Monday, December 26, 2011

Hiddur vs. Kallos

I published the following column in the Canadian Jewish News last week, but since they don't run it on-line, I'm including it here. Some of the ideas I used in a Chanukah article in YU's To Go from 5771 are involved here, but this is more sophisticated. Neal Stephenson fans (Anathem, specifically) may particularly like it:

My elementary school teachers explained Hellenic culture by telling our class that Greeks worshipped the beautiful body. Underscoring this point by noting that ancient Olympic competitors performed without clothing, these teachers succeeded in conveying an indelible image, but they oversimplified the role of Beauty in the original Chanukah and its celebrations today.

Greek culture honoured the body's physical beauty, but their emphasis was upon a broader conception of Beauty, or Kallos. Plato envisioned an abstract universe in which the characteristics we express as adjectives exist as nouns – a perfect Triangle, a perfect Blue, and a perfect Beauty, as independent entities.

Within that abstract Platonic universe, Kallos occupies a place of honour, and so every beautiful thing in our world is automatically admired as a reflection of that higher Kallos, even in the absence of any other redeeming characteristic. To cite from Plato's Phaedrus (Jowett translation), the most elevated person who observes beauty in our world "is transported with the recollection of the true beauty… he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below; and he is therefore thought to be mad." And as Plato wrote in his Symposium (Nehamas translation), "Only in the contemplation of beauty is human life worth living."

This ideal was rejected by the Maccabees, for Jewish tradition spurns the idea that Beauty has inherent value. Beauty is neither good nor evil; it is only a characteristic of a good or evil entity. As Proverbs 31:30 states, "Charm is false and beauty is empty"; we don't admire Beauty for its own value.

However, Jewish tradition does teach that the act of Beautification, Hiddur in Hebrew, demonstrates devotion; as the Sages translated the Jews' song of praise at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:2), "This is my G-d, and I will beautify Him." Therefore, the same Maccabees who rejected Kallos pursued Hiddur in establishing the restored Temple's Menorah. The Talmud (Menachot 28b) teaches, "The branches of their Menorah were iron rods, and the Hasmoneans coated them with tin. When they became wealthier, they made the branches of silver. When they became still wealthier, they made the branches of gold."

We follow in the footsteps of the Maccabees and employ Hiddur on Chanukah, too. The Talmud records a baseline practice of lighting one flame per household on each night of Chanukah, but Jews all over the world follow the Talmud's highest "mehadrin" practice of lighting multiple flames, based on the number of Chanukah nights that have passed. As the 13th century commentary Tosafot explains, this practice is called mehadrin from the word Hiddur, signifying that it beautifies the mitzvah; we practice Hiddur in order to glorify our Judaism.

Beyond the religious message, Hiddur of a mitzvah also offers great practical value. I wish for my children to value the religious decisions I have made, but if my child sees rote observance, begrudging fulfillment of obligations and bottom-line satisfaction of expectations, she may find that model less than compelling. On the other hand, if our children will see that a mitzvah is a thing worthy of Hiddur, then perhaps they will desire to own it themselves. With their beautified Menorah, the Maccabees encouraged us to demonstrate, for ourselves and for our children, that mitzvot are worthy of Hiddur.


  1. don't you mean Hellenistic, not Hellenic? Hellenic usually refers to the time up to Alexander the Great, which may be interesting in history, but was probably not what your teachers were discussing (I would assume that a class in the history of Ancient Greece would be a little more sophisticated in their understanding of Greek religion and philosophy...).

  2. Hi Russell,

    I'm not sure which is the 'usual' use. I do see what you mean, but I tend to use Hellenic to refer to "of Greek" and Hellenistic to refer to "of Hellenists". These are also listed in the usual resources as acceptable usages.

  3. sorry to be completely off-topic, but what usual resources say that?
    I don't have an OED around, but according to Merriam-Webster,,
    "specifically : of or relating to ancient Greek history, culture, or art before the Hellenistic period".
    The first meaning of hellenistic is:
    "1: of or relating to Greek history, culture, or art after Alexander the Great"

    If you have a different resource which gives a different definition, I'd love to see it!

  4. That is one definition, but you choose to use
    hellenic which, according to the same dictionary, generally refers to the time BEFORE Alexander the Great. Which would mean that you shouldn't use that word in this context, and probably use something more like the third meaning of hellenistic in that dictionary (since that is the closest word definition to what you want to express)

  5. Hellenistic can often be a subset of Hellenic, and the two include many shared concepts.

  6. Not that the idea isn't nice, but I don't think that the Macsabees where at all concerned about beauty, nor does Jewish tradition spurn the idea that beauty has inherent value. Beauty is to be appreciated, and as human beings we are naturally drawn to beauty. First of all, the second part of the quote from Mishley in the Gemara (tho I would have to find it again), if I remember correctly says that, even so, beauty doesn't hurt. The Gemara in Ta'anis when it talks about the girls dancing, mentions about the less beautiful. A deformity is considered to be a blemish and not allowed either for a Kohen to function in the Beis HaMikdash or for an animal as a Korban. These are not "Hidurim", but actual considerations of beauty. I think that Mishley means more like Pirkey Avos or the American saying of do not judge a book by its cover. (Sorry for just 'jotting' down the thoughts)

  7. A thought after my last post...there's also the clothes of the Kohanim...לכבוד ולתפארת...

    Beauty, as with everything else, is not meant to be an ends, but a means to accomplish Avodat Hashem...

  8. Anonymous 3:50/7:35-

    I agree that Judaism agrees that beauty is attractive, and it uses that attractiveness to advance that which it considers virtuous [ie Beis haMikdash, in the examples you gave]. But that's not the same thing as assigning virtue to Beauty - which would mean declaring that Beauty is naturally virtuous.

  9. Beauty was put into creations for a reason. What is the Jewish analysis of the reason?

  10. Good question, Bob. I'm not I can answer it. I suspect it's not a Grand Unified Theory, but case-specific.