Dear Jew in the City-
I understand that Jewish law requires modest dress and behavior but does it require looking unattractive too? I sometimes hear people say that a woman can only look beautiful in private. Are there Torah sources to back this up?
All the best,
Thanks for your question. I have to admit, that’s a new one to me! I can think of Torah sources that suggest the opposite. For example, Genesis 12:11 tells us that Sarah was beautiful; Rashi on Genesis 23:1 reiterates this point. Similarly, Esther 2:7 stresses the beauty of Esther. Neither of these sources seem to be criticizing the women in question.
Shir HaShirim is an allegory written in the form of a love story between a woman and a man. Chapter 4 is entirely the man’s praises of the woman’s beauty. Now, we can quibble over how literally or how metaphorically we should take this book but the fact remains that if being beautiful were a bad thing, it would make for a poor allegory of praise.
The sixth chapter of the Talmudic tractate of Shabbos is all about what jewelry and ornaments women can wear outside of an eiruv on Shabbos because, you know, women are allowed to wear such things to beautify themselves. There are also many rules about what cosmetics may and may not be used on Shabbos but the bottom line is that, certain Shabbos restrictions notwithstanding, women are allowed to use cosmetics!
The Talmud in Kesubos (17a) describes a difference of opinion as to how we should praise a bride. One opinion is to praise her as beautiful overall, even though this may not be quite true; the other opinion is to praise her for whatever beautiful characteristics she may actually possess. This is a debate about how truthful to be in praising her but both focus on her beauty. We are not told that a bride needs to “uglify” herself.
I could go on but you get the idea. Yes, you will find Talmudic and halachic references to things that women do to make themselves attractive to their husbands but that’s because husbands and wives should want their spouses to be attracted to them. It doesn’t suggest that a person should only be attractive behind closed doors and hideous in public. In fact, the Talmud in Kesubos on page 59b discusses things a man can do to beautify his wife – and things he can do to beautify his unmarried daughters! They may not be the same things because their situations are different but no one is meant to be repulsive.
Modest and attractive are not mutually exclusive. Look at pictures of Princess Diana, Nancy Reagan or other world leaders. Generally speaking, you will find that they are dressed both modestly and attractively. Look at pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. They often sport fashions that are both immodest and unattractive. (I’m not just being old and curmudgeonly; I know what I’m talking about. Miley’s teddy bear onesie? Gaga’s meat dress? They’re great for shock value and publicity but just because they’re revealing doesn’t mean they’re appealing.)
There are limits to physical beauty, for both women and for men. The Talmud in Nedarim (9b) discusses a man with a particularly beautiful head of hair who became a nazir (a nazirite in English, if that helps). His hair led to vanity and temptation so he took a nazirite vow, which ends with having the head shaved. He did this specifically to combat the evils he perceived to be a consequence of this physical feature of his. While it need not be taken to this extreme, everyone should try to be self-aware and to beautify themselves appropriately. (King David’s son Avshalom also had a gorgeous head of hair about which he was very vain. It was literally the death of him in II Samuel chapter 18.)
I don’t believe that the laws of modesty were given for the sake of other people. When people say that women should only dress in a certain ways so as not to tempt men, I completely disagree with that rationale. The laws of modesty apply to both men and women, both in public and in private. (Yes, there are obvious differences. For example, one should not shower in public but one may absolutely do so in private.) Micah 6:8 tells us to walk modestly with God, which means to behave modestly even when it’s just Him and me.
So, yes, one might want to dress up extra special for their spouse but that shouldn’t be taken as an obligation to be extra-frumpy in every other context. One can be completely modest and still be attractive in appropriate attire.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
For more insight on the topic, check out Rabbi Abramowitz’s The Tznius Book.