By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
“I hope you don’t mind, but the boy’s mother would like to see a picture of your daughter.”
“Look, ka’h, my son is a big masmid and he values his time. I know what he is looking for and I need to see a picture. Of course my husband and son will not look at the picture—it is just for me.”
“Sorry, no matter how pretty you say the girl is, I need to see a picture before my son dates her. Period.”
Of late, statements like the above have become more common in the complex world of shidduchim. Mothers have taken on a more proactive role, not only in approving of the girl that their boys will be dating, but in actually pre-approving the potential daughter-in-law’s physical appearance.
What is the Torah perspective on this trend?
The Chebiner Rav’s View
Rav Avrohom Meisels in his Der Oitzer fun Nissuin cites a fascinating precedent regarding the Chebiner Rav, Rav Dov Berish Veidenfeld, zt’l. A shadchan approached him with a shidduch for his daughter with a young man from a distant town, but mentioned that the other side wanted a picture of the Chebiner Rav’s daughter. The Chebiner Rav responded in writing to the shadchan with a message to the other side, “Lo y’aseh kein bimkomeinu, laseis ha’tzurah lifnei ha’bechirah”—“This shall not be done in our place, to give the tzurah (the appearance of the girl—a photograph—pronounced in chassidishe havarah as “tzirah”) before the bechirah (chassidishe pronunciation for bachurah—the young lady).” The Chebiner devised a clever play on words using tzurah, photograph, instead of tze’irah, younger one, referencing Lavan’s response to Yaakov Avinu in Bereishis 29:26. However, he did respond with a very strong message: This is clearly not something that Jewish people should be doing and is very far from the Torah way of life.
The Peleh Yoetz
Shlomo HaMelech tells us in Mishlei (31:30), “sheker ha’chein v’hevel ha’yofi”—charm is false and beauty is vain, rather the G‑d-fearing woman is to be praised.” The Peleh Yoetz explains that Shlomo HaMelech is not saying that we should ignore all beauty, but rather that the main criterion for marriage should be whether the woman has fear of Heaven. It is clear that a categorical demand to see a picture perforce reveals that the person’s inner yardstick emphasizes shallow appearances over all else. The attractiveness of the young lady can be ascertained by asking rather than by demanding to see a picture.
Rav Yaakov Galinsky, zt’l, once asked a question regarding Tu B’Av. Tu B’Av is when the daughters of Yerushalayim all borrowed white clothing to find shidduchim and recited the pasuk of “sheker ha’chein” to the gathering men. Rav Galinsky, zt’l, asked, “How was it that this event was so successful in finding shidduchim for so many people? Shidduchim, in general, takes such a long time!”
Rav Galinsky answered that the purpose of each girl wearing borrowed white clothing was to demonstrate that beauty and charm is all vanity and unimportant; rather, the true essence of happiness in marriage is fear of Heaven. That is why they refused to adorn themselves in fancy attire. When people are self-absorbed, as in the overemphasis on looks and appearances, then shidduchim are slower and more difficult. However, explained Rav Galinsky, zt’l, when people have the proper values, shidduchim happen almost instantaneously, like in the Tu B’Av of old.
Rav Galinsky’s point can possibly be seen in a growing countertrend. More and more people are saying no to a young man whose mother is insistent on a picture. “It’s not that I minded sending a picture,” remarked one father of a Five Towns-area girl, “but why should my daughter be subjected to such a shallow or overbearing mother-in-law?”
Poskim Who Forbid Gazing
Poskim in the chassidishe world are more adamant about the prohibition involved in a man looking at a picture of a woman. Rav Yisroel Harpenes of Hisachdus HaRabbanim, in his sefer Yisrael Kedoshim (p. 125) writes that even when the woman is dressed in a completely modest fashion, the idea of a man gazing at a picture is entirely against halachah. While there is no prohibition in only a woman looking at such a picture, we would be deceiving ourselves if we did not agree that it is likely that the picture would get into the hands of the young man.
Notwithstanding the stringent view, the issue is subject to much halachic debate. Certainly, Jewish law prohibits ogling. Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 1:6 and 8) defines it as a full-blown Biblical prohibition. His position as explained by the Beis Shmuel (Even Ha’ezer 21:2) is that it violates the verse “Do not go after your hearts and eyes.”
Rambam also forbids it, but whether it is a Biblical or rabbinic prohibition is subject to debate. The Beis Shmuel and the Pnei Yehoshua (Even Ha’ezer Vol. II #44) both understand that the Rambam rules that it is forbidden only by rabbinic decree. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l (Igros Moshe, E.H. Vol. IV #60) rules that the Rambam’s view is that it is forbidden by Biblical decree just like the Rabbeinu Yonah position.
The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20a–b) is one of the primary sources discussing the prohibition, and ever since the Talmudic era, halachic decisors have been grappling with the exact parameters of these halachos.
The term that the Talmud employs in its discussion is “histaklus.” The question is, do we define “histaklus” as looking, staring, or ogling? Also, is there a debate about the term in the halachic sources?
The Sefer Chassidim (#99) discusses the parameters of histaklus and says that histaklus is more than just looking. It is looking intentionally for a long time and contemplating whom the woman looks like or is equal to in appearance. Rav Chaim Palagi in Re’eh Chaim (p. 13c) defines it in this manner as well.
On the other hand, regarding other issues, the SmA (Choshen Mishpat 154:14) writes that the term histaklus can, in fact, mean mere looking. The Chida, and a few other poskim a well, rule in accordance with this view.
In The Talmud
The aforementioned passage in the Talmud states that it is forbidden to stare at an attractive woman, even if she is single. If she is a married woman, it is forbidden to stare at her even if she is ugly. The Talmud then asks how it could be that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, while once entering the Temple Mount, recited a verse in Tehillim when he saw an attractive woman. The Talmud answers that it must have been that he met her while turning a corner and thus did not notice that she was approaching.
Note that the Talmud did not answer that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel merely did not have intent to derive pleasure from seeing her, or that he was just “looking” but not “staring.” The implication is that there may indeed exist some sort of prohibition of looking, even if one is not deriving pleasure.
One may also ask if the same prohibition would apply to a photograph as to a personal encounter. The poskim deal with viewing through a mirror or other medium. Rav Palaji (in Responsa Shma Avrohom #46 cited by Rav Ovadiah Yosef in Yechave Daas 4:7) rules that it does. Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld is cited as being more lenient, differentiating between a picture and a live person if there is no chance that it could bring one to improper thoughts.
The More Lenient View
The Shulchan Aruch (E.H. 65:1), however, writes that it is forbidden to look at women who are laundering. This prohibition is found in Bava Basra 57b. The reason is that while they are laundering, parts of the body that are normally covered are sometimes exposed. The Shulchan Aruch does not, herein, state a categorical prohibition against looking at women.
This would seem to contradict the simple implication of the paragraph in Avodah Zarah 20b. It seems from this passage in Shulchan Aruch that there is no issue of looking at women as long as they are not in a state of compromised dress.
How then would Rav Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, explain our Gemara? It must be that the Talmud felt that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel’s recitation of the verse in Tehillim implied that more than a simple look was involved. The Gemara could not answer that he was not benefiting from seeing her, because he saw fit to recite the laudatory verse from Tehillim, “Mah rabu ma’asecha, Hashem”—“How wondrous are Your works.” (See Igros Moshe O.C. I #40.)
For The Prohibition
There seem to be two reasons cited as to why the prohibition of histaklus exists. One is that it may lead to illicit and improper thoughts. This reason is stated in the Mishneh Torah of Rambam. Another reason found in the poskim is that the mere deriving of pleasure in viewing someone who is not one’s wife is wrong.
Many of the chassidishe poskim rule that when young men look at a picture to see whether the young lady is attractive, it is more likely that the look will be deeper than the regular looking that would occur during a live date.
Another rationale as to why the asking to see a picture should be stopped is that it demeans the young lady under discussion. Each human being was created in the Divine image, and to debase a bas Yisrael in such a fashion runs counter to many fundamental yesodos in Yiddishkeit.
What do contemporary poskim say about this practice of asking for pictures?
Rav Dovid Feinstein, shlita, was not happy when he heard of this growing practice and responded, “Why are we making things more difficult? There is a certain chein that young ladies have that often does not come across in a photograph, and can only be seen in person. We are making the shidduch crisis worse with these new requirements.” He did not forbid it from a halachic perspective, but he was clearly very much against it.
Rav Shlomo Heinemann, shlita, of Baltimore, when consulted by this author on the question, responded, “I do not think that it is within the framework of tznius for a girl to give a picture out where others can possibly see it. This is not with the ruach of Torah.” Rav Shmuel Fuerst, a dayan in Chicago stated, “This wasn’t the mehalech for doros, and I think it is lacking in tznius. I don’t think it is a proper hanhagah and, besides, a picture can be very deceiving.”
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.