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More Than Skin Deep

Eytan Kobre

A key to understanding the topic of Sarah’s beauty

Wednesday, February 06, 2019





write this week from artzeinu hakedoshah, where I’m spending a few days visiting my children and observing the yahrtzeit of my beloved mother, Leah Nechama bas Yitzchok Dov a”h, whose resting place is on Har Hamenuchos alongside my dear father a”h. It has been 30 long years since my mother was taken from us, and although the passage of time softens the sharp edge of loss, my feeling remains that which Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz expressed when he said, “A son isn’t really capable of eulogizing his father; all he can say is, ‘Abba, where are you?’” 

Rather than write words of remembrance for my mother (as I’ve done here before for my father), it feels more in keeping with her essence to share a few thoughts about a middah at the core of that essence: Being a tzanuah. 

Although that might seem like an unwieldy turn of phrase in place of the more familiar “tzniyus,” I prefer it, because the latter term is indeed sometimes “wielded” in ways that are, ironically, at odds with the very concept. “Being a tzanuah” broadens the ideal from the very limited (albeit essential) one that the other term might connote into one of an enveloping sense of self, a way to be instead of just a way to do.

Sarah Imeinu is the paradigm of a tzanuah. She is the one woman described in the Torah in that way. When Avraham responds (Bereishis 18:9) to the visiting malachim whom had inquired after her, Hinei b’ohel, Rashi comments, “tzanuah he,” she is a tzanuah. 

But that description in turn raises several questions. When Sarah is called by the name Yiscah (Bereishis 11:29), Rashi explains, “This is Sarah, who was called thus because [the word connotes gazing and] she would gaze with ruach hakodesh and all would gaze at her beauty.” How is it possible under such circumstances to be a tzanuah?

Later, at the outset of parshas Chayei Sarah, Rashi cites the Chazal that Sarah at age 20 was as a seven-year-old in regard to her beauty. This strikes our ears as strange, since we more readily associate beauty with a young woman of 20 than with a mere child, however adorable she may seem. Does this mean we need to reorient our sense of beauty, or is something entirely else at play here? 

Perhaps a key to understanding the topic of Sarah’s beauty is to be found in the story of Avraham and Sarah’s descent to Mitzrayim, when Avraham says to her, “Behold, I now know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance” (Bereishis 12:11). Rashi cites a Midrash Aggadah that states that until this point, he didn’t recognize this about her; only now, as a result of an “incident” (which Rashi leaves undescribed) did he become aware. The wording of the Midrash, which speaks of “recognition,” not “seeing,” implies that it is addressing something other than superficial physical beauty. But what? 

The Midrash, elaborating the incident, says that at the edge of a pond, Avraham glimpsed an image of Sarah Imeinu’s countenance reflected on the water’s surface and was struck by the fact that she was “of beautiful appearance.” Surely Avraham had beheld his wife’s appearance previously; what added knowledge, or recognition, of Sarah did he gain at the water’s edge? 

Pristine beauty is a beautiful thing. It’s inherently so, not because outside observers of it think so. On the contrary, the moment beauty is seen from the perspective of the “eye of the beholder,” its purity must necessarily be marred. 

WHEN PEOPLE BEHOLD physical beauty in others, that beauty undergoes a silent transformation. What was until then a vehicle of praise for the Creator Who brought such magnificence into being is now turned into a vehicle for the beholder’s own thoughts and emotions, which can often be decidedly lowly ones, like lust and jealousy. At the very least, the observer is lured by that beauty into viewing the person possessing it through the most superficial, one-dimensional lens, and to reduce a human being to that is itself a great tragedy. 

The person whose beauty is being beheld by others, too, experiences a loss of innocence as a result. That person’s self-perception must change upon being objectified, however subtly, by others. She will necessarily act differently, either defensively so as to ward off the attentions of others, or in a way that only draws such attentions even more strongly. But whatever the case, there is an innocence irretrievably lost.

But what if a person of beauty somehow succeeds in escaping the trap set by their appearance, by remaining oblivious to the perceptions of others? That was Sarah. 

The most salient difference between the beauty of a twenty-year-old and the endearing appearance of a seven-year-old isn’t in physical appearance; it is in the “knowing-ness” of the former versus the blissful unawareness of the latter. Her complete absence of guile and knowledge about the world and how it relates to beauty is intrinsic to the child’s own beauty.  

The very fact that Sarah was someone “upon whose beauty all gazed” while simultaneously possessing the ability to “gaze with ruach hakodesh” is the most powerful testament to her greatness. The name Yiscah proclaims the exaltedness of a person who was the focus of attention of so many to her physical self yet emerged unsullied from the experience. To the contrary, she remained so detached from involvement in physicality that she merited the Divine Spirit — that is the epitome of spiritual achievement. 

But how did Sarah achieve all this? Surely, to be a tzadeikes, a neviah, is at odds with being gullible and unaware of what people think and how one is perceived. 

For the answer, we may wish to turn to the first, and perhaps the primary, place in halachah where the concept of tzniyus appears. In the second siman of Orach Chayim, the Shulchan Aruch sets forth the discreet way a Jew is to get dressed, taking great care not to leave his body exposed. The Shulchan Aruch continues, “He should not say, here I am in an innermost room, so who sees me? But Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s glory fills the world.” The Mishnah Berurah elaborates that a person must conduct himself with tzniyus and bushah before Hashem even in the darkest, most private of settings, for He sees all.

To be a tzanuah, then, is to be fully aware that at all times and everywhere, a person stands before G-d. And when one lives with that continuous, heightened perception of being in His presence, can the fact that mere mortals are observing him as well mean anything at all? Their presence is to Hashem’s omnipresence as a lit candle held up to the blazing midday sun. 

Sarah knew that all were gazing, but standing at all times before Hashem, it was irrelevant. Like the Kohein Gadol on Yom Hakippurim, standing in the Kodesh Hakodoshim where no other human being dared enter, she too stood effectively alone.  

And as Sarah perceived herself, so did Avraham, her partner in ruchniyus and tzidkus, perceive her. When he looked at her, he saw what she projected: A pristine beauty befitting the handiwork of the Creator — the Jewish notion of “beauty for beauty’s sake.” He beheld someone with utter obliviousness to how others saw her, and thus it never entered his mind that Sarah could be the subject of another’s unwanted attention. 

He had always seen her through her own eyes, not those of others. Until, that is, an incident occurred whereby he sighted her reflection, an indirect view of her, and thus finally saw her as an outside observer might, and he began to fear for her safety. For the very first time, he saw that she was not only an ishah yaffah, a beautiful woman, but an ishah y’fas mareh, a “woman of beautiful appearance,” that is, whose beauty appeared to others.

Of course, being a tzanuah includes dressing in a refined, Jewish way. Of course it incorporates an awareness of how one’s appearance and conduct affects others. But at its very core, it means that what I am most acutely aware of is that I stand forever before my Creator.

That was my mother, aleha hashalom. Yehi zichrah baruch.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 747. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at

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