The mishnah in Megilloh (8) says, "Rabbon
Shimon ben Gamliel said, `Even seforim were only
allowed to be written in Greek.' "
The gemora explains that the reason for this is,
"because the posuk (Bereishis 9:27) says, `G-d will
broaden Yefes and he will reside in the tents of Shem,'
[meaning that] the beauty of Yefes will be in the tents of
Shem" (Megilloh 9).
Rashi explains, "This refers to the Greek language, which is
the most beautiful of all of those of Yefes' descendants."
Although the Rambam (Hilchos Tefillin 1:19), seems to
understand that this refers to the Greek alphabet, the
Kesef Mishnah explains that he too, is of the opinion
that it refers to the language.
We are presented here with a balanced approach to the
concept of external beauty. On the one hand, it is an idea
that has been "imported" from the gentile nations, whose
relation to Klal Yisroel is like that of the outer
peel to the inner fruit. Their lands are also known as
chutz lo'oretz, strengthening the idea that they
occupy a spiritually external plane, in comparison to Eretz
Yisroel. This suggests that beauty is something which only
has meaning in the revealed, outward, aspect of things.
Beauty is appreciated by the human eye, which is indeed only
capable of assessing outward appearances. The more
externally oriented a person is, the more important outward
beauty is to him as opposed to quality and inner content.
Thus, the source of the concept of beauty is not from Shem
but from Yefes (who derives his name from it).
On the other hand, Noach's blessing to his son shows us that
there is a place for the beauty of Yefes within the tents of
Shem. The name Shem signifies the interaction with a thing's
"name" i.e. its real, inner content, rather than its
external aspect. However, in order to sway the physical
senses and to influence the emotions, Shem must also address
outward appearances, clothing elements in external beauty
whose preciousness he wants his physical side to appreciate
and to treat with honor.
This is the basis of the mitzvoh, " `Zeh Keili
ve'aneveihu,' beautify mitzvoh performance before Him;
make a beautiful succah; a beautiful lulav and
a beautiful shofar; beautiful tzitzis; a
beautiful sefer Torah . . . " (Shabbos 133).
Our Distorted View
The beauty of the gentiles however, also has different
levels. The sort of beauty which is elevated by an
enlightened, believing gentile, who can be numbered among
the pious of the nations, within whom a spirit of humanity
flickers, is not the same sort that is elevated by members
of "the nation that is like a donkey" (Niddah 17),
whose entire structure is dominated by its materialistic
side, and for whom beauty is only important inasmuch as it
serves its physical senses. This is the reason that beauty
is only referred to in connection with the descendants of
Yefes and not those of Chom, for the latter are virtually
incapable of differentiating between the delicacy of genuine
beauty and the crudity of crass materialism.
In our times, our own understanding of beauty has become
doubly distorted. First, as Jews, we have lost our pride in
our descent from Shem. We have forgotten that beauty did not
originate with us. It has however, assumed such importance
for us that packaging has become more important to us than
content - - the appearance of the formica, for example, is
more important than the quality of the wood underneath it.
Our motto has become, "Don't look at what is inside the
pitcher but at the pitcher itself."
Second, the contemporary descendants of Yefes have descended
to the level of the descendants of Chom. Desire (lust) has
largely replaced pride as the focal point of their
aspirations. Their animal spirit has displaced much of their
more refined, human spirit. Today's human beings are
involved with beautifying their drives and adorning their
desires to the point where all the arts -- music,
illustration, sculpture, song and literature -- have become
handmaidens to the conflagration of animalistic desire.
The result of this is that the very idea of beauty is no
longer understood to mean human beauty but has come to mean
animal beauty. This shift finds its way to us, from the
nations amongst whom we live in exile.
Even our community, that aligns itself with the holy
yeshivos, is not completely isolated from this trend. One of
the lessons that we had to learn from the war in which we
had to protect ourselves from chemical weaponry, was that if
the room one is in is not completely sealed, then even
poison from far way can have an effect!
This essay's purpose is to get us to put on our "gas masks"
in time, in other words, to ensure that we don't imbibe from
our surroundings an attitude that is too appreciative of
beauty in general and of its distorted contemporary
presentation in particular.
Animal Beauty and Human Beauty
"And behold, seven cows rose from the river, of beautiful
appearance and of full, healthy flesh, and they grazed in
the meadow" (Bereishis 41:2). Rashi explains that the
words, "Of beautiful appearance," are "an allusion to the
days of plenty, when people appear beautiful to one another,
when nobody looks askance upon what anybody else has."
This seems very strange. Why didn't Rashi match the allusion
perfectly to the second descriptive phrase that the
posuk uses about the cows: "of full, healthy flesh,"
which more obviously signifies fullness and satiety from
Apparently Rashi did not do so because animal beauty, which
is a matter of physical health and power, is not the same as
that which is regarded as beauty in humans. Human beauty
owes itself to spiritual qualities, such as good character
traits and delicacy of spirit, which are reflected in the
features of the face which is the window to the soul (`face'
in Hebrew is ponim, which is also the word for
`inside, interior'). Only this can be considered beauty with
regard to people.
[Thus, although the first phrase, "of beautiful appearance,"
is speaking about animals and is therefore an imperfect
allusion, it is still closer in sense to the beauty of
humans during the years of plenty, than the second phrase,
"of full, healthy flesh," which has nothing at all to do
with human beauty.]
The Essence of Beauty
Let us expand this idea. In the blessing which Moshe Rabbenu
gave to the tribe of Binyomin, the posuk (Devorim
33:12) says, "And He shall dwell between his shoulders."
Rashi explains that, "The Beis Hamikdosh was built on
the highest part of Binyomin's territory, only it was twenty-
three amos below Ein Eitam which was where Dovid
Hamelech had originally wanted to build it, as we find in
Zevochim: `They said, go down a little, for the
posuk says, "And He shall dwell between his
shoulders": there is no more beautiful part of an ox than
between its shoulders.' "
Why are the shoulders of an ox its most comely part?
The answer is simple. A green cucumber is beautiful. A green
lemon is not. A yellow lemon is beautiful, whereas a yellow
cucumber isn't. If someone asks how this can be -- either
the color green is beautiful or it isn't! Or, is yellow more
or less beautiful than green? etc. -- he won't be taken
seriously. When speaking about beauty, there are no clear
cut rules about which colors or shapes are beautiful and
which are not. What determines the beauty of a thing's
appearance is the degree to which its outward color and
shape fit its inner content and nature. If the former
reflects the latter, the object will appear beautiful and if
not, it won't.
In other words, when the outward appearance of a person, or
an object, or anything else, fits, or more accurately
reflects, the purpose for which it was created or made, and
impresses viewers with its ability to completely fulfill its
purpose, then that person or object will be considered
beautiful. If something in the appearance indicates
unsuitability for doing what is usually that object's
assigned job, it is considered unsightly, or ugly.
The ox was created for plowing, which requires great
strength. The broad shoulders of the ox indicate its
strength and its suitability for doing its job. This is why
Chazal said that there is no more beautiful part of the ox
than its shoulders. They clearly wouldn't have said that the
most beautiful part of a sheep is its shoulders. A sheep's
beauty is in its wool, or its nipples, which supply humans
with wool and milk.
In Pursuit of a Youthful Image
This is a fitting juncture to bemoan the distorted
perception of beauty which is so common today. Apart from
the exaggerated importance that is attached to beauty (even
if it were genuine beauty, and it usually isn't to our great
chagrin, five centimeter heels and a few kilograms of weight
can play a more important role in some shidduchim
than many issues of much greater importance), our basic
understanding of what beauty is, is distorted nowadays.
The most important feature in the catalogue of beauty that
is upheld in the street today is "the young look." Men in
their seventies will dye their silvering hair grey, or
arrange their few remaining wisps across their foreheads, so
that it looks like they have a fringe, and will try to make
their weakened muscles conspicuous, all for the sake of
looking young and thus beautiful.
From Chazal's statements, it appears that exactly the
opposite is desirable -- it is "the elderly look" that is
truly becoming: "He (Hakodosh Boruch Hu) said to him
(Avrohom Ovinu), `You are beautiful among people'
"He said, `Where is my beauty? My son and I enter a city and
people don't know which is the father and which is the son,'
for people used to live for a century or two and they didn't
age. Avrohom said, `Ribono Shel Olom, You must make
some distinction between a father and his son so that the
elders will be honored by the youth.'
"Hakodosh Boruch Hu said to him, "By your life, I
will start with you.' He went to sleep that night and got up
in the morning. When he arose, he saw that the hair on his
head and of his beard had gone white. He said, before Him,
`Ribono Shel Olom, you have made me an example.'
"He said, `Old age is a crown of glory' (Mishlei
16:31), `And old age is the beauty of elders'
(Mishlei 20:29)." (Yalkut Shimoni Bereishis
The hoary head of the elderly then, is actually a crown of
glory that gives them a beautiful appearance. How has our
scale of values done such an about turn?
The Outward Reflection of Man's True Image
According to the aforementioned we can understand why.
Beauty is an indication that its bearer is suited to fulfill
its purpose. Man's purpose is the acquisition of
understanding. Chazal tell us (Nedorim 41), "If you
have acquired understanding, you have acquired everything;
if you lack understanding, what do you have?" for they
expound the word, zokein, elder, as signifying,
zeh konoh chochmoh, this one has acquired wisdom"
Years that are properly utilized, together with the vast
experience that they bring, impart understanding and
comprehension to their owners. This is why an elderly
appearance is beautiful. Old age is a sign of a steady head
and knowledge of life. Since the formula for man's creation
was, "betzalmeinu kidemuseinu, in our form and in our
image," (Bereishis 1:26), demus being explained by
Rashi as meaning, "to understand and comprehend," it follows
that an elderly appearance has more genuine "humanity" about
it than a young one.
On the other hand, a person whose ideas about life come from
the outlook of those "who are not called man" (Yevomos
61) and where, as in the animal world, distinction goes
to the stronger one -- for physical strength is far more
necessary in order to enjoy oneself and satisfy one's
desires than brains are -- will esteem a young person as
being far more suited to fulfilling life's "purpose" than an
aged one. In order to look pleasant, they therefore try to
It's worthwhile repeating again and again: human beauty is
not measured in the same way that a choice cut of meat is
measured on the butcher's block. People who are truly "of
beautiful appearance," are not necessarily those with pink
cheeks and rounded facial contours, but those whose happy
faces testify that "they do not look askance on what others
Someone who understands this properly can test himself to
see how much of a ben Torah he really is. Does he
feel that the latest haircut and an ultramodern suit are
really good- looking even if he does not want to wear them
himself? Or does he feel that this kind of "beauty" that is
in fact designed by some corrupt soul in Paris is actually
ugliness, arousing sickness and revulsion in him?
HaRav Yitzchok Pinchos Goldwasser is the mashgiach
of Yeshivas Or Yisroel in Petach Tikvah.