The Ugly and the Unusual

Rabbi Richard Borah


We do not consider it to be correct to judge a person’s goodness or evil by their appearance. Judaism’s most basic statement of belief, the Shema, states in the third paragraph regarding tzitzit (BaMidbar 15:39):

This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray.

Rashi explains: 

The heart and eyes are the spies for the body. They are its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the transgression [Mid. Tanchuma 15].

Also, we make a clear statement of the non-essential nature of physical beauty in the singing each Friday night of “Ayshes Chayil” (“A Woman of Valor”) from Proverbs 31. As it state:

Charm is deceptive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears God shall be praised.

So the question arises in parsha Emor regarding the disqualification of a kohane from service if he possesses one of many types of physical defect. The Torah states (BaMidbar 21:16,17):

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, saying, ‘Any man among your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect, shall not come near to offer up his God's food’.”

A variety of defects are described in the verses that follow, including broken limbs, unusually long eyebrows, skin lesions and even unseen defects such as “crushed testicles.” The kohane with any of these defects is not excluded from eating the kohane’s portion of the offerings, but he cannot perform the services of the Sanctuary. As it states:

His God's food from the most holy and from the holy ones, he may eat. But he shall not come to the dividing curtain, nor shall he draw near to the altar, for he has a defect, and he shall not desecrate My holy things, for I am the Lord Who sanctifies them (Ibid. 22,23).

Is this exclusion because of a flaw in the kohane that renders him unfit, or is it perhaps due to the way the person might be perceived by those observing the service? Perhaps God is making a concession to the tendency of people to judge a person by the external appearance, as we are warned against in the Shema, and in order to instill maximum respect and love of God and the Torah, He requires the kohane to be of pleasant appearance. This does seem to be the perspective of Maimonides in the “Guide for the Perplexed” where he states:

In order to raise the estimation of the Temple, those who ministered therein received great honor; and the priests and Levites were therefore distinguished from the rest. It was commanded that the priests should be clothed properly with beautiful and good garments, “holy garments for glory and for beauty” (Shemot 28:2). A priest that had a blemish was not allowed to officiate; and not only those that had a blemish were excluded from service, but also-according to Talmudic interpretation of this precept-those that had an abnormal appearance; for the multitude does not estimate man by his true form but by the perfection of his bodily limbs and the beauty of his garments, and the Temple was to be held in great reverence by all. (Guide, Book 3, Chapter 44).

The implication of Maimonides’ statements here is that the defect of physical form, though not a true sign of a flawed individual, would be perceived as such by some of the Jewish people. Therefore the law, in striving to instill the greatest respect for the Temple and the kohanim, contains this restriction.

Rashi seems to have a different perspective on the restriction of those with defects from performing the service. He states regarding the phrase “For any man who has a defect should not approach” (VaYikra 21:18). The meaning here is that it is not fitting that he should approach, like “When you offer up a blind animal…a lame or a sick one, is there nothing wrong? Were you to offer it to your governor, would he accept you or would he favor you? says the Lord of Hosts” (Malachi 1:8).  Thus, just as an animal with a defect is not fitting as an offering, neither is a person with a defect fit for presenting it.

Rashi, interestingly, equates the kohane with the offering itself. Just like the offering must be of high quality (without physical defect), so too, the person presenting the offering must be without physical defect. We can explore the logical step that Rashi is making here, as it is not obvious. If I give a gift to someone, my respect and valuing of the person is logically reflected in the gift. But what about the presentation? Actually, it is the general understanding that the presentation of the gift is of almost equal importance to the gift itself. Thus, the tradition of using a fine box, gift wrap, etc. It is unusual, to say the least, to give a substantial gift in a plain plastic bag and is would be perceived as a sign of disrespect or lack of sensitivity.

Rashi’s statement can be understood as seeing the kohane and the offering as a single “package,” so to speak. To offer a flawless gift with a flawed presentation is not acceptable. The kohane, according to Rashi, must reflect in his physical nature, the flawless quality of the offering itself, as they are a unified gift-giving event and in this case the gift is to God from the Jewish people.

Once we take the perspective that the sacrifices are gifts of either thanks or some form of atonement, the requirement of physical wholeness in the presenter does not seem antithetical to the Jewish idea that a person’s essence is his or her wisdom and righteousness as opposed to his or her beauty. No one would claim that a perfect diamond given in a plain paper bag diminishes the quality of the diamond. However it does diminish the quality of the giving event. This distinction is most appropriate to make with sacrifices brought to God. God has no need of the sacrifices. This is truly bringing a gift to Someone who “has everything”. However, even “one who has everything” values a gift that is given to him, as it is a meaningful offering of respect and allegiance. God too, appreciates “so to speak” the giving more than the gift and the manner in which it is given becomes the essence of the event, not the transfer of ownership of a bull, ram or sheep. God possesses the whole universe! Does he care if the bull he receives has a blemish! It is simply a means to allow the giver to express his love and awe of the Creator, and this act will edify and enlighten the individual. It is with this in mind that we can understand that the way the sacrifice is given becomes the essence of the offering and the presentation of the gift, of which the kohane is the presenter, becomes most essential.