Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Erotic imagery in seforim

Here is Chacham Tzvi's approbation to the 1713 Amsterdam Machzor with Yiddish translation - it says on the title page it is for, "be-frat far veiber und kinder und gemeine zeit," women, children, and common people, "for those who don't understand loshn ha-kodesh" - printed by Chaim "Druker" and his partner Shimon, and Shlomo Proops, the king of the Amstaelodami printers.

Chacham Tzvi writes a defense, in the middle, of the idea of translating into the debased language generally.

Of note is the adornment featuring a pair of well endowed winged females. The truth is, there are not one or two or ten such examples in early modern seforim, but hundreds. Such imagery was fairly standard. The same Proops also printed Chacham Zvi's responsa the year before.


  1. Those aren't what you think they are. They are merely representations of Moses and Aaron (see Shir Ha-Shirim 7:4). They have absolutely no other meaning. To interpret them "literally" is false. ;-)

  2. Interesting, any theories on how this was approved of back then?
    Perhaps even Rabbonom were of the opinion that Art ≠ inappropriateness?

  3. Interesting, any theories on how this was approved of back then?
    Perhaps even Rabbonom were of the opinion that Art ≠ inappropriateness?

  4. I wonder if anyone 300 years ago actually considered these images "erotic." Meaning, today, in the age of video on demand and true-to-life imagery, nobody, but nobody, would get "turned on" by these drawings. It is no more erotic than a naked stick figure. But was it different 300 years ago? They had their version of pornography too. For the standards of their time, could the drawings above be considered erotic?

    Apparently not. By the fact that they are so common and unremarked upon, even in those days nobody thought they were anything to get aroused over.

  5. No, but it's a better post title than "nude."

    Eroticism is subjective anyway. However, arguably, shall we say, well-formed female breasts in an apparent state of arousal are objectively erotic. But in any case, the point is that these were common and tolerated.

  6. Also wonder to which degree this was considered kosher. If it wasn't seen as erotic and sexual, how was it seen? Perhaps the question to ask is how often such images accompanied sefar/books that weren't written 'befrat for women'?

    What kind of art is it influenced by anyway?

  7. It was European/ Classical. I'm sure there is a lot more technical terminology, but it's the same deal with all the nude statues and reliefs clogging (at least, Western and Central) Europe. There just wasn't much squeamishness about, at least, nudes in art. The truth is that it is hard to believe that these things were really considered erotic per se. But it's a far, far cry from blurring a 7 year old girl's face. I guess someone could, if they wanted, to try to make a distinction between a drawing and a photo.

    These things made their ways on kesubos, in manuscript illustrations of Tanakhs, many printed books, etc. There are Tzeena Reenas with nude Adam and Eves and all that, other seforim with a woodcut of a woman in a mikva. If anyone minded much, they forgot to leave a paper trail. In addition, many collectors own volumes owned by big names, and at least they had opportunities to deface or remove such images from their own volume, but they never did.

    1702 Amsterdam mishneh torah


  8. I thought you already discussed the Rappaport family crest. But if you had, I would have expected a link back.

  9. I did.


    People have also noticed that the Chida in Shem Haguedolim refers the reader to the crest in the first edition of Mincha Belulah and doesn't note anything about not safe for work about it.

  10. There's is a fellow in shul, a Mr. Rappaport, for whom I printed his family crest. Having grown up and raised his children under the USSR, he's still working on learning his heritage. Mr. Rappaport wasn't interested in hanging it in his home. (Not the 1989 version, either, for the simple reason that it wasn't the real family crest.)


    I think the difference is like having nudes in artwork. People really didn't see semiclad women in a puerile way, when presented in certain contexts.

  11. I think M. Shapiro has pointed out that Rabbi Akiva apparently used to bathe in front of a nude statue of Aphrodite (see the Gemara in Avoda Zara).

    1. According to my Gemarah, it was Raban Gamliel, not Rabbi Akiva.

  12. Yehudah, don't you think a little context is called for? (Avodah Zara 44b, to save some readers time.)



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