What the British Museum reveals about the Torah’s view of beauty

Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum reviews a new exhibition on luxury in ancient society


The opposite of necessity is luxury. We all need vessels for drinking, but solid gold bowls and silver decanters adorned with gold leaf and gemstones are extravagant. We all need clothes, but surely not robes of deep purple woven from costly murex dyes.

On occasion, we might need an air freshener to mask a bad smell, but constantly burning incense concocted from sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh is wildly excessive.

It was these very luxuries that were standard fare for the royals of ancient Persia and Greece. They were powerful symbols of status and wealth, and to this day, they are beautiful to behold.

You can experience these and more at the British Museum’s current exhibition: Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece, which is on show until August 13. On display is a dazzling range of lavish artefacts spanning the 500 years before the Common Era.

They tell a story of Persian decadence that demonstrated political authority, defining a style which resonated across their vast empire, from Egypt to India. The exhibition then shows how this was reproduced, adapted and occasionally reviled by the succeeding empires of Greece and Rome.

Their kings would drink from only the finest vessels, wear glamorous and exclusive clothes and were surrounded by sweet smelling incense that created a heady atmosphere.

You will not find one Jewish artefact in the entire exhibition and yet comparisons and contrasts abound. The period it covers coincides with when the Second Temple stood in Jerusalem. This housed ceremonial objects fashioned with gold such as the candelabra, washbasin, table and ark.

Both the wall hangings and the clothing of the High Priest were weaved with strands dyed red and deep purple.The daily rituals involved burning incense made from specific ingredients as well as wine libations poured on the main altar.

Thus, many of the luxuries of the Persian royalty could be found in the Jewish Temple, but with a significant difference.

One gave honour to man, the other to God. Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes (known as Ahaseurus in the Purim story) asserted their power and prestige through luxurious living, while our ancestors employed luxurious items in serving the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

But, you may ask, was this kind of worship appropriate? Are shiny objects and expensive-to-produce materials important to God? Surely, moral living matters more than costly materials.

The truth is that aesthetics are important in Judaism. Says the Talmud, “Ten measures of beauty were given to the world; nine were taken by Jerusalem, and one was distributed all over earth” (Kiddushin 49b).

Remember the Hebrew poem Marei Hakohen, which is sung in the Yom Kippur Musaf? It describes the face of the High Priest as he emerged unscathed from the holy sanctuary on the holiest of days. Each verse compares his countenance to another beautiful image: a rainbow, rose, diamond, star in the sky etc. We are meant to be awed by these wonderful visions.

Coco Chanel, the famous fashion designer, used to say, “Luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends.” She admitted that luxury is not a practical necessity, but believed that it is necessary nonetheless.

We are physical beings who take pleasure in the beauty we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We are tactile embodied beings not intangible spirits. Once our basic needs are met, said Chanel, then we yearn for, and we need, luxury.

The Torah teaches us to marry our predilection for aesthetics with the recognition of the divine. In this sense, luxury is not about acquiring and owning expensive things it is about appreciating them for what they are and realising they can also be used for something of even higher value.

And so Jewish homes have special silverware for Shabbat as well as beautiful candlesticks, challah covers or spice boxes. Shabbat is a pause from everyday life. A time to concentrate on family and learning. But this does not mean we reject material objects on this special day. On the contrary, they help us appreciate the beauty of Shabbat.

Explaining the verse, “This is my God and I shall beautify Him” (Exodus 15:2), the Talmud states: “Beautify yourself before God in regard to the commandments… a beautiful succah and a beautiful lulav and a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzitzit, a beautiful Torah scroll… using beautiful ink, a beautiful pen, an expert scribe, and wrap it in beautiful silks” (Shabbat 133b).

The linkage of luxury and religious practice has an added benefit. It can protect us from the trappings of wealth and power. The British Museum exhibition ends with a quote from Juvenal, a first-century Roman satirical poet: “Luxury has settled down on us… it was filthy money that first imported foreign ways, and effete wealth that corrupted our era with its disgusting decadence.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the Luxury and Power exhibition at the British Museum. The artefacts are exquisite and the explanations are just right. There are useful maps and videos, and the overall effect is, well, beautiful.

Our ancestors brushed against the empires that produced these objects, but rather that indulging in all this luxury for political gain, they channelled it into living more meaningful lives. For me, this is an education in beauty.
Rabbi Dr Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies

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