Adorning the Body

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.

Yet the Bible does impose some specific limitations on what we may do to our bodies, in addition to the general commands to live healthy lives (based on Leviticus 18:5) and to care for ourselves (see Deuteronomy 4:15). “Do not imprint markings upon you,” Leviticus 19:28 commands, and consequently the tattoo has long been taboo in the Jewish community, even though they are generally free of the pagan associations which may have been behind the biblical prohibition. Nonetheless, temporary markings like paint and stick-on “tattoos” do not fall within the ban. These would be subject only to general considerations of modesty, and the belief that human beings are formed in the “image of God” and should not do things inappropriate in the context of such sanctity.

While beards were common in most ancient cultures, the particular Jewish affinity for them is based on Leviticus 19:17 which forbids “rounding off the side-growth of your head” and “destroying the side-growth of your beard.” Over time, this verse came to be understood to mean that Jews could not remove facial hair with a single-edged razor, but the band did not apply to chemical depilatories or scissors, nor to electric razors in modern times.

Nonetheless, due the influence of mysticism, beards became considered very important, particularly in Eastern Europe and amongst Hasidic Jews, and are almost universal amongst the ultra-Orthodox today. Many in these communities also let the side locks (pe’ot) grow long, from where the sideburn reaches the ear. In Jewish communities in Western countries, on the other hand, even amongst the Orthodox, the shaving of the beard and the pe’ot are much more common.

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