The biblical ancestors of the Jewish people were neither ascetics nor primitives. They were aware of and concerned about physical appearance. The casual manner in which jewelry is mentioned in the Bible indicates how widely accepted it was.
Abraham’s servant–who goes looking for a wife for Isaac–gives the young Rebecca, who fetched water for him and his camels, a nose ring and bracelets (Genesis 24:47). Moses‘ brother Aaron asked for the “golden earrings of your women, your sons, and your daughters” (Exodus 32:3), from which he made the Golden Calf. Ears and noses were pierced for this purpose, and as the latter verse indicates, males too evidently wore such jewelry.
In the talmudic period and the Middle Ages, negative views are recorded regarding men wearing earrings, but the matter was usually left to the “prevailing local custom.” If it were not specifically a woman’s adornment, there was no prohibition. The general value of modesty (tz’ni’ut) in Judaism would discourage piercing the body for jewelry in areas not normally exposed, and it would of course be discouraged in any area where the piercing might subject the person to a significant health risk.
Cosmetics are mentioned in detail in the Bible (as, for example, in the long period of cosmetic treatments undergone by Esther and the other young women chosen to compete for the position of queen in the Book of Esther). Later, the Talmud required the husband to provide cosmetics for his wife, so she would feel better and make herself more attractive to him.
No one in those days contemplated plastic surgery to change the shape of one’s nose or enlarge or reduce breast size, but such procedures can be viewed in the light of these and other Jewish principles. As a general rule, one is not permitted to “harm” one’s body without a corresponding likely and legitimate purpose.
Breast reconstruction as part of cancer treatment certainly is considered to be for a medical purpose. But many would permit other cosmetic surgery, if no undue risk is involved, to make a person more eligible for marriage or to help deal with psychological problems arising from a bodily characteristic. The goals (and risk) must be reasonable; pure vanity does not seem legitimate.
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