Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Symbolic Veil

(The Dark Enchanter and I came up with an interesting Tanakh idea today- it revolves around chupah, marriage, sexuality and veils.)
    But a veiled woman is seldom seen in Egypt or in many parts of Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Tunisia, Turkey, or the Sudan. And as respectable housewives have abandoned the veil, in some of these Middle Eastern countries prostitutes have put it on. They indicate their availability by manipulating the veil in flirtatious ways, but as Burton pointed out more than a century ago, prostitues are not the first to discover the veil's seductiveness. Like women's garments in the West, the veil can be sturdy, utilitarian, and forbidding- or it can be filmy and decorative, hinting at the charms beneath it.

    ~Readings for Sociology, Fifth Edition, edited by Garth Massey, page 169
The immediate thought that comes to mind is the fact that Tamar specifically donned a veil when assuming a prostitute's habit and seducing Judah. Now, many of us would initially assume that this was simply her method of disguising herself so that Judah could not identify her. However the verse suggests that the veil was actually part of a prostitute's garb.

יד וַתָּסַר בִּגְדֵי אַלְמְנוּתָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וַתְּכַס בַּצָּעִיף וַתִּתְעַלָּף, וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם, אֲשֶׁר עַל-דֶּרֶךְ תִּמְנָתָה: כִּי רָאֲתָה, כִּי-גָדַל שֵׁלָה, וְהִוא, לֹא-נִתְּנָה לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה.

14 And she put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, [emph. mine] and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she was not given unto him to wife.

טו וַיִּרְאֶהָ יְהוּדָה, וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לְזוֹנָה: כִּי כִסְּתָה, פָּנֶיהָ.

15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot; for she had covered her face. [emph. mine].

~Genesis 38: 14-15

Judah knew Tamar to be sexually available due to the fact that she was wearing a veil. It seemed clear she was a harlot because she was sitting at the crossroads of a public place.

Now, of course our immediate thought was for other places in Tanakh in which characters wear veils. The place which comes to mind is that of Rebecca donning a veil immediately prior to her first meeting with Isaac. While some might initially think this is simply an action performed out of maidenly modesty, it is actually consistent with the notion that donning the veil symbolizes sexual availibility. Note the dialogue between Rebecca and Eliezer:

סה וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל-הָעֶבֶד, מִי-הָאִישׁ הַלָּזֶה הַהֹלֵךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִקְרָאתֵנוּ, וַיֹּאמֶר הָעֶבֶד, הוּא אֲדֹנִי; וַתִּקַּח הַצָּעִיף, וַתִּתְכָּס.

65 And she said unto the servant: 'What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us?' And the servant said: 'It is my master.' And she took her veil, and covered herself. [emph. mine]

~Genesis 24: 65

One would think that if Rebecca simply desired to be modest, she would have worn her veil during the entire duration of the trip, in the presence of Eliezer or any other men in order to demonstrate that she was reserved for her husband alone. However, she only dons the veil once Eliezer has informed her the man she is about to meet is his master, her future husband. The subsequent verses seem to suggest that Isaac consummated his marriage with her, even bringing her into his mother's tent (Genesis 24: 67).

Donning a veil is also noted in the famous midrash that explains the fact that Jacob was deceived as to whom he was marrying and ended up marrying Leah as opposed to Rachel. She wore a veil at her wedding and perhaps the veil's function serves throughout the sexual interaction (from the wedding through the consummation of the marriage.)

This is interesting in context of the Gemara's understanding of what it means to marry another and the way in which chupah is understood. The Perisha understands chupah as stemming from the word "chofeh," meaning to cover or protect. It is used here to indicate the fact that once the woman enters into the domain of her husband, he then accepts upon himself the responsibility of caring for and protecting her (we will see that this statement of the Perisha can work for other views as well)." [Source] Our practice allows for the fulfillment of this; it is the reason behind our doing bedeken, which is the groom's covering of his bride's face with a veil. "Before what we call the chupah is the "bedeken" (from the German meaning "to cover"; not from the Hebrew for "to check"), where the groom brings the veil down over the face of the bride. While there are several reasons for this practice, the fact that it may constitute chupah [emph. mine] has led some poskim to require that two witnesses be designated for this part of the ceremony as well as for everything that follows." [Source]

With this in mind, it seems clear that the donning of a veil was and is a symbol for sexual availability. Tamar donned a veil and Judah understood her to be sexually available due to this (i.e. the fact that she had "covered her face.") Rebecca specifically donned a veil before meeting her future husband. Leah is said to have worn a veil at her wedding and perhaps afterwards as well and we nowadays even have certain opinions who say that the man convering his bride's face with a veil consitutes chupah. Hence, contrary to the opinions that may make sense to us at first blush (that is, that Tamar wore a veil simply to disguise herself from Judah or that Rebecca wore a veil out of modesty) it makes more sense to say that the veil is a symbol of sexual availability.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Aha!
What a fun piece!
I enjoyed the novel idea....
I kind of think that a veil was used for both purposes -for being sexually available and for being modest.

SuperRaizy said...

Very interesting analysis! I think that both can be true- a woman can be modest and signify sexual availability at the same time, so long as she is signaling availability to one specific man only (e.g., her husband or future husband, as Rebecca and Leah did.)Thus, she is available to him, but modest to all other men.

daniel-saunders said...

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan says "It was the custom for sacred prostitutes to cover their faces (Ramban; Bachya). Ancient sources describe this as being like a wreath of string covering the head and face (Herodotus 1:199)." (The Living Torah commentary on Bereshit 38.15)

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

what? I thought you were really going to go somewhere with that! I thought you were going to then demonstrate how all modesty is actually a form of sexual luring, and how the trully modest are the nudists!

...um, I'm not serious about that, but I always felt the whole idea does need some 'looking into'..

Anonymous said...

In ancient Judaism the lifting of the veil took place just prior to the consummation of the marriage in sexual union. The uncovering or unveiling that takes place in the marriage ceremony is a symbol of what will take place in the marriage bed. Just as the two become one through their words spoken in wedding vows, so these words are a sign of the physical oneness that they will consummate later on. The lifting of the veil is a symbol and an anticipation of this. In the story of Jacob in the Old Testament (found in the Book of Genesis), his father-in-law, Laban, tricks Jacob into marrying the wrong women. Because of the heavily masked veil that was not raised until after the union was complete, Jacob married the older and homelier Leah instead of the young and beautiful Rachel. Rachel was his one true love, and the deceit resulted in Jacob eventually having both as his wives. The story also resulted in the Jewish practice where a groom lowers the veil before the ceremony and lifts the veil before the kiss. This practice is known as Bedeken

frumhouse said...

Interesting take on the meaning of veils! I suppose Jewish women should rethink the "Frumka."

Shira Salamone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.