This can be likened to a plastic strip attached to a lid; the moment the strip is removed, the container turns into a usable vessel capable of fulfilling its purpose. More than that, the circumcision is a stamp in the person’s flesh stating that he belongs to the royal family; it is a holy covenant. The great health benefit associated with circumcision attests to the fact that it’s better for the body to live without the foreskin. Refer to this and the wonder of the eighth day in The Coming Revolution, in the chapter discussing the optimal day for the coagulation of blood).

Regarding the preservation of the body and its pleasing appearance, Judaism encourages guarding one’s physical health through proper nutrition and moderate exercise in order to achieve a healthful and vigorous life. However, it does not support bodybuilding as a goal in itself. This is the reason the battle between the Jews and the Greeks took place during the days of Antiochus. The Greek culture was preoccupied with the idolization of the body, as is apparent in Greek statues. Sparta founded the culture of sports and glorified the physical body. There was even a time when physicians would examine newborn babies to see if they were sufficiently fit for quality bodybuilding. If not, the poor baby would be cruelly thrown to the rocks.

However, there were also people in Greece who would seclude themselves in the mountains or deserts, and eat grass and drink pooled rainwater in an effort to become spiritual beings. When Antiochus saw a completely different culture in the land of Israel—one that combined the physical and the spiritual in a uniquely balanced way, in which a normal, physical life is lived with spirituality at its center (eating and dressing properly, getting married and having children, exercising in a moderate way) while using everything G-d had created in His world in the appropriate measure—he became distraught and demanded that all the Jews Hellenize. This was until the small Maccabee army, loyal to the Torah of Israel, defeated him and managed to chase him and his mighty army out of the land of Israel.

A spiritual quest that leads to the complete neglect of the body is impractical and goes against the truth. On the other hand, being too extreme in a physical sense leads to disgust as well as spiritual and physical suffering. The balance that may be achieved through the precepts of the Creator’s Torah provides a person with the perfect dose of pleasure and peace of mind, while supplying the body with the physical needs it requires.

Even though the main purpose of the mitzvot is intended for eternal life, we have still been able to scan some of them and see how they can benefit man in the physical world as well. Some mitzvot were intended for physical health, while others were intended for mental health. The purpose of some is clearly observable, while the purpose of others relates only to their invisible spiritual action. All of them, however, teach a person and his children self-control and deferment of gratification—qualities that lead to success in many areas in life. This is besides the unique educational purpose embedded in certain mitzvot, for example, the mitzvah of shiluach hakenu (sending away the mother bird from its nest).

Notes and Sources

[1] Bereishit 29:17.

[2] Shmuel I 16:12.

[3] Mishlei 31:30.

[4] Devarim 14:1.

[5] Pesikta Zutreta, Bereishit 23.

[6] Additionally, the person’s body is not his own property; rather, it belongs to the Creator. Therefore, a person is not allowed to injure himself (see the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 420:31). A person who strikes his fellow is guilty of transgressing a Torah prohibition (Shulchan Aruch, ibid. 1). Anyone who commits suicide is punished as severely or even worse than a person who murders his fellow. He may be certain that suicide is a good way to end his troubles, but what he doesn’t realize is that by taking his own life he is going from fairly mild troubles to much harsher troubles because of the severe act that he has committed.

[7] Vayikra 19:28.

[8] Divrei Hayamim II 36:8.

[9] Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha, siman 20.

[10] If a person had already tattooed his body, he may repent and be forgiven. Regarding the question of whether he should go through the physical and financial trouble of removing the tattoo, I’ve provided an answer (which will be included, G-d willing, in the Q&A section of Nezer HaKohen, part 2), that it would be appropriate to do so from the outset. However, if it is very difficult for him to do so, he can rely on the opinion that the prohibition relates only to the act of tattooing itself and not to the image that remains on the body.

[11] Derech Hashem, part 2, ch. 4. The translation is from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Derech Hashem: The Way of God, trans. Aryeh Kaplan (New York, Feldheim Publishers, 1981).

Adapted from “The Keys to Life” by Rabbi Zamir Cohen


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