By Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – In the Bible and in subsequent Jewish and Christian traditions, the name Jezebel provokes very unfavourable associations. A native of Phoenicia, she continued to promote the pagan cults of Baal and Asherah during her reign as consort of the Israelite king Ahab (earning her an honoured status among some feminists as the alleged champion of a primordial goddess cult). She abused her authority by orchestrating the judicial murder of Naboth in order to confiscate his vineyard.
After Ahab’s death, the prophet Elisha appointed the commander Jehu to wrest the monarchy from that ignominious dynasty. After eliminating the heirs to the throne, Jehu proceeded to confront Jezebel in Jezreel. The deposed queen greeted the upstart with proud defiance. Jehu ordered that she be tossed disgracefully out the window and her mutilated corpse abandoned to the dogs in fulfillment of a curse by the prophet Elijah.
In describing Jezebel’s preparations for receiving Jehu, the scriptural account inserts an intriguing detail: “She coloured her eyes, and arranged her hair.” The laconic formulation does not explain exactly how Jezebel went about colouring her eyes, or what her purpose was in doing so. What the Hebrew text actually says is that she applied to her eyes something called “pukh.” The oldest interpreters seem quite certain when it comes to identifying the substance in question. The ancient Greek translation employs a verb “estimisato,” derived from the noun “stimmi.” This substance, known in Latin as “stibium” (stibnite), is identified as antimony, an element that was commonly used to lend a black or dark blue tinge to the eyelids.
The medieval exegete and grammarian Rabbi David Kimhi of Narbonne equated pukh with kahol, a cosmetic well-known in rabbinic literature (the architects of modern Hebrew adopted it as the term for the colour “blue”). Crossword puzzle aficionados may recognize the word ‘kohl” as a synonym for eye-liner. Like many such terms in the cosmetic lexicon, this Semitic word entered European languages through the agency of Arabic traders who controlled much of the international commerce in those items during medieval times.
So what was Jezebel’s objective in prettying herself up for the confrontation with her nemesis Jehu? Gersonides’ preferred hypothesis was that, through her insistence on being elegantly groomed at her public appearances, Jezebel was proudly asserting her majesty as Israel’s legitimate sovereign—as was borne out in her subsequent diatribe against Jehu.
According to another possibility suggested by Gersonides, Jezebel was hoping to arouse Jehu’s compassion to spare her life. In a slight variation on that theme, Rabbi Meir Malbim supposed that she was hoping to elicit sympathy from one of the army officers who might be persuaded to protect her against the usurper. Rashi wrote that she was enhancing her physical charms as a means of seducing the new king to marry her and thereby perpetuating her hold on the throne. (As that old Frankie Laine song put it, “If ever a pair of eyes \ promised paradise \ it was you, Jezebel.”)
In keeping with the traditional stereotyping of Jezebel as an archetype of heathen depravity, Don Isaac Abravanel remarked that the application of eye shadow is the mark of a harlot. This claim is consistent with other passages in the Bible in which similar actions are stigmatized as licentious behaviour. Thus, in Jeremiah’s vision of the fall of Jerusalem, he scornfully depicts a personification of the rejected city tarting herself up in a futile attempt to entice her former paramours. “Though thou broaden thy eyes with pukh, in vain shalt thou make thyself fair; thy lovers will despise thee, they will seek thy life.” Ezekiel employed similar imagery, addressing Jerusalem as the wanton Oholibah who “bathed, painted your eyes, and donned your finery” to receive her companions. The Hebrew verb used here for painting eyes is “kahal.”
In contrast to the prophets’ negative stance towards eye make-up, the sages of the Talmud had more favourable things to say about the practice. Rabbis Yosé and Yohanan touted it as a cure for an ailment referred to as “the daughter of the king,” which commentators understood as a demon that afflicts the eyes. The treatment also inhibits tearing and even enhances the growth of eyelashes.
At the end of the book of Job, the long-suffering hero is recompensed with the birth of a new daughter. The girl is named “Keren Happukh.” Rashi explained that the name alluded to the horn-shaped container used for eye-shadow. Rabbi David Altschuler in his Metzudat David commentary associated it with the metallic gleam of antimony.
The Talmud reports that in the land of Israel it was customary to praise a bride for being as graceful as a gazelle even though her charms are not enhanced by eye-shadow [kehal], rouge or braided hair. As Rashi remarked, the point is not necessarily that she has no recourse to beauty aids, but rather that her intrinsic beauty does not really require synthetic embellishment. In this connection, Rabbi Jacob Reischer adduced the words of Proverbs: “Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.”
The talmudic passage goes on to relate that the same praises that were addressed to brides were also sung to Rabbi Zera at his rabbinic ordination.
Now it is quite obvious that Rabbi Zera was not being commended for going without mascara, and that the attribution of these qualities to him was intended metaphorically, as an appreciation of the genuineness of his scholarship and piety. According to Rabbi Samuel Edels (Maharsha), Rabbi Zera had no need for metaphoric eye-shadow because his character was authentically modest and decent, and his admirable qualities could shine through without any deceptive veneer.
Maharsha contrasted him to pretenders who project outward images of righteous saintliness—like men who always keep their gazes lowered ostentatiously as if to avoid glancing at women.
It remains an open question whether those sanctimonious frauds could have resisted the enticements of queen Jezebel’s darkly exotic eyes.
Eliezer Segal is a local journalism initiative reporter for Alberta Jewish News.