Cosmetics have been a part of civilization since…well,  research cannot pinpoint where or when people started using products to paint their faces or subtly alter their appearances, but its early application in multiple civilizations is noted. One might wonder what the Jewish approach to make up is, especially in traditional circles that place great emphasis on modesty.

In the name of modesty, one might think that Judaism shuns physicality and beauty-enhancing products. Quite the contrary, however, the Torah notes physical beauty in a positive way of several of the ancestors of the Jewish people (Sarah, Rachel, Joseph). The Torah even mentions cosmetics in the Book of Esther when discussing the preparation of the women for the beauty contest for the king to choose a new wife.

According to several references in the Talmud, a woman’s need/desire for cosmetics is both recognized and accepted. Most fascinatingly, one Talmudic sage “Rav Judah said in the name of Rav, or as some say, Rav Hama ben Hanina: That (the verse, ‘The people went about, and gathered it [manna], and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars…’ Numbers 11:8) teaches that when the manna came down to Israel, cosmetics for women came down as well, [based on it being] a thing that is ground in a mortar” (Talmud Yoma 75a).

Every generation has its own opinion about cosmetics. Some women don’t use make up at all, while others would not step foot out of the house without it. Its untraceable origins, however, indicates that it is one of the complex questions of nurture verses nature. The fact that it is associated with manna, the basic sustenance provided by God to the Israelites in the wilderness, indicates that the seemingly superficial need for cosmetics has, in itself, a deep and valuable role to play  in Jewish life.

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