Like their non-Jewish neighbors, Jews in antiquity (regardless of place and time) thought that beauty was good. When, for example, Jewish Hellenistic writers dilate upon the beauty of biblical characters when the Bible mentions it, they are following a well-worn classical trope. In this sense, beauty was culturally loaded: Jews, Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians all thought themselves to be beautiful and descendants of beautiful people. In itself, beauty was perceived as good, and even the rabbis often (but not always) saw it as reflecting moral goodness....

In the first century CE, a Roman philosopher, Musonius Rufus, wrote:
Therefore those who contemplate marriage ought to have regard neither for family, whether either one be of highborn parents, nor for wealthy, whether on either side there be great possessions, nor for physical traits, whether one or the other have beauty. For neither wealth nor beauty nor high birth is effective in promoting partnership of interest or sympathy, nor again are they significant for producing children.[1]

Although Jewish Hellenistic writers echo the classical advice that a man not consider dowry in choosing a wife, they never suggest that beauty should not be a criterion in choosing a wife. "A beautiful (hen) wife makes her husband happy, and her good sense fattens his bones . . . beauty upon beauty is a modest wife, and there is no price to her chastity," Ben Sira states. Elsewhere, too, Ben Sira notes the value of having a beautiful wife.[2] While we have no explicit evidence from the Second Temple period that female beauty played a practical role in the selection of a wife, we are probably safe to infer such a role.

Rabbinic literature clearly assumes the importance of female beauty for attracting a husband. Several rabbinic sources assume that women attracted prospective husbands through their appearance; on the road, in the market, or in a courtyard a man might catch sight of a woman. Perhaps a man might even ask his female relatives to "scout out" an attractive woman for him in the bathhouse. These glimpses were important: they were probably frequently the first step in the process of making a match. Not only did the single women themselves then have an interest in being attractive, but so too did their fathers (or guardians). The rabbis advise a father to dress his daughters well "so that men will rush to them."[3] One Babylonian rabbi relates his recipe for keeping his daughter's complexion clear, and a Babylonian story portrays a man doing such a fine job depilating his daughter that it raised the amount of her marriage settlement.[4] Even the statement that knowing Greek helps a woman attract a husband the single statement that any personal attribute other than beauty matters compares such a knowledge to an ornament; it uses a physical metaphor.[5]

In contrast to the ideological and cultural understanding of "beauty," the role of beauty in the selection of a wife is a practical matter. In the case of the unattractive woman, ideological and practical values collide. The contradiction between the practical difficulties encountered by unattractive women in the marriage market and ideological self-perception as a "beautiful" people stands behind one of the more poignant stories in the Mishnah:

[If a man says,] "I vow [qonam] that I will not marry so-and-so, who is ugly," and she is really attractive; "[or that I will not marry so-and-so,] who is dark," and she is really light; "[or that I will not marry so-and-so,] who is short," and she is really tall [in all these cases] he is permitted to marry her. [The reason is] not because she was ugly and made attractive, or that she was dark and was made light, or that she was short and was made tall, but because the vow was mistaken.
Once a man vowed [not to enjoy] the daughter of his sister. They brought her to the School of Rabbi Yishmael, and he beautified her. Rabbi Yishmael [then] said to him, "My son-is this what you vowed not to enjoy?" He said to him, "No!" And Rabbi Yishmael permitted her to him.
At that moment, Rabbi Yishmael wept and said, "The daughters of Israel are beautiful, but poverty makes them unattractive."
When Rabbi Yishmael died the daughters of Israel raised a dirge.[6]


….Female virginity, as the citation above from Ben Sira illustrates, was considered to be closely related to beauty. Like beauty, female virginity was widely valued throughout the Mediterranean and Near East. Philo and Josephus essentially repeat classical banalities when they emphasize that Jewish men prefer to marry virgins.[7] One reason for this value on female virginity at marriage was certainly to assure the paternity of the progeny. Female virginity, however, also carried a heavy symbolic value….

Most Jewish groups expected that a woman would marry, and would marry as a virgin. In its marital regulations, the Qumran community stressed the importance of a man marrying a virgin. Qumran documents even contain provisions for physically examining a woman to confirm her virginity. This emphasis on female virginity at marriage is most likely linked to the group's general perception of itself as pure. Similarly, Second Temple writers (following biblical precedents) emphasize that a Jewish priest should (or must) marry a virgin, and that the daughter of a priest especially was expected to be a virgin when she married. Rabbinic writers continue to emphasize the importance of virginity in connection to the priesthood.

A more widespread cultural interpretation placed on female virginity was its connection to moral character. A woman who had engaged in premarital sex was "bad news," being perceived as lacking the fundamental value of modesty. A woman who was discovered to have had premarital sex could acquire a "reputation," and it seems that fear of such reputations and gossip were a primary social means of controlling female sexual behavior. The Mishnah, for example, mentions the case of a man who suspected that his wife was having an affair because he "heard it from a bird."[8] A tosefta contrasts the proselyte woman, whom all want to marry because she is presumed to have guarded herself sexually, to the freed slave woman, who is a less desirable marriage partner because such women "generally are sexually promiscuous."[9] This value is not limited to rabbinic circles: grave inscriptions occasionally emphasize that a young woman lived a "chaste" life. Behind this advice is less concern with the certainty of paternity or with the purity of the people than it is concern with the future behavior of one's wife. A woman who "strayed" before marriage was seen as likely to stray during it.

Jewish sources from antiquity ascribe no importance to male beauty for making a match. Our sources do generally emphasize the beauty of Jewish men, but these statements are ideological rather than practical. The general presupposition of rabbinic texts is that a woman will marry any suitable man who proposes. Nevertheless, a few isolated rabbinic dicta indicate that male appearance was not entirely irrelevant. One mishnah assumes that a woman would not want to marry a man with one of a number of particularly disgusting diseases.[10] The implication of the passage is that a woman did take a look at whom she was marrying and could object to the match if she saw something that she did not like.[11]

While male beauty was not entirely irrelevant in mate selection, the extent of its importance is difficult to gauge. Our sources clearly downplay the importance of male beauty, which is expected in a literature written by and mainly for men. But given the demographic realities, male appearance might really not have been terribly important. A thirteen- to sixteen-year-old girl was not in a good position to judge the beauty of her older suitor, especially if her parents were exerting pressure. And we should probably assume that a girl's father would want to avoid matching his daughter with a cripple or a man with some other obvious and serious defect but would be more tolerant of other blemishes, if only because he might see them in himself.

Female virginity was a sine qua non, but male virginity was a case of non sequitur. For nearly all ancient writers, "virginity" referred to women; there is no word in Hebrew or Greek for a male who has not had sexual intercourse. There were some Jewish ascetic groups in antiquity, and there were (weak) ascetic trends in rabbinic Judaism. None of these groups (except perhaps some early Christians) put a value on male virginity at marriage.


[1] Musonius Rufus XIIIB [back]
[2] Ben Sira 26:13, 15; 36:27 [back]
[3] BT Kiddushin 30b
[4] BT Shabbat 80b [back]
[5] JY Shabbat 6:1, 7d, JT Pe. 1:1, 15c; JT sotah 9:16, 24c [back]
[6] Mishnah Nedarim 9:10
[7] Josephus, Ant. 4:2444; Philo Spec leg. 3.51 [back]
[8] Mishnah Sotah 6:1 [back]
[9] BT Hor. 2:11; JT Hor. 3:8, 48b [back]
[10] Mishnah Ketubbot 7:9-10 [back]
[11] Gen. Rabbah 60:15 [back]


From: Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, 116-120, by Michael L. Satlow, Copyright by 2001 Princeton University Pres.

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