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The Etrog and Jewish Beauty

The Etrog and Jewish Beauty

Judaism's surprising definition of beauty.

by

Every civilization and every philosophical system searches for the meaning of beauty. In classical Western thought, "pursuit of the Beautiful" is deemed to be as basic as the quest for the Good and the True. Contemporary culture has been profoundly influenced by this perspective. To this day, the striving for beauty is a dominant and desirable component of an accomplished individual -- an ideal to be devoutly pursued.

At first glance, it would seem that the enshrinement of beauty as a value in and of itself is not a major Jewish priority. The oft-quoted phrase, taken in isolation, "beauty is vanity" (Proverbs 31:30), seems, on a cursory level, to cast beauty in a negative light.

It seems to me, however, that a compelling argument ought to be made for the vital and central role that beauty occupies in the Jewish worldview. In order to do so, we must show that, for Judaism, beauty is something unique, and means something entirely different than in all other thought systems.

What, then, is distinct and singular about the Jewish concept of beauty? To answer this, one looks to the Torah to find the sources of the Jewish idea of beauty. Like all abstract theories in Judaism which ultimately find their expression in concrete mitzvot, the idea of beauty, as well, finds a tangible realization in the central mitzvot of the holiday of Sukkot. The Torah requires: "And you shall take unto yourselves on the first day [of Sukkot] a fruit of a beautiful tree (pri etz hadar)."

The Talmud (Sukkot 35a) wishes to define what constitutes a "beautiful tree" by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, "hadar." The sages conclude that it is the etrog tree, because the word "hadar" is interpreted to be a fruit which "dwells continuously all year on the tree" (ha-dar, literally, "that which dwells"). Thus, they understand the word "dar" to mean the opposite of temporary or intermittent residence; rather, it implies permanence, a continuous process through time (similar to the French "duree" or the English "endure").

Beauty is the indomitable power of life, the determination to live on despite all difficulties, the drive for eternity.

The etrog tree fulfils this requirement of constant dwelling, for most other fruits are seasonal, but the etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons: in the heat and the cold, in the wind and in storm -- it stubbornly persists! It endures! And in the Jewish view, that is why it is beautiful.

Beauty, then, in classical Jewish sources, means the indomitable power of life, the determination to live on despite all difficulties, the affirmation of the victory of life over death, the drive for eternity.

ETERNAL BEAUTY

In this light, we can understand another striking mitzvah in the Torah. Concerning the obligation to honor the elderly, the Torah states: "ve'HADAR'ta p'nei zakein," which is usually translated "and honor the face of the old person." The word hadar, however, literally means "beauty", so what the verse is actually telling us is to ascribe beauty to the old face.

What is beautiful about an old face? This very idea contradicts the basic attitude of Western civilization which, since the time of the ancient Greeks, has always associated beauty with youth. In the contemporary Western world, the entire cosmetic industry is predicated on making people appear young, if they wish to look beautiful. The attempt is precisely to make the old face seem younger. Yet the Torah ascribes beauty to the old face, precisely because it expresses the ongoing triumph of a life which endured and persisted throughout the arduous passage of time.

How much determination, courage and will to live do we see in an old face! In this regard, the Talmud (Kiddushin 33a) tells us: Rabbi Yochanan used to stand up even before aged Aramean heathens saying, "How many troubles have passed over these." The Torah, thus, requires us to see in aging persons, not that they are fading away into oblivion, but to recognize in them the unremitting surge to live, and of the yearning of the immortal soul deep within each individual for eternity.

Therefore, Beauty in the Jewish worldview is not a value to be understood in isolation. It is not an attempt, as in other aesthetic systems, to merely "capture the moment," with its concomitant glorification of youth and the attempt to preserve it for all time. In Judaism, beauty inheres in the basic Jewish historical sensibility: the palpable experience of apprehending the eternal in the flow of passing time.

BEAUTIFUL OLIVES

In a similar vein, the Menorah, which is central in the service of the Holy Temple, and which has become a symbol of the Jewish people itself, is described in the Torah as "ner tamid," an eternal light. The source in the Torah reads: "And you (Moses) shall command the children of Israel that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for lighting to make a light shine out continuously." (Exodus 27:20)

The Sages of the Midrash point out that the olive -- the beaten olive -- whose oil burns continuously, is the true symbol of Israel. The Midrash quotes the verse in Jeremiah (11:16): "The Lord called thy name (Israel) a leafy olive tree, beautiful with goodly fruit," and the Midrash asks, why is it the olive tree with which Israel is identified?

The answer given is that Israel is uniquely similar in many of its essential characteristics to the fruit of the olive tree. The olive is beaten, pressed, ground down, and then it produces its oil which gives rise to glowing light. So, too, the people of Israel: Despite all the oppression, cruelty and exile visited upon them, they are not destroyed. Rather, they continue to shine on magnificently, ever brighter.

It is significant that in the passage quoted, Jeremiah declares not only the dauntless character of Israel's persistence in the face of every hardship, but defines this quality as being the very source of Israel's beauty -- "leafy olive tree, beautiful with goodly fruit..."

PERSISTENCE & COMPLETION

When we complete the study of a tractate of the Talmud, we recite "HADRAN alach -- we shall return to you." We proclaim that our studies and the knowledge gained will not simply slip into the past, but that we shall continuously go back, revive, rejuvenate and find new meanings in our past learning. The very word hadran, from the root hadar, thus has basically the same meaning as the word hadar, as we now understand it. To continually persist and to be beautiful are identical!

The holiday of Sukkot dramatizes the paradoxical idea that while on the one hand, we are to recognize the temporary and transient nature of human existence on earth by residing in temporary sukkah booths, at the same time, we are to affirm the immortality of life and the eternity of Israel by taking hold of the ever-enduring etrog. The dialectic tension in these contradictory elements establishes the framework of our comprehension and experience of the beautiful. Discovering, affirming and struggling in the face of implacable difficulties, in the face of mutability and death itself, for the realization of the eternal, creates the Jewish sense of beauty...

The ultimate beauty of Israel itself lies in the triumph of its eternity.

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.

Published: October 2, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 12

(11) Joey, October 28, 2013 7:15 AM

Fascinating insights! Thank you and God bless!

(10) Wendy, September 15, 2013 10:48 PM

A different view

All the emails above are wonderful and deep.

I'm not going that route, beauty sometimes connotates the most shallow. To appreciate superficial beauty and inner beauty in the same person is amazing.
Jewish ppl and Israel have both inner beauty & outer beauty. The outer beauty is the diversity of our ppl. So unique to have so many different beauties from everywhere on the planet. The inner beauty is the strength and kindness of our ppl. Truly amazing.
I've seen Jews displaying chesed in ways that have truly moved me forever. And those who aren't beauties by Western standards are beauties by Torah standards because of the Love & Light that they consistently share.
Am Yisrel Chai!!

(9) Robert Ridley, October 11, 2011 11:25 PM

This says what I have sought for years to convey about beauty!

I look into the beautiful face of my precious wife of 39 years and see unparalleled beauty in every feature. Truly beauty is found in the persistence and faithfulness of her service to her family. "How many troubles have passed over these!" Thank you, Rabbi Schmidman, for these gracious words!

(8) ruth housman, October 11, 2011 12:12 PM

around this most beautiful world

there are many same and different explications and awesome statements about the spirituality that is beauty, and surely the lines, the wrinkles in time, on any man's face, tell a story, a deep heroic story, of how they got to be here, that journey of soul, and sole. The word grounded, which means to have one's roots firmly in the soil, to not be too flighty, in the word split, sounds out ground dead. There is this inexplicable beauty to woods themselves, containing a bipolarity of the wisdom of the ages, as explicated in this lovely article. There is a paradox here, that what lives is also part of what is dying. When I visit my garden, after the fall, I see, in the myriad spent flowers, the seed pods, and a beauty within the withering, that is also symmetry, also inexplicably, beautiful. Look to for example, the gold casings of the clematis when it's spent flowering. There is beauty everywhere, within decay too, and always the promise of another spring, being also Rebecca's well and that Biblical story that brough us forward. It's all ONE, and when you truly perceive this, you have entered the Garden again. Gan Eden. This Sukkot marvel at Creation. Sit under those stars and simply feel the smallness and the eternal in the words themselves, Enduring Creation. Because they do contain this doubling of meaning. MIrar, mirror, To Wonder!

(7) Anonymous, September 5, 2011 11:15 AM

re-jew-venation!

Thankyou for your excellent article on the true essence of beauty, I would like to point out though, that perhaps the idea of youthful beauty is not, in fact, a greek concept, but a very Jewish one, as we see that Sara Imeinu was described as having the innocent beauty of a 7 year old, at the age of 127!, and also Yocheved, , around the time of giving birth to Moshe Rabbeinu at the awesome age of 130, was also noted in the Midrash to have been rejuvenated. It's true that the IDEAL beauty may not be of the physical variety,but I think it's fair to comment that it's not purely a Greek concept either.

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