In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: A Beautiful Woman
People whose experience was limited to Vaysechvoos and environs were not able to picture what it might be like in other parts of the world.
For example, there was a considerable amount of discussion and debate about the nature of oranges. Some, like Nahum the Water Carrier, felt that oranges grew out of the ground on a thick strong stem, while others, like Tzvi the Carpenter, thought that they were to be found in a sequence within a large pod as one finds peas. One faction was convinced that they grew along the ground like melons. Then there was some who believed that they grew under the ground, like potatoes. Others yet held to the opinion that oranges grew on trees, like apples and apricots.
The debate on oranges went on. One villager said that oranges were like mushrooms that came up out of the ground and appeared almost overnight. Motke, who was eleven and could already discuss talmudic passages with the men, showed that he was just a child when he offered his explanation: They are the eggs of a very large bird.” But the others quickly pointed out that all eggs had yolks and they knew oranges were a vegetable because all vegetables had seeds. Not that they saw oranges often in Vaysechvoos. It had been three or four years since a peddler had brought them around. They did remember the red-yellow color and the wrinkled skin. Perhaps if the peddler came again they would ask him. But for now they had no answer. The Bible didn’t say how oranges grew. The writings of the rabbis didn’t say either. And, there was no one to ask.
Now, there were also things in the Holy Scriptures that were difficult for the people of Vaysechvoos to decipher. And such matters occupied some of the more serious speculation.
Particularly with the holiday of Purim approaching, the topic in question was, “What did it mean when it was reported that Queen Esther was ‘fair’?” There was much consternation amongst the people. What did they know about measuring beauty? There were only two types of women in Vaysechvoos–old ones and young ones. As to what would make a woman beautiful or fair they didn’t know.
Vaysechvoos was a poor town. People did not have books. The only books they read dealt with the Jewish religion. It was thought too worldly to read material on other subjects. Yet, discussion about the nature of beauty was important because the Bible did comment on Esther’s beauty.
The discussion began with a look at what was generally known about the women of Vaysechvoos. For instance, it was agreed that all of them were approximately the same shape according to their age and economic circumstances. A healthy and attractive woman was thin at age fourteen when she married; thicker at twenty when she had two or three children; and thicker still at thirty, when she was a grandmother. Furthermore, they were all of the same general complexion with brown eyes and medium brown or red hair. An attractive woman had calluses on her hands which were the evidence of her diligence. She had wrinkles in her face where she smiled and frowned. Unless, that is, she was a fool and did either or neither all the time.
Yet, no one really knew what the Bible meant when it said that Esther was of beautiful form and fair appearance.
Hyram the Tailor offered his opinion of what makes a woman beautiful: “I know she’s beautiful if the woman is adorned in fine cloth with fur trimming, of course. When such a woman is seen, all remark about her striking appearance.”
Yacov the Cobbler disagreed: “You need only look at a woman’s feet to know of her beauty. Trust me, I should know! If a woman has well formed feet, it stands to reason that the rest of her will be a sight to behold as well.”
Shimmon the Butcher Iikened a beautiful woman to a comely cow: “She must have big brown eyes, an even disposition and a full rounded belly.”
Gittel the Grubbe shared Shimmon’s view. However, Gittel the Kleine shook her head, “Everyone knows that small is beautiful, petite is pretty, short is shayn!”
Then there was Malkah the Alta Froy who maintained that beauty only came with the advancing of years. Her granddaughter, Chana, insisted on “correcting” her: “Esther was not an old woman when the king chose her above all the others. Beauty is for young girls, like me.”
Chaike the Matchmaker followed a different philosophy altogether. “Though a dowry doesn’t make a girl beautiful,” she reasoned, “the girls with the biggest dowries do seem to be the most attractive.”
Since everyone seemed to have a different opinion on the matter of what made a woman beautiful, and since the Bible didn’t say, it appeared that this would be just one more of those unresolved questions–like the one on the nature of oranges.
However, the Sage of Vaysechvoos was unwilling to concede that a matter of such importance should be left to the speculation of the townspeople. He went back to the holy writings and searched for an answer.
The Sage read in the Megilla of how a multitude of maidens were gathered together in the king’s palace in Shushan. A whole year they spent getting themselves presentable for the king–with this oil and that perfume, and who knows how many kinds of ointments! The Sage pondered, “What woman in Vaysechvoos could afford to devote an entire year to making herself presentable. And even if she had the year, where would a poor girl from Vaysechvoos find the ways and means to procure all the necessary beauty aids?”
The Wise Man concluded that if God meant for oils and perfumes to be used to make a woman beautiful, a peddler would have brought some to Vaysechvoos. “No, there must be another explanation for Esther’s beauty,” he went on. “Esther must have had her beauty before going to the palace for all those royal things to be done for her.”
As his thoughts continued flowing, a light went on in his head and he made a most crucial discovery: “Esther’s beauty must have had something to do with her upbringing. Yes, her upbringing. She was raised by her righteous and very wise cousin Mordecai. It must have been his wise and learned influence that turned her into a beauty! Certainly, that must be what the Bible meant. After all, I need only gaze upon my four daughters to know it is true. Are they not the most beautiful girls in all of Vaysechvoos?”
Content that he had properly discerned the meaning of the Scripture, the Sage left his place of study. He went to inform the rest of the villagers of what he had learned, which is stated in the proposition: IF A WOMAN IS RAISED IN A PROPER JEWISH HOME, SHE WILL BE BEAUTIFUL. And all the wise men and women of the village agreed.
As for the question of oranges, it would have to wait until later. After all, oranges were never even mentioned in the Bible.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.