What measures of beauty do Jewish men value when choosing a prospective wife? Some might say that looks matter a great deal. Others might follow the conventional proverbial wisdom that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," or that "true beauty is on the inside!" On Seinfeld, George Costanza's girlfriend Paula, once commented that: "looks aren't important to me." She goes on to tell George that: "You can wear sweatpants. You could drape yourself in velvet, for all I care!" Keeping in mind that beauty is a subjective measure, I would imagine that few men would dismiss physical beauty altogether.
In the rabbinic world of the Mishnah and the Talmud, the rabbis tend to place particular emphasis on the role of physical appearance. They exclusively limited beauty to the external body. It is taught in the Talmud that: "שלשה מרחיבין דעתו של אדם, אלו הן: דירה נאה, three things comfort a man, and they are: a beautiful abode, a beutiful bride, and beautiful vessels (B. Berachot 57b)." A beautiful wife, in this case, appears as an extension of a man's house.1 He appreciates her beauty in the same way that he values the the aesthetic appeal of his property. Rabbi Chiya, a notoriously chauvinistic amora, argues that women are nothing more than show pieces and baby makers.
אין אשה אלא ליופי, אין אשה אלא לבנים . . . אין אשה אלא לתכשיטי אשה . . . . הרוצה שיעדן את אשתו ילבישנה כלי פשתן
A wife is only for beauty, a wife is only to make children . . . and a wife is only for feminine adornments. He who wants to brighten his wife's countenance should clothe her in linen garments (B. Ketubot 59b).
In reading these statements centered on physical attractiveness, we might imagine that husbands chose their wives based almost solely on looks. Defective qualities in a woman included: moles, scars, and irregularities in a woman's breasts (B. Ketubot 75 a-b).2 A woman's character serves little purpose under this mindset.
When the rabbis detailed their standards for beauty, marriages were arranged by the parents of each party. Men and women who had been fixed up scarcely knew their chosen partner, let alone had the opportunity to converse and get to know the other's inner qualities. This system necessitated the judgement and consideration of a potential mate based on superficial qualities. For men, a mole mattered more than a kind heart because of the limited opportunity to interact with prospective brides.The culture of arranged marriages set the stage for a society that appreciated superficial and sometimes trivial attributes.
Notwithstanding the seemingly antiquated rabbinic perception of beauty, one key story from the Mishnah might offer the modern Jew insight on this subject. In tractate Nedarim there is case of a man who vowed not to marry his niece because she was ugly. The story highlights that Rabbi Ishmael brought the girl into his house, and helped uncover her beauty so that the man would agree to marry her. After Ishmael asks the man whether he really vowed that he would not marry the girl, the man responds "no!" The story continues that:
בְּאוֹתָה שָׁעָה בָּכָה רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל וְאָמַר, בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל נָאוֹת הֵן אֶלָא שֶׁהָעֲנִיוּת מְנַוָולְתָן.
At the very same hour, Rabbi Ishmael cried out and said that "all the daughters of Israel are beautiful! It's only that poverty can make them look ugly [on the outside] (Nedarim 9:10).
Rabbi Ishmael teaches us that all Jewish women possess attributes of beauty. These traits may or may not be outward because cultural destitution obscures them. Because Ishmael helped reveal the beauty of Jewish women in the world, we learn that:
וּכְשֶׁמֵּת רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל הָיוּ בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל נוֹשְׂאוֹת קִינָה וְאוֹמְרוֹת, בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְכֶינָה.
When Rabbi Ishamel died, the daughters of Israel raised a lament and said: "The daughters of Israel weep for Rabbi Iishmael."
The honor due to Ishmael need not only come from the women of Israel. We might see Ishmael's lesson applied for all of humanity. God created all men and women in the image of God. Every individual is beautiful! While we often fail to see beyond the divides and exteriors that mask God's gifts to us, it is up to each person to help uncover the beauty that hides beneath the surface. In searching for love in the world, we might find beauty on someone's outside, but we should never forget to look deeper.
In rabbinic literature, a man's wife is, in fact, called "ביתו," his house. We learn in Yoma 1:1 that: "בֵּיתוֹ, זוֹ אִשְׁתּוֹ, when 'his house' is referenced, it refers to his wife."
Because men generally consider large breasts a mark of attraction, the Gemara asks the question: "ומי איכא כי האי גוונא, can such a thing really exist?" The rabbis answer "yes," and present the following hyperbole to demonstrate how such a condition might appear unattractive: "דאמר רבה בר בר חנה: אני ראיתי ערביא אחת, שהפשילה דדיה לאחוריה והניקה את בנה Rabbah bar bar Chanah reported that: I once saw an Arabian woman who slung her breasts behind her and nursed her son (Ketubot 75a)."