This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Skin Deep*

How important is physical beauty in choosing a mate?

The Book of Proverbs, in praising the "woman of valour" assures us that "Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised" Nevertheless, a cursory survey of the scriptural narratives reveals that several of our biblical forebears married women who were distinguished by their fairness of form. The bevy of biblical beauties includes, among others, the matriarchs Sarah and Rachel, as well as David's wives Abigail and Abishag.

The ancient Jewish sages appear to send us mixed messages on this question.

We are all familiar with Rabbi Judah the Prince's well-known advice "Do not look at the container, but at the contents" However, the context of this saying in Pirkei Avot makes it clear that Rabbi Judah is speaking of the assessment of scholars, not the selection of a spouse.

An intriguing testimony on this question is found in the Mishnah's description of the rustic festivities of Yom Kippur and the Fifteenth of Av, when the daughters of Jerusalem used to dance in the vineyards as they sang:

"Young man, lift up your eyes and see, what are you choosing for yourself? Do not set your eyes on good looks, rather set your eyes on family"

The Talmud, however, modifies this idyllic and idealistic picture by pointing out that diverse types of maidens tried to draw the attention of their potential suitors to different virtues.

Indeed, those young ladies who could lay claim to impressive pedigrees emphasized the importance of a respectable genealogy.

However, the attractive ones had no qualms about stressing the advantages of physical beauty.

Those unfortunate maidens who could lay claim to neither of those assets were resigned to recommending the men to make their choices out of purely altruistic motives, "for the sake of Heaven"

And in a finale that seems to reflect the shared aspirations of all classes of women, the Talmud reports that they would declare that they would welcome potential suitors "as long as they adorn us with golden coins"!

The ancient rabbis recognized that physical beauty, or its absence, could play a decisive and legitimate psychological role in the selection of a mate.

Accordingly, the Mishnah rules that if a man took a vow not to marry a certain woman because she was ugly, but later discovered that she was really attractive, then the vow could be annulled. One can easily imagine the rabbis making a more moralistic--but less realistic--response, by insisting that physical appearance should be entirely disregarded in such matters.

A poignant variant on this theme is discussed by the Mishnah in its account of a potential husband who rejected a proposed match on account of the bride's repulsive appearance. In the end, Rabbi Ishmael was able to improve the appearance of the emaciated girl by sitting her down to a healthy meal.

The underlying assumption of the story is that an ostensibly unsightly appearance can sometimes be the consequence of social or economic conditions, which can deprive underprivileged girls of flattering clothing, cosmetics, or even a healthy diet.

As Rabbi Ishmael lamented tearfully, "The daughters of Israel are all beautiful, but they have been rendered unattractive by their poverty" For many Jews, this observation epitomized the bleak realities of daily life under the oppressive conditions of Roman role.

Rabbi Jacob Reischer exemplifies the attempts made by later scholars to grapple with the apparent contradiction between the spiritual and the aesthetic.

After expressing his initial surprise at the fact that the rabbis praised various biblical heroines for their external loveliness, Reischer acknowledged that beauty can be a virtue as long as it serves as a complement to inner piety.

And after all, he concludes, an admiration of feminine pulchritude can be a legitimate path to appreciation of the Creator who has fashioned such fair creatures in his world.

In saying this, Rabbi Reischer was alluding to the story told about Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel who, upon encountering a particularly attractive woman on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, was moved to proclaim the words of the Psalmist:

"O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all!"

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressFebruary 28 2002, p. 11 A [as: "Beauty versus Virtue: An Age Old Argument"].
  • Bibliography:
    • Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.
    • Satlow, Michael L. Jewish Marriage in Antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.