Bare or Hair?

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated R

Ah, the eternal dilemma – bare or au naturel?

Are these grooming choices simply a matter of taste? (Um…no pun intended.) Or could it be that even this intimate decision has a rich Jewish history and Torah tradition? Easy answer there 😉 Let’s dive right into it….the tradition, that is.

The first commandment in this week’s Parshah, Ki Teitzei, discusses the laws of the Beautiful Captive.

Essentially, when the Jewish army goes to war with its enemies, the Torah contemplates that the Jews will emerge victorious, and will bring home captives. Now, suppose one of the female captives is exceedingly beautiful, and a Jewish soldier wishes to take her as his wife. The Torah at once gives a nod to the lust that is inevitably aroused in battle, while simultaneously recognizing that the bitterness of a captive torn from her home and family cannot be ignored, and provides an ill foundation for a lasting relationship.

Accordingly, Torah commands that the captive be given a month in which to mourn for her parents, that her head be shaved, that her nails be done, that her clothes of captivity be removed. This provides the captive some breathing room, an opportunity to mourn her loved ones, and some physical respectability. On the other hand, it provides a cooling-off period for the soldier, who will now have a clearer head with which to decide whether to marry her. If he still wants to, he may, and she becomes his full-fledged wife. If he changes his mind, however, she must be free to go, and may not be kept as a maidservant. See Deuteronomy, 21:10-14.

The Talmud relates that, during the Israelites’ early wars of conquest in the Land of Canaan, many of these Beautiful Captives were taken as wives for the Jewish soldiers. Indeed, King David apparently had 400 boys, the offspring of Beautiful Captives, who, strong and handsome, rode in golden chariots at the head of his armies. They wore their hair in a single braid – a practice discouraged among Jews due to its association with idol-worship – but King David must have enjoyed the intimidation that this formidable gentile-looking force wrought upon the Jewish enemies. See Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 21a.

Anyway, there was another child of a Beautiful Captive that the Talmud discusses.

There is a famous yet tragic story of of King David’s own children: his son, Amnon, and his daughter Tamar. (See Samuel II, Ch. 13). Tamar was an exceptionally beautiful girl, and Amnon found himself unable to resist his paternal-sister’s beauty. His lust for her turned into an obsession, and he sought the advice of his friend, Yonadav, as to how to gain access to her. Following Yonadav’s advice, Amnon pretended to fall ill, and asked his father, King David, to send Tamar to tend to him. King David agreed.

When Tamar arrived, Amnon was able to persuade her to send all of the other servants away, and to feed him by hand. At that point, he grabbed her and asked her to lie with him. Tamar refused, begging Amnon not to do this thing. Rather, she said, “I beg of you to speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you.” Her words fell on deaf ears, as Amnon overpowered her and raped her mercilessly.

Immediately afterwards, the Torah says that “Amnon hated her with a very great hatred, for greater was the hatred with which he hated her than the love with which he had loved her.” From both the context and the subsequent verses, Amnon’s hate would seem to be a reflection of the post-coital self-loathing that he felt from his despicable act, coupled with the loss of Tamar’s former allure, now that he had sated his lust. Indeed, as the Mishnah states in Ethics of our Fathers, the brief relationship between Amnon and Tamar is an example of a love that is dependent upon an external factor – when the external factor ceases, the love ceases as well. See Pirkei Avot, 5:16.
But why would he hate her quite that much? Why would he hate her even more than he had previously loved her? After all, after Shechem raped Dinah, “his soul cleaved to Dinah the daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl and spoke to the girl’s heart.” Genesis, 34:3.

To this, the Talmud explains that Tamar had her immediate revenge on Amnon (although later, Tamar’s full brother Absalom further avenged her honor by killing having Amnon killed). What did she do? The Talmud relates that Tamar somehow somehow managed to tie one of her pubic hairs to Amnon’s penis, cutting into it, and effectively castrating him. It turns out that that really pissed him off. Weird.

From this story, the Talmud concludes that Tamar was the daughter of a Beautiful Captive – for two reasons. First, the fact that she insisted that if Amnon asked King David for her hand in marriage, she would surely be given to him – despite the fact that the Torah explicitly prohibits sexual relations among paternal siblings – means that she was born to King David before her mother, Maacha, had made the full transition from Beautiful Captive to wife. Thus, like a convert, she was not considered Amnon’s legal sister.

The second reason is more germane to this week’s topic.The prophet Ezekiel lamented that once, “your name went out among the nations for your beauty.” Ezekiel, 16:14. The Talmud explains the nature of this beauty, explaining that during that early period, Jewish girls did not grow any hair either under their arms or between their legs; they were bare and smooth. It was only much later, when “the daughters of Zion became so haughty” (Isaiah, 3:16), that they lost this physical characteristic. The fact that Tamar had pubic hair, therefore, was yet a further indication that she was of a non-Jewish background, and the daughter of a Beautiful Captive.

Another tragic story that occurred generations earlier, which also incidentally illustrates the historic Jewish attitude towards pubic hair, is that of the Concubine of Gibea. The story begins with a Levite taking a concubine, who ultimately “turned from him.” Judges, 19:2. Although the verse appears to place the blame with her, the Sages of the Talmud blame her husband for terrorizing her, and for being unduly harsh towards her. One of the things that particularly angered the husband was his discovery of…a pubic hair. Babylonian Talmud, Gittin, 6b. As Rashi explains, this was not merely an aesthetic preference; women used to remove their pubic hair lest a hair slice the penis, rendering the man impotent – an act that Tamar would deliberately employ many years later.

Serendipitously, it is also this week’s Parshah that teaches the prohibition of that “[A man]…whose member is cut may not enter the assembly of the Lord.” Deuteronomy, 23:2. Thus, the fear of having ones member inadvertently cut was not merely the fear of injury, but of larger consequences for a man’s standing within the Jewish community.

Nowadays, different sects and women have different grooming practices. To each their own. It becomes more relevant when a woman goes to the Mikvah, the ritual bath. Many Sephardic authorities consider pubic hair to be a chatzitzah – an improper separation between the body and the water of the Mikvah – that must be shaved or waxed prior to immersion. Other authorities consider pubic hair to be such a separation only if it is the woman’s normal practice to shave or wax it.

Whatever a woman’s particularly preference, however, it is certainly fascinating to note that today’s popular fashion trend of going bare is actually a return to one of the earliest periods in our national history, when being hairless was a sign of beauty and G-d’s grace. Bare or hair, may we soon see that grace restored, and our exile ended!