Daf Yomi Shabbos 80: Talmudic Beauty Treatments

“The measure that determines liability for carrying out blue eyeshadow is equivalent to that which is used to paint one eye blue.”

The protracted discussion of permissible measures of what can be carried into the public domain on Shabbat continues in today’s Daf Yomi. The exactitude of these measures reminds me of what it was like to fly to London a month after September 11th when all one was allowed to take onto the plane was a plastic bag with a few essentials. Even today, depending on the airport (and Heathrow is especially stringent), most of our liquids, aerosols, and creams must fit into a quart-sized bag and each item is limited to just 3.4 ounces. I tend to push the boundaries a little bit and slide through most airports, but when I flew out of London this past February, I had to get rid of some expensive cosmetics. The Rabbis would be well-equipped to issue pronouncements on what is allowed in our carry-on bags and what is prohibited.

The Rabbis discuss ancient beauty products in today’s reading. We previously learned that one is liable if eyeshadow is carried in public on Shabbat that is the equivalent amount required to paint one eye blue. This of course seems absurd to the Rabbis who inquire why a woman would only paint one eye and not the other. Rav Huna offers a contradictory and odd response: “Because modest women, who cover their faces with a veil, paint only the one eye that shows blue.”  I can’t imagine a woman of any temperament being able to maneuver in the world with only one eye uncovered (presumably from a veil), and if the woman is modest or of the “natural” sort, why would she adorn her eye at all with eyeshadow? Rabbi Shimon be Elazar counters that in fact the eyeshadow would be used for healing rather than ornamentation. He contributes a revision to the discussion: “if it is used to adorn the eye, the measure that determines liability for carrying out is equivalent to that which is used for two eyes.”

 The Rabbis discuss the use of lime as a beauty treatment, and my assumption is that it is the caustic mineral substance and not the citrus. The mineral substance would have been toxic to use on any human being, let alone a young girl. The Rabbis say that the amount allowable to carry on Shabbat in the public domain is equivalent to what is necessary to use as a depilatory on a little girl. We are told that it was used to “soften and pamper the skin” of mostly poor girls. The wealthier used fine flour instead and daughters of kings were smeared with an oil that was extracted from an olive that was not fully formed. In other words, the risk was to the underclass while the more privileged found safer methods to enhance their beauty.

We are told a troubling story of Rav Beivai’s daughter who was smeared with lime from limb to limb and became so beautiful that she was married off to a wealthy suitor. This treatment was copied by a non-Jew who smeared his daughter from head to foot and she tragically died. The grieving father accused the Rav of killing his daughter. Rav Nahman offers an explanation that I find undecipherable that has to do with drinking beer which “causes hair growth.”

Lime is a caustic substance which can cause burns and poisoning. It is no surprise that someone who is smeared with it would die. The Rabbis described it as a beauty treatment that got rid of excess hair and left the skin smooth, and it is possible that it was used to whiten the skin. It represents thousands of years of treatments that women have undergone to meet societal standards of beauty. Some of these treatments would have caused women to become ill and in the case of the young daughter in today’s text, even result in loss of life.

Today, certain hair straightening treatments that contain formaldehyde come to mind. I have been guilty myself of trying some of these treatments in hopes of achieving the ideal of glossy, silky hair, although there are newer options on the market that are supposedly free of toxic chemicals. I have bought into this standard of beauty even though I should know better and have spent a lifetime straightening, ironing and defrizzing my hair.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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