Between Beauties

Reb Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaim

One of the profoundest tensions that newcomers to Judaism experience occurs within their perceptions of beauty. So many of us were initially attracted to Torah due to some sort of beauty which it promised to infuse within our lives. But before we know it, this selfsame beauty is being challenged, sometimes quite harshly, by “insiders!” If we’re lucky, we’ll pick up the dissonance purely from within our own, religiously maturing hearts. But the resistance nevertheless remains.

It’s like breaking ties with a best friend.

Personally I’ve been going through such withdrawals for quite some time and have comforted myself with the belief that “one day” I’ll be able to uplift that frustration via a little expose` on how the phenomenon works. The following is my first attempt to officially do so, based on this week’s Parsha.

May G-d extend Yafet

And may he dwell in the tents of Shem

And may Canaan be a servant unto him

~ Gen. 9: 27 ~

The root of the most common Hebrew word for beauty, yofee, according to HaRav S.R. Hirsch, is f-t. In his commentary on the blessing that Noach gives to his son Yafet, Hirsch explains that the “y” is a prefix and that its cognates are words like peti, pitui and petach (“f” and “p” sounds come from the same Hebrew consonant), which respectively translate as vulnerable, seduction and opening. The common denominator between all these words is an extra sensitivity to external influence.

Thus we can begin to appreciate that initial burst of beauty which draws so many of us to seek respite from the rat-race of this world. The electric leap out of the skin that such beauty provides imprints upon our souls that life is far greater than what it appears to be. Many speak of feeling “breathless,” being “swept off” their feet or even having one’s mind “blown away!” All these expressions belie the power of yofee to blip us out of the frenzied grip that the externalities of this world usually have over our vulnerable psyches.

But the holy tongue doesn’t stop there. Hebrew has another word for beauty: naeh. Related forms are words like naot, navah and naveh, which all connote something much, much deeper than yofee. Perhaps a more accurate translation would be magnificence.

As per the end of the Shabbos song, “Shimru Shabbsosai,” in reference to the Holy Temple:

O’ supreme G-d,

strengthen my compound

and return my Navah

in joy and splendor.

For songs of My rejoice

will be sung there

by Kohan and Levite,


Indeed, then (we) will


Surely we’re speaking here of a most magnificent edifice that pulsates with such spiritually uplifting energy that one simply must burst out in song. Actually we find this word first used with precisely this meaning within the Song at the Sea (Ex.15: 2; 13), sung by the Israelites in prophetic ecstasy as they were experiencing total detachment from their Egyptian tormentors:

This is my G-d

and I will Naveh Him…

With Your kindness You have led this people

whom You have redeemed;

You have led with Your might

towards Your holy Naveh

A few chapters later, when instructing Moshe about how to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which serves as the model for the Temple, the Torah refers to a simple drape which must be placed over the intricately designed tent of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26: 13). About this superfluous drape Rash”y comments:

(This is) in order to teach a major principle of life:

that a person should take extra care of yofee

The externality of the Tabernacle was yofee, which must be especially protected (lest it descend into a mere esthetic buzz). But not its inner reality. Thus we find the custom of singing the famous proverb about hevel ha’yofee, that yofee is vain (Prov. 30:31), at the onset of Shabbos – that weekly oasis in time which we’re bidden to celebrate as a memorial to the Exodus from Egypt as well as a time for refraining from all the labors involved in constructing the Holy Temple. It’s because Shabbos, like the essence of the Exodus and the Holy Temple, is a time our souls are given for transcending the natural beauty of yofee and entering the magnificent beauty of navah.

Perhaps this principle is revealed most succinctly within the Laws of Pesach (Sh. Ar., O. Ch. 472:2), which is also called Shabbos (Lev. 23):

One should arrange his (Seder) table yafeh,

with naeh vessels

We start out yafeh, but end naeh. Aye, isn’t this precisely what we all feel after going through an intensive Pessach Seder? When we first sat down, the table and the food and our Haggadahs and our clothes were all so… so… yofee! But by the end, with all the Matzah crumbs and spilled wine and groggy minds and soaring spirits, who could describe the upliftment we all feel while dancing and singing “Next year in Jerusalem” other than… naeh?

Indeed, King Dovid makes this wondrously clear in that famous declaration (Ps. 19):

The Torah of G-d is wholesome,

wizening the vulnerable (peti)

When we learn Torah with the intention of tapping into its ultimate, eternal wholesomeness (which of course is what the Seder is all about), we find its wisdom shedding all vestiges of yofee.

And thus we can return to Grandpa Noach, at the dawn of a brand new, pure world, and understand something of the importance he gives to the beauty of Yafet (the progenitor of the Greeks) developing within a very clear direction under the auspices of his younger brother, Shem (the progenitor of the Jews), and why he insists that the cursed Canaan (the original, coarse inhabitants of the Land of Israel) be subservient to it. He obviously realizes that the momentary liberation from the shackles of this world that yofee provides can never last. Only by encouraging us to transform that yofee into the world of Navah Koidesh, the Holy Temple, which is all about soul elevation, can the entire family of mankind ever hope to achieve eternity.

Reb Yaacov Yisroel is a Slonimer Chossid, living with his wife and children on the outskirts of Mea Shearim, Israel. He hails from the Mojave desert, California, and studied Comparative Religion at U.C. Berkely, after which he explored a wide gamut of Torah studies in Eretz Yisroel. From there he studied Ed. Counseling and Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan U., leading to over a decade of work within both the public and religious Israeli educational system. Eventually his growing passion for Chassidic philosophy led him to the sforim of Slonimer Chossidus and the rest is history (still in the making!). Presently he teaches and counsels in a religiously run rehab. center for addicts, hosts many newcomers into Judaism from local BT Yeshivas and the Koisel, and is writing a book about the “UN-believable” power of the Nesivos Shalom (the most popular teachings from Slonimer Chossidus). He would be happy to receive personal communication about his writings at the following address:

25 comments on “Between Beauties

  1. J.T:My qu’s @ your jargon were not meant critically. It’s just that I found myself confused in what I soon realized was a decoding process. But now I hear that you try to express in your writing something of your “sincere skepticism” intertwined with a certain poetic passion. If I may, I think your usage of “hardcore” is the key to gaurding those precious Neshama wings. Colorful is one thing, but hardcore sounds like a recipe for misusing the yofee of this format.


  2. Rabbi yaakov yisrael , regarding comment #10, and your profound writing critique , yeah it is a different jargon, specifically a sincere skepticism skittering along on the nicked wings of cynicism.Ever heard of it ? Its a little more jaded than the slonim slogans you seem to always be singing. Not that I’m arguing with your runaway metaphor and or life philosophies cuz I’m a firm believer in the “al taam varei-ach ein le-hisvakeiach ” slogan.personally though I’m still looking for a more colorful flavor of hardcore intellectualism though.

  3. Bob said: “I’d therefore expect any Jewish institution to try to keep its facilities as neat and clean as its finances allowed.”

    This point should not be misunderstood. Seder is indeed one aspect of the yofee I refer to. It is VERY important to take seriously. But only as a *stimulus* for moving inwards. Yes, it’s like manners. The German beasts specialized in seder. Their manners and time efficiency were virtually impeccable. It could even say they idolized it ad absurdum, as is known that their fixation on systematically completing their “final solution” worked against them in the end.But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the chochma of German efficiency.

    Reminds me in a way of the debate on learning Torah. I’ve seen recently that the Nesivos speaks of “lo lishma” and WORSE than that being “sam ha’maves.”

    The lo lishma, I sense, is like our yofee. Self stimulation is animating it. Yet if done with the right balance, one can use those energies to move past it. “Lo lishma yavee lishma.”

    learning in the mode of “Sam ha’mavet,” however, is like living a Torah life slovenly.

  4. there are similarities between the manners vs. middos debate and the beuty vs. superficiality debate but there are major differences as well.

    (The primary one being that I take different sides in the two debates LOL)

  5. This reminds me of the strange idea that good manners are for non-Jews only, while we are “above” that. Someone always points to this or that Nazi who said danke schoen—which is irrelevant.

  6. There’s the rub. Finances often don’t allow and the distorted message sent to the students is that Neatness and cleanliness ARE expressions of out-of-control fashion consciousness or materialism, or, at the very least, unimportant to a Torah lifestyle.

  7. Neatness and cleanliness are surely not expressions of out-of-control fashion consciousness or materialism.

    I’d therefore expect any Jewish institution to try to keep its facilities as neat and clean as its finances allowed.

    As for beauty, even in buildings that’s in the eye of the beholder.

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful and thorugh response.

    What concerns me are the extremes that would rob both the floors and the eyes of their luster. IIRC correctly there’s a gemara somewhere that says that beauty expands a persons consciousness. Abject poverty makes it hard to keep oneself and/or ones surroundings neat, clean and beutiful.

    Are the other chadorim shabby and un/under-decorated as an expression of an ideology or are they too poorly funded to afford such “frills” as an increased janitorial staff and artwork?

  9. After all that metaphoric clarification, Chaim, perhaps you’re still waiting for a solid response to the issue of whether there’s a place for external polish within a lifstyle that emphasises internal radiance? The former Slonimer Rebbe, the Nesivos Shalom, ztsvk”l, once remarked about the reason the cheider in Slonim is so well kept, clean and decorated with a number of very tasteful pictures and aphorisms on its walls (in contrast to most Yerushalmi chassidic chadorim):

    “Outer seder (order) can arouse inner seder.”

    It’s a simple but oh so subtle truth. EVERYthing in life for the Rebbeh was about polishing the inner world. That we are creatures living also within a physical reality is not to be denied and thus physicality SHOULD be a means to contribute to our ultimate goal: progress within the inner world. Those who are unkempt and slovenly AS A SHITA OR OUT OF NEGLECT will have definate trouble in making that progress. Conversely, a Jew devoted to Naeh must have willingness to live within a severely run down environment for the sake spiritual growth.

    How does my wife put it? “Better the kids’ eyes shining than the floor!”

    Bottom line: a fine balance between the two must always be sought within our journey to enter the eye of the storm, altering relatively to where exactly we’re holding at each moment. What’s good for the eye might be disasterous for the outskirts of the storm

  10. Entering the world of authentic Judaism is the storm. Let us not kid ourselves that it’s a kosher piece of apple pie eaten during a Sunday baseball game! The latest gloss presented by the local mkarev notwithstanding, Mitzvahs are demanding. Taking Torah learning seriously is demanding. Talking to G-d at least three times a day is *outrageously* demanding. R’ Moshe Feinstein reportedly ruled that the old Yiddish expression “it’s not easy to be a Yid” should be discontinued because it’s disheartening. His talmidim explained that he said this NOT because it wasn’t true but because too many Yidden had become outsiders and would be frightened off if we didn’t find ways to sweeten our presentation of a Torah lifestyle. Kindov like the way we introduce kids to aleph-beis via honey on the letters, tho no one would continue such a practice once they become fluent!

    So entering a fluid, authentic Torah lifestyle is the storm. Yofee is one very valuable means for navigating through it.

    The eye is that calm center that miraculously is protected from the destructiveness of the storm. It’s that mental place we must seek WITHIN our Mitzvahs. To be sure, technical prowess is not point. As they say in Slonim, it’s the chetzonius of the pnimius, the outer of the inner. The inner of the inner begins with Naeh…

    Now as to your request re. your last comment in q. #3, I believe you’re asking if being “unkempt and slovenly” is something parallel to this trans-Yofee process. Yes and no. yes in that once people begin to choose battles, the old battle often falls into neglect. Whereas their previous life style might have made a religious ethic out of being impressively well dressed and strutting with distinction and displaying fashionable furniture and paintings, etc, once they see past the vanity to all that they may not find any patience for finetuning their external lives whatsoever! I don’t support this but can very well understand it.

    The fact is, it reflects a state of being *stuck* between yafeh and naeh.

    Hence the NO comes in with regards to naeh. If one sings that Shimru Shabbsosai song with all his / her heart, it will become as clear as day that the world of inner Judaism is light years beyond unkempt and slovenly.

  11. Don’t get the storm or eye of the storm metaphor. Please explicate for the metaphorically challenged.

    Also I’d appreciate a response/reaction to my last question in comment 3.

    Hate to generalize but I’ve detected a (at least to me) disturbing trend in contemporary Judasim in that the further one moves on the frumkeit scale it’s not just that beauty is marginalized and deemphasized but that ugliness or at least spartan simplicity seems to be exalted and embraced.

  12. J.T:I’m not sure if I understood all your words (some sentences seem garbled from quick typing — or is that some kind of new blog jargon??), but I believe your main question is how I would reconcile “shomer pesiim H'” with the above. So, first off, as per my prev. comment, the issue of “hevel ha’yofee” is NOT that it has no value, but that it’s transient. Conversely, I’ve suggested that Rash’y’s call to us to be shomer our yofee is not an entirely positive thing (in the sense of preserving). Rather it means to be careful. Don’t get mesmerized by its external allure. Be clear about its transient status… and go “vayter” (forward)!

    So too can we understand that H’, in His abundant compassion, takes extra care of those who are loyal to His Torah in the Pesi mode. NOT extra care in the sense of preferred status, but in the sense of protecting their NATURAL VULNERABILITY to spiritual failure. It’s a paradoxical religious stage, to be sure. One that I’ve personally been trying to understand for years. Bottom line: It’s not to be denied and perhaps even nurtured… but must be, ultimately, transcended.

    Yes, HaRav Ben-David, Naeh is a much more “appropriate” way of worshipping H’in the ultimate scheme of things. Yet may I add that OUR perceptions of “the big picture” are seldom the last word on the matter!

  13. “Naeh” has a strong association with appropriateness, fitness – almost in the sense of something being earned or justified. As in “ki lo na’eh”.

    Thus we could say that “yafe” is an intuitive/emotional asthetic experience (which therefore requires guarding because it has no intrinsic rational basis) while “na’eh” is a larger “wow” of considered appreciation that comes after meditating on all the parts of the whole.

    You don’t have to see “the big picture” to be struck by yofi. But Naeh is inseparably a “big picture” experience, and requires thought/awareness.

  14. Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel thanks for the elucidation on Your drapery chiddush, did not trip on it intentionally.
    I still dont understand the concern for “yifas/pesi” if there is a common clause in judaism’s contract claiming “shomer pesaim hashem”. Unless the pesi plated people that loophole ? is talking about are not the same kind of persons succumbing to the “yifas/pesi” ure worrying about.
    I’ve been given way too many different definitions for “pesaim” for that psalms slogan actually.
    Are literal translations supposed to be like merriam webster’s dictionary, where you could have six different literal definitions for one word ?
    Who decides what translation is the correct one anyway ?
    Is one supposed to figure it out on their own based on the context its taken from or can they just apply where they deem fitting ?
    Its a problem though when the context is not that clear to begin with…….
    Or are all six literal definitions correct depending on the situation and how the connotations are contorted to suit the stance/cause in question ?

  15. A few quick responses to these very thoughful comments. Perhaps we’ll find more time over the wk to explore further (either here or by email).

    The complexity and urgency of this idea about the need to learn how to shift our perceptions of beauty the deeper into Torah we go is not to be underestimated. It’s like enterring the proverbial “eye of the storm.” What works for battling the storm is often woefully inadequate for quality life within the eye!

    Bob: Thanx for the info and link. Rabbi A. is a powerful writer and certainly knows pshat in the Nesivos. From the little I know, he also shares the Rav Bulman (zt’l) connection to the Nesivos, which a giant bracha for success in sharing it “out there.” Hence, if I may say so, one can learn a number of eye-opening insights from the Nesivos via his weekly summaries. Still, for those who can manage the seifer on it’s own or w/ a chavrusa — PLEASE know that there is whole world of kedusha in the Rebbe’s words to which no such summaries can do justice!

    Chaiim: No one said “Yofee needs to be jettisoned.” The pt is that it is a VERY IMPORTANT MEANS for peircing the storm, afterwhich we must be careful to “protect” it from becoming an end in itself. The closer we get to the “eye” the more we need to learn to the art of Navah.

    Rabbi D: I hear your pt about “learning to appreciate the beauty more in tune with our essential Torah natures,” and it could be many Yidden need that angle to seek out the Navah. But I was emphasising that we Bt’s might not really have such “natures”, for all intents and purposes, we we begin. It’s something that grows within us as we learn to shed the fixation on yofee. As to translating peti — I’m very happy to see this bandied about. I based mine on Hirsh’s idea and I think it’s crucial to imply a certain weakness, tho nonjudgmentally.

    J: The drapery explanation was a chiddush. Pshat is that one should gaurd it from the elements to keep up their fine quality. I suggested it meant gaurd OURSELVES from being too mesmerized by it.

  16. I was always under the erroneous assumption that “shomer pesaim hashem” which would connotate that if someone was getting lost in the rampant persuasive persuasions of yofi/pesi concepts like seduction/vulnerable/simpleton/naive/skeptical etc….. G-d would protect him.
    (Just as a side note i wonder how pesi translates on a neuroscientific level like would emotional disconnects like autism or personality disconnects like narcissim and other personality disorders would they be classified under pesi too.)
    Not sure what the lesson of the mishkan drapery and “the person should take extra care of yofi” lesson is .
    It seems clear from that “shomer pesaim hashem” slogan that G-d protects the pesi plated people and those that succumb to the sparkle and sequins of material dazzle via vulnerable/learning disabled or good old fashioned seduction.So is yofi so fickle that it needs extra care to exist or is not falling under the influence of yofi the extra care one should take when dealing with yofi.But often the influence of the fickle “yofi” is what inspires the navah nirvana. Maybe “yofi” needs some new updated marketing material so individuals should understand how to use that yofi to attain that lofty navah nirvana.
    Other than the seder thing.

  17. The Torah of G-d is wholesome,

    wizening the vulnerable (peti)

    I would translate peti as credulous rather than vulnerable as in pesi ya’amin l’khol davar= a pesi will believe everything and as in letz takeh-zeh amalek, u’pesi yaarim-zeh Yisro= “The scoffer will be smitten”-refers to amalek “and the credulous will gain craftiness/skepticism” refers to Yisro.

    We know that Yisro’s initial pesi/ credulous approach caused him “not to leave a single idol un-worshipped”.

    Even if the translation is “credulous” the point remains intact. External Yofee of the Hevel HaYofee variety beguiles us and has us believing lies and treating mirages like tangible reality.

    Torah Judaism has a dearth of adherents and practitioners not because we are too skeptical but because we are too naive and credulous

  18. I heard this anecdote during my Yeshiva days:

    In the early 50s a clean-shaven Bnei Braq Yeshiva bochur became aware of the Chazon Ish’s ruling against shaving. He went to the Chazon Ish and pleaded his case for a dispensation to continue being clean shaven. The Chazon Ish listened thoughtfully and discussed the various reasons the bochur had given for not wanting to grow a beard.

    At one point the bochur said “besides, I just don’t look good in a beard”. Here the Chazon Ish laughed uproariously and said “Chazal call beards hadras panim= ‘the beauty/splendor of the face’ and you claim that a beard diminishes the beauty of yours?”

    Much of esthetics is cultural diffusion and indoctrination. This beautiful-inside- and-out D’var Torah from Rabbi Bar-Chaim encourages us to rise above/within the beauty that is a product of our nurture and learn to appreciate the beauty more in tune with our essential Torah natures.

  19. I would add that based on just observing the diverse avodos/ approaches of various Tzadikim that there isn’t a monolithic approach to external esthetics. Hasidic courts such as Bobov and Vizhnitz (perhaps rooted in Rizhin)tend towards the glitzy and baroque, Yekkes and Syrians towards the stately and understated, Yeshivas-Chabad-Ger (and Slonim???) are spare and Spartan.

    I know that in the Przyscha-Kotzker school being mehavel es HaOlam= being dismissive of conventional bourgeois mores (especially in regards to superficial beauty), as these mores are antithetical to the pursuit of truth, was a cornerstone of the avodah. But I question whether this is an appropriate approach to our generation.

    In a time of unprecedented material prosperity and access to art and cleanliness is being unkempt and slovenly a litmus test to how deep and non-superficial a person or society is?

  20. I’m not sure that I grasp the thrust of this Torah;

    Must meets-the-eye ugliness be embraced to achieve Nava?

    If Yofee needs to be jettisonned why was there a command to protect the yofee of the Mishkan? Does hevel hayofee extend to the Mishkan?

    Where do the beauties of “Hod V’hadar” fit in the genuine Torah esthetic?

  21. will be putting out weekly parasha material from the Nesivos Shalom.

    This was found today at their blog:

    “Is a Blog the Ultimate Bully Pulpit?
    Filed by Yitzchok Adlerstein @ 11:32 pm

    I don’t know, but I sure hope so.

    That way I can hype a new weekly shiur on a sefer very close to heart: Nesivos Shalom. I don’t fully understand why people don’t just pick it up and learn it on their own, instead of asking for translations. Maybe Artscroll has spoiled us. In any event, starting with Parshas Noach, there will be a weekly adaptation of some piece of the Slonimer Rebbe zt”l, available through Project Genesis at Follow the links to the Torah Portion section, then look for the “intermediate” category (it will soon be switched to “advanced,” as many terms are left untranslated), and finally Nesivos Shalom.

    I know the fellow who is writing the essays too well to give my unqualified support, but you may find something of interest anyway.”

    The place to subscribe and get more info is:

Comments are closed.