World of the Sages: Beauty and judgment

How should we react when we see an attractive sight? Should we stare and gawk; should we feast our eyes or avert them?

Bar Refaeli 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bar Refaeli 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye." How should we react when we see an attractive sight? Should we stare and gawk; should we feast our eyes or avert them? The Talmud says that one who sees beautiful creatures or beautiful trees should acknowledge the Almighty by reciting the following blessing: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who has this in His world" (B. Brachot 58b). What type of beautiful creatures warrant such a benediction? Commentators explain that seeing beautiful animals or beautiful people, whether they are Jews or not, justifies the recitation of the blessing (Shulhan Aruch OH 225:10). Furthermore, the blessing can be recited over males or females, though elsewhere the Talmud eschews the idea of one gender feasting its eyes on the other (B. Avoda Zara 20a-b; Mishna Brura of Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin, 19th-20th century, Poland). Over what aspect of the experience is the blessing recited? Many commentators explain that the benediction is pronounced over the sensory pleasure of beholding beauty. Much as blessings are recited over scent and taste, so too it is appropriate to pronounce a blessing over the sense of sight. Saying a blessing thus reframes the sensory experience in a manner that acknowledges the hand of God (Ravad, 12th century, Provence). Other commentators highlight not the pleasure but the novelty: Even if there is no particular enjoyment in seeing the beautiful object, the fact that you have never seen such an object before justifies acknowledging the Almighty's role in creation (Meiri, 13th century, Provence). How often can this blessing be recited? If someone lives with a beautiful person, should they recite the blessing daily? Monthly? Yearly? According to one prevalent opinion the blessing can be said only once over a particular item. Once the benediction has been pronounced over a certain beautiful person, for instance, it cannot be recited again - ever - over that same person (Shulhan Aruch). Others maintain that the blessing may be recited once every 30 days (Meiri). Alas, this blessing has largely fallen into disuse, and is at most recited without the Almighty's name. Why do we not say this blessing nowadays? One codifier in the early 19th century suggested that in our modern reality we are exposed to a whole gamut of images, and hence we have become desensitized to wonderful scenes, pictures and spectacles that a blessing is no longer warranted (Rabbi Avraham Danzig, 18th-19th centuries, Vilna). If this could be said about the early 19th century, it is all the more true in our day and age when technology has brought untold vistas into our homes. Another reason offered for the neglect of this blessing is that it was instituted for only the most exquisite sights, a person of extraordinary beauty or an exceptionally beautiful tree (Maimonides, 12th century, Cairo). Since it is so difficult to attest to having seen such a rare sight that warrants this blessing, the blessing is not said (Mishna Brura). A third possible explanation highlights the subjectivity of beauty, which makes the parameters of this blessing too blurred. The trend of Halacha - and for that matter, of law generally - is to seek more precise definitions: A benediction whose parameters were undefined when instituted is classified over time, and the conditions for its pronouncement clearly delineated. The subjectivity of beauty evokes another Talmud passage (B. Ketubot 16b-17a): Our sages discuss what should be said in the presence of bride as we dance before her. According to Beit Shammai we praise the bride as she is, that is we focus on whatever qualities the bride has, citing her actual beauty and stature without exaggerating or misstating the facts. Beit Hillel suggests a different tack: In all cases we say that she is a beautiful and charming bride, irrespective of her actual appearance. Beit Shammai was surprised by Beit Hillel's suggestion: "If she was lame or blind, do we say about her that she is a beautiful and charming bride? Doesn't the Torah say, 'Distance yourself from falsehood' (Exodus 23:7)?" Beit Hillel responded: "According to your view, if someone made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise the purchase or denigrate it? Naturally you would praise it in his eyes!" What type of answer is this? Beit Shammai would surely respond to Beit Hillel by saying: "Indeed! Don't tell a lie. Evaluate the purchase on its real merits." Beit Hillel, I would suggest, is not advocating lying; this school of thought is merely a proponent of a different concept of truth. Beit Shammai speaks on behalf of an objectifiable truth, facts that are not subject to opinion or personal tastes. In that vein we praise the bride, using societal norms as parameters for assessing her qualities. Beit Hillel promotes a subjective truth: the beauty of the bride is in the eyes of the groom. Similarly, the value of the purchase should not be measured by absolute values but through the subjective eyes of the purchaser. Elsewhere our sages describe the biannual festival - on Tu Be'av and on Yom Kippur - when the daughters of Israel would all wear simple white clothing and go out dancing in the vineyards. Young men who were looking for a match would come to this event, and the girls would encourage them not to look just at external beauty, but to consider a variety of virtues (M. Ta'anit 4:8). While the available girls would encourage the men to look at objective facts, the choice as to which facts - beauty, family background, piety - should be considered would be the subjective choice of the suitor. At times we are drawn by external beauty. While this may be a natural reaction it is folly to only follow such externalities. Real beauty is something far deeper, but it is not buried so far beneath the skin that a grand mining expedition must be organized to excavate it. As our relationships develop, as we reveal the godliness within people, we expose their beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - the one who beholds the inner worth of the other. It is this beauty that we seek, and it is this beauty for which we bless the Almighty. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.