Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Shabbat 80 - “We Must Labour to be Beautiful”

If you thought that the quantity debates couldn’t get more detailed, you would be wrong – today’s page begins to explore what happens if one brings out half of a prohibited quantity, and then the second half somewhat later! You can’t bring out enough ink to write two letters, but if you bring out enough to write one letter, write it, then go back in and bring out enough ink to write a second letter and write that, you are not guilty of a violation. And if you bring out enough for one letter in a pen, enough for one letter in dry ink, and enough for one letter in an inkstand? This question will have to wait for Elijah to return [teku] to resolve it.

In the midst of these hairsplitting quantity debates, however, we do find a fascinating anecdote on the coming of age of young women in Talmudic times. One of the amounts prohibited by the Mishnah is “Lime – enough to put on the smallest of girls.” This refers not to the fruit but to the building material, which was evidently also used as a hair remover (depilatory) at this time. The Talmudic discussion of this rule cites Rab’s teaching that when b’not yisrael [Jewish girls] experience puberty early [literally “without reaching their years”] and thus have new hairs growing, poor girls would cover/remove the hair with lime, rich girls with fine flour, and princesses with special oil. Today, women of all ages turn to bikini wax instead. We also read that Rabbi Bibi made a practice of treating his daughter with a depilatory one limb at a time, and “received 400 zuzim for her” – evidently as a bride price.

Clearly, there was a premium on appearing young – it certainly “added value” to Rabbi Bibi’s daughter. There are many uncomfortable reasons why men wanted and want women to look like girls, or today young girls to look like women – is it for interpersonal dominance, or desire for a virgin for clear genetic transmission, or something even darker? We could ask the same question about “trophy wives,” for that matter. But what this Talmudic passage proves above all is the insight of W. B. Yeats’ masterful poem, “Adam’s Curse.” In this work, a poet complains about how hard his job is, and is brought up short by a woman who says simply:

'To be born woman is to know--
Although they do not talk of it at school--
That we must labour to be beautiful.'

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Complete text of Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse”: