The use of cosmetics, particularly by women, was common throughout the ancient world. It should hardly be surprising, then, to find that rabbinic texts deriving from multiple strata and locations frequently discuss cosmetics and women’s use of them. This article addresses this topic in two broad ways. First, I explore rabbinic texts that address cosmetics and cosmetic usages in order to identify the rabbinic vocabulary used to discuss these topics, and to attempt to identify actual items or practices they may describe. I then investigate the cultural significance of cosmetics in rabbinic understandings, addressing: (a) such issues as determining not only what constitutes adornment but also what constitutes “appropriate adornment”; the male gaze on female bodies and feminine self-adornment; and the social meanings and implications of women’s adornments; and (b) whether it is possible briefly to break through the androcentric focus of rabbinic writings to reveal hints of women’s own subjectivity in choices about using cosmetics. I argue that there is no single rabbinic approach or attitude to women’s use of cosmetics, nor a clear development or shift in views over time or across geographic boundaries. Instead, three broad ways of conceptualizing cosmetic usage are present in rabbinic texts. The first is a view that approves of and even encourages women’s use of cosmetics, and adornments more generally, for certain purposes and under certain circumstances. A second takes the opposite tack, stigmatizing cosmetic usage, often in graphically sexual terms. Finally, also embedded in rabbinic literature are texts and snippets of texts that hint at the actual women who used these cosmetics, who—although subject to the rabbinic gaze and known to us only as the products of rabbinic literary activity—nonetheless appear to be not so neatly contained within the bounds of rabbinic social control.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 12-34
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.