Sarah’s Beauty

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 PG-13

Who was Sarah?

The Torah — and particularly this Parshah of Lech Lecha — speak of an extraordinarily complex individual, and one whose mark on the Jewish nation and the world at large remains apparent to this day.

But why don’t we start at the beginning?

We are first introduced to Sarah — originally named Sarai — in last week’s Parshah, in the following verse: “And Abram and Nahor took themselves wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah.”[1]

Sarah married at the age of 15, when Abraham (then called Abram) was 25.[2]

While the Torah does not speak of Sarah’s parents, the Talmud states that Iscah was actually another name for Sarah (thus referring to the same woman by two different names within the same verse).[3] Iscah, the Talmud teaches, is a similar genre of name as Sarai: they both express princedom and royalty. Iscah also comes from the expression “gaze”; the Talmud states that Sarah was called Iscah because all would gaze at her beauty.

Sarah’s beauty is an interesting thing.

When we are first introduced to Sarah, the Torah makes immediately note of the fact that “Sarai was barren; she had no child.”[4] The Talmud explains that the addition of the fact “she had no child,” which would otherwise be superfluous, is intended to tell us Sarai actually had no womb at all — in other world, she lacked the basic female parts necessary to bring a child into the world.[5] In fact, the Talmud states that both Avraham and Sarah were born as tumtums — a person whose genitals are covered with a thick membrane.[6] Even when that membrane later tears, exposing the person’s genitalia, the condition generally renders the tumtum infertile.

Now, traditional norms of female beauty suggest that increased femininity enhances a woman’s beauty. For example, many women experience hormone imbalances that leave them with increased testosterone levels or other physiological effects. These imbalances often endow them with more masculine features, such as facial hair, or a deeper voice — and women go to extraordinarily lengths to overcome these perceived flaws. Often, infertility is a symptom of the very same hormonal imbalance, such that the same women who struggle with unwanted facial hair oftentimes also struggling with infertility.

This is a long way of saying that the same cause of Sarah’s barrenness might also have been expected to significantly impact her femininity and beauty. However, not only was Sarah beautiful, but she was considered one of the rarest beauties in all of history.

In this week’s Parshah, Abraham and Sarah obey G-d’s command and travel to Cana’an. However, finding Cana’an famine-stricken, they turn south, and travel to Egypt. Immediately, “the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very beautiful. And Pharaoh’s princes saw her, and they praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken to the house of Pharaoh.”[7]

Keep in mind that Abraham was 75 years old when G-d commanded him to travel to Cana’an, which made Sarah 65 years old. So she was a 65-year-old woman, who was so incredibly beautiful that she drew the attention of Pharaoh’s princes, who extolled her beauty to Pharaoh himself — and he immediately took her. The presents that Pharaoh lavished upon Abraham — who presented himself as Sarah’s brother — also gives a clue as to the prize that Sarah represented: “Flocks and cattle and he donkeys and men servants and maid servants, and she donkeys and camels.”[8] Indeed, the Midrash states that Pharaoh was so besotted with her, and he immediately wrote a marriage contract in which he bequeathed to Sarah the Egyptian city of Goshen. Years later, the nascent Jewish nation would be settled in the same land of Goshen as their rightful inheritance from their matriarch Sarah.

The Talmud says that there were only four beautiful women in the world: Sarah, Rahab (the famous prostitute who ended up converted and marrying Joshua), Abigail (who proved so irresistible to King David that he had to have her even though she was then married to Uriah), and Esther (the fairest maiden in King Achashverosh’s kingdom).[9]

In fact, speaking of King David, theTorah relates that when he was old, King David had trouble keeping warm. They brought him an extraordinarily beautiful girl, Avishag the Shunamite, to sleep with him (just to sleep!), knowing that mere proximity to such beauty would raise King David’s body temperature.[10] The Talmud teaches that even Avishag did not reach half of Sarah’s beauty.[11]

Later in this week’s Parshah, G-d promises Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son, and He changes her name from “Sarai” to “Sarah.” Actually, He doesn’t so much change it, as forbid Abraham from calling her Sarai any longer, “for Sarah is her name.” There G-d adds: “I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her, and I will bless her, and she will become a mother of nations; kings of nations will be from her.”[12]

Twice, G-d says “I will bless her.” The Midrash states that one blessing was the blessing of youth; on that day, Sarah’s youth was restored to her.[13]

The second blessing was that, not only would she become fertile, but that she would have an over-abundance of breast milk. Later, after she gave birth to Isaac at the age of 90, Sarah marveled at the miracle and said “Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have nursed children?”[14] The Talmud asks: One second – how many children did Sarah breastfeed that she would have used the plural expression “children,” as opposed to “a child” (which would have referred solely to Isaac)? The Talmud explains Sarah’s words by recounting an interesting episode.

On the day that Isaac was weaned, Abraham and Sarah made a great banquet. Many of the guests, however, were skeptical, and whispered to each other: “Have you seen this old man and woman, who brought an abandoned infant in from the street, and now claim him as their son! And now they have made a great banquet to try and pass off their claim as true!” The whispers grew louder and louder until they reached a crescendo that could not be ignored. The guests included husbands and wives with their children – but no wet-nurses, as was common in those days among dignitaries. To extinguish any doubt as to her fertility, Sarah offered to breastfeed all of the guests’ children, whereupon, “her breasts opened like two fountains, and she breastfed them all,” and all knew that she had, indeed, given birth to Isaac.[15]

There is much more to say regarding Sarah, and I hope to touch upon various aspects of her personality, her inherent sense of royalty, and the significance of the change in her name, in the coming weeks. For now, however, suffice it to say that Jewish women come from exceedingly beautiful stock!

Shabbat shalom!

[1] Genesis, 11:29.

[2] See Sefer Seder HaDorot.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14a.

[4] Genesis, 11:30.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot, 64b

[6] Id., 64a.

[7] Genesis, 12:14-15.

[8] Genesis, 12:16.

[9] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 15a.

[10] See I Kings, 1:4.

[11] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b.

[12] Genesis, 17:15-16.

[13] Genesis Rabbah, 47:2.

[14] Genesis, 21:7.

[15] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metziah 87a.