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Perceptions of beauty have changed throughout time. For example, in the times of the Talmud, R' Yochanan, who was described as being fat (Berachos 13b), is also described in the Talmud as being exceedingly beautiful (Berachos 20a, for example). However, today obesity is generally considered to be unattractive.

Similarly, across different cultures beauty manifests differently (See this slideshow for some examples - disclaimer: contains photos which I did not peruse to verify modesty).

What I am wondering is if the people who are described in the Torah as beautiful (Bereishis 29:17, for example) were beautiful according to their time and their culture, or if there was an objective nature to their beauty which was not subject to vicissitudes of time and place.

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    why cant a fat person have a beautiful face? – ray Sep 2 '14 at 20:54
  • @ray I didn't say they couldn't, but I don't think anyone's beauty as identified in the Torah is limited to their face. – Y     e     z Sep 2 '14 at 21:12
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    Isn't physical beauty inherently subjective? Wouldn't the Torah objectively recognize spiritual beauty? – Yishai Sep 2 '14 at 21:18
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    I don't know that R Yochanon was as obese as some people today. – Double AA Sep 3 '14 at 17:01
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    @DoubleAA he was large enough to make sitting up to say shemah impractical – Daniel Sep 3 '14 at 21:14
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The Gemara in Megillah 15a says:

תנו רבנן ארבע נשים יפיפיות היו בעולם שרה (ואביגיל רחב) ואסתר ולמאן דאמר אסתר ירקרוקת היתה מפיק אסתר ומעייל ושתי

The Rabbis taught: There were four beautiful women in the world - Sarah, Avigayil, Rachav, and Ester. And according to the opinion that Ester was green, take out Ester and put in Vashti

Lest one say that the Baraisa is referring to spiritual beauty, note that Vashti is a candidate for the list, and she was no saint.

These women lived over a long span of time. Sarah lived at around 2000 BCE, Avigayil lived at around 1000 BCE, Rachav lived around 1300 BCE, and Ester lived at around 500 BCE.

It is always possible that each of them were beautiful in their own generation, but it does seem to be ranking them, both from the non-chronological order, and from that which Vashti will only make the list if Ester is bumped off (i.e. it seems like it is only the top four).

It would seem from here that the beauty described in the Torah is mutable from generation to generation and culture to culture. Otherwise, it could not be compared or ranked.

This doesn't explain how it could be so, but at least points to the fact that it is so.

  • See halakhah.com/bababathra/bababathra_58.html, which mentions Eve and Adam, and Jacob, too. Eve and Adam being beyond comparison to Sarah – Baby Seal Sep 15 '14 at 0:31
  • Couldn't it be relative to time and place? meaning they had 10 beauty dollars in their generation, and in our generation, the most beautiful women to us only have 8 beauty dollars. – Baby Seal Sep 15 '14 at 0:34
  • @BabySeal I saw the Chava vs. Sarah comparison (tos. in Megilla mentions it) but in a vacuum one could say that would be had Sarah lived during Chava's time or vice versa. – Y     e     z Sep 15 '14 at 2:38
  • So beauty depends on time and place? – Baby Seal Sep 15 '14 at 18:27
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    @BabySeal I thought beauty was measured in millihelens en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – הנער הזה Oct 7 '14 at 3:44
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Song of Songs 1 describes both the male and the female in the book as beautiful.

Song of songs 4 describes beautiful eyes, long flowing hair, a full mouth of white symmetric teeth, red lips, a beautiful voice, rosy round cheekbones, a long slender neck, and a symmetric, well-proportioned bosom as being beautiful in women.

Song of Songs 7 adds round hips, an hourglass figure, and a beautiful forehead.

Female physical attractiveness has ties to eyes both in shape and color, as well as full lips. A high forehead and cheekbones are preferred, as is long hair and lighter, redder skin complexion. Symmetric breasts are favored. and preferred waist-to-hip ratio averages less than one, in favor of wider hips.

Song of Songs 5 is much more figurative, but it seems to describe a pale but ruddy complexion, a glowing countenance with curling black hair, beautiful even eyes, a bearded jaw line, rosy lips, and a tall, well-dressed figure with a sturdy stance, for men.

Male physical attractiveness has been found to depend on facial symmetry, masculine facial features such as the jaw line, height, and a healthy, dominant presence representing stability and high social status.

So we see biblical descriptions of beautiful people, which include attractive features that have stood the test of time.

It seems from this that there is an objective beauty that can be implied by the adjective.

  • Song of Songs 7:5 describes as beautiful a nose like a tower. I get the sense the descriptions are not meant to teach us about objective beauty, or any beauty for that matter. – Double AA Sep 14 '14 at 1:16
  • So would you say Rachel's beauty was specifically defined by the qualifications that you have identified as being eternal, or objective? – Y     e     z Sep 14 '14 at 2:12
  • @DoubleAA The intro to rash's explanation on Songs addresses that. You are right, but also wrong, because ain mikrah yotzei miydei pshuto. – Baby Seal Sep 14 '14 at 4:37
  • @YEZ That doesn't follow. It doesn't follow from the existence of objectively beautiful characteristics that they are the only beautiful characteristics. – Double AA Sep 14 '14 at 4:37
  • @YEZ I don't know. You asked about people in the Torah. Here are two people in the torah, who's features are still considered attractive, to a degree. – Baby Seal Sep 14 '14 at 4:38
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Kli Yakar on Breishit 24:16 mentions that the Rabbis stated that if a woman has beautiful eyes, nothing else needs to be physically checked, even if the rest of her is ugly. I could not locate any reference to where he obtained this expression.

There appears to be some support for the notion of checking the eyes as Le'ah eyes were described as "delicate", and compared to Rachel (taking p'shat, not midrashic explanations), this was considered detrimental.

Yoseph is the only male that the Torah describes as "beautiful of form". In Nevi'im (prophets) Saul's height is described and David is described as being rosy-cheeked. For some reason, Tana"ch seems to describe more about the physical appearance of men than women when describing their beauty.

In summary, the Torah does not indicate what others considered to be standards of physical beauty, and I don't think its purpose was to account for public opinion or thinking of that time or any time, for that matter.

What occurred in Tana"ch, with David and Saul may be a different matter. For example, Rashi on Shmu'el I 9:13 in describing the reason the girls gave Sha'ul a long answer to a simple question of where he could find the "seer of G-d" is so that the girls could stare at Sha'uls beautiful figure. So, it seems that at least there, his height, and perhaps, other physical features were significant to at least young girls - not much different standards from today!

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physical human beauty has to do with proportion and symmetry.

as it says regarding abshalom "In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him." (samuel II 14:25)

and disproportion is also a kind of blemish.

but the real beauty of a human being is spiritual beauty which shines on a person's face due to his good traits and wisdom. the book shaarei kedusha (part 1 gate 3) refers to a person with bad character traits using the verse in proverbs 11:22 "Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion"

logically this seems to be universal it has to do with resembling God's traits and those are absolute.

  • What logic are you using to arrive at that conclusion? – Double AA Sep 3 '14 at 17:00
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    What logic are you using to arrive at that conclusion? – Double AA Sep 3 '14 at 18:08
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    So you aren't using any logic at all. – Double AA Sep 9 '14 at 19:42
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    well a girl with a two foot long nose is not going to look to good. isnt this common sense? – ray Sep 9 '14 at 21:14
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    Only if beauty is objective, which is what we are debating. You are assuming your conclusion. – Double AA Sep 9 '14 at 21:17
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R' Akiva Tatz addresses this issue beautifully in the shiur I attached below. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBpjlW1yvyM

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    Can you summarize some of his main points? Just in case the link goes bad in the future it's worth including some info here. It also helps those who can't listen to a whole shiur right now. – Double AA Oct 7 '14 at 2:33

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