Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Subjects of Jewish Thougts
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Yaakov Ben Behora

On Creation's Beauty

Rav rules that “it is forbidden to say, 'How beautiful is that idolatress!'” However, the Talmud raises a difficulty: Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel “saw a heathen woman who was particularly beautiful, and exclaimed, 'How great are Thy works, O Lord!'”


Rabbi Uzi Kalchaim zt"l

1. Looking at the Bright Side
2. "Do not admire their gracefulness"
3. Every Evil Thing
4. A Different Approach

Looking at the Bright Side
We have learned that a person must praise the Creator when the trees begin blossoming. We shall now see that the same obligation applies with regard to animals and humans who have been created in a becoming manner and whose exceptional beauty reveals the astounding craftsmanship of the Artisan. Scripture tells us that "there is no rock ('tzur') like our Lord" (I Samuel 2:2), and the Sages explain that this verse can also be understood to mean that "there is no artist ('tzayar') like our lord."

And this is how the law is brought down in the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 225):
"If one sees attractive trees or comely creatures, even if he sees a comely non-Jew or an animal, he should say 'You are Blessed, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has such in His universe.'"

Jewish law places no limitations on how much pleasure a person is permitted to derive from gazing at the natural beauty of inanimate objects or vegetation; there is no fear of mishap or moral corruption here. However, when it comes to human beings, we find that looking at an evil person is forbidden, and viewing erotic body parts is likewise restricted by Jewish law.

The Talmud teaches us that when dealing with the evil inclination, women, and infants, "the left hand should distance them, but the right hand should draw them near" (Sanhedrin 107b). In other words, precaution is needed in order that they be received in the proper positive manner. The Magen Avraham, one of the mighty pillars of Jewish law, draws a distinction between an insignificant glance, which is permitted, and intentional observation, which is forbidden. Viewing something superficially is not forbidden, whether it be an animal or a human being: a chance glance is permitted (see Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 225).

"Do not admire their gracefulness"
Let us consider the story of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel who, while standing on a step on the Temple Mount, saw a heathen woman who was particularly becoming and responded by blessing and praising God for His beautiful handiwork. This story appears in both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud, and the two versions contain similar practical legal conclusions. Yet, while the boundaries delineated by each are nearly identical, their backdrops, starting points, and manners of presentation make us aware of the differences in the two Talmuds' attitudes and styles.

Regarding the Torah prohibition known as "lo techanem" (Deuteronomy 7:2), the Talmud brings a number of laws, each based upon a different interpretation of the word "techanem" (Avodah Zara 20a):
1) "Do not allow them to settle on the soil," based upon the root "chana."
2) "Do not admire their gracefulness," based upon the root "chen."
3) "Do not give them any free gift," from the root "chinam."

In explaining the "lo techanem" prohibition in the sense of "do not admire their gracefulness," the Talmud brings Rav's saying, "One is forbidden to say, 'How beautiful is that idolatress'!" and then raises an objection from the story of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel who "saw a heathen woman who was particularly beautiful, and exclaimed: 'How great are Thy works, O Lord!'"

Basing themselves upon the prohibition against "admiring their gracefulness," the Sages proceed to question the behavior of Rabbi Akiva who, "when he saw the wife of the wicked Tyranus Rufus, responded in three different manners: he spat, laughed, and wept. He spat because of her originating only from a putrefying drop; he laughed because he foresaw that she would become a proselyte and that he would take her to wife; and he wept that such beauty should ultimately decay in the dust."

The Sages resolve this contradiction by explaining that "each of these rabbis merely offered thanksgiving." In other words, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel did not praise and complement the idolatress, but praised the Almighty for the beauty in His universe, and the Talmud brings support for this explanation from the fact that the Sages teach that "he who beholds goodly creatures should say, 'Blessed be He who hath created such in His universe.'"

Every Evil Thing
Here the Talmud raises another difficulty: "But is looking permitted at all? The following can surely be brought as an objection: 'Thou shalt keep thee from every evil thing.' [This verse implies that] one should not look intently at a beautiful woman, even if she be unmarried, or at a married woman even if she be ugly, nor at a woman's gaudy garments, nor at male and female asses, or a pig and a sow, or at fowls when they are mating."

The Talmud continues discussing at some length the severity of viewing forbidden sights, and then resolves the contradiction by explaining that what may have happened in the cases of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva was that "the woman turned round a corner." That is, these Rabbis did not intentionally look to see the women, but came upon them by chance, when "turning a corner."

If we look closely at the course of the deliberation in the Babylonian Talmud, we find that its starting point is the prohibition against admiring "their gracefulness." The Talmud brings support from Rav's ruling (i.e., it is forbidden to say, "How beautiful is that idolatress") and in response raises the problem of the behavior of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva. This is resolved via the explanation that these two Sages did not bless the women themselves, but rather praised God on account of them.

A Different Approach
The Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 9:1) takes as its starting point the law that a person must praise God for His beautiful handiwork. Proof of this is brought from the behavior of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel who put this law into practice by praising the Creator when he saw the attractive idolatress.

In other words, the positive starting point calls for looking upon the entire universe as a channel for praising and thanking God for the beauty in creation. In response to this, the Talmud raises the difficulty of "lo techanem." Is it not forbidden to admire "their gracefulness"? And if so, how do we explain Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel's behavior?

Answer: what we are dealing with here is not a compliment to the heathen woman, but praise to the Creator, "Who has such in His universe." The Talmud proceeds to strengthen this approach: "Even if a person sees an attractive camel, horse, or donkey, he recites: 'Blessed is He Who created beautiful creatures in His Universe.'" Note that the objection itself leads to a strengthening of the approach which calls for admiring creation's beauty: Not only man, the pinnacle of creation, is to be admired, but the other creatures as well.

The Talmud challenges this too by asking how we can legitimize such a depraved act as looking at women: "Does Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel make a practice of looking at women?" It responds by explaining that the Rabbi was caught off guard, and it was against his will.

What is the difference between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud as far as conclusions-reached is concerned? The difference is that the deliberation in the Babylonian Talmud begins with a "no" that results in a very limited "yes." This is what causes the Tosafists to note that, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, this "yes" must be extended to include animals the likes of camels, horses, and donkeys.

The Jerusalem Talmud, on the other hand, begins with a "yes" for praising God and only afterwards refines this position slightly by ruling out married women ("eshet ish").
Some translated Talmudic sources in the above article were taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-ROM). Portions of Shulchan Arukh were taken from or based upon Davka's CD-ROM edition of Feldheim's Mishnah Berurah.

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