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Removing the Veil

  • Removing the Veil

    Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1−25:18
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, "Who is that man walking in the field toward us?" And the servant said, "That is my master." So she took her veil and covered herself. (Genesis 24:63-65)

D'var Torah 

The bedeken can be a very powerful and emotional moment at a wedding. At my own wedding it was a moment when my husband and I saw each other, but then were immediately separated by that gauzy piece of fabric. This veiling of the bride can be intensely intimate, as it is the moment when both bride and groom signify their preparedness to marry each other. The veil itself is truly a remarkable device; it is able to simultaneously conceal and reveal. A bride wears a veil for this very reason: it conveys a sense of secrecy without obscuring her completely. We can see her face through the veil, but not all the details. We may miss the mischievous sparkle in her eye, or a tear, or even the full force of her smile. And the bride's perspective from under the veil has a soft, muted look. She can feel hidden while still having the ability to see out.

Veils are mentioned so rarely in the Torah that their appearance is worth examining. In each instance, something is hidden from one of the characters but revealed to the reader. Chayei Sarah contains the Torah's first mention of a veil, which occurs when Rebekah arrives in the Negev and has her first look at Isaac. She asks, "Who is that man walking in the field toward us?" (Genesis 24:65). When the servant answers, "That is my master," she covers herself with her veil. Interestingly, this need for modesty does not arise at any other time during the journey to her new home. Nor was she wearing a veil when she first met the servant at the well. It is only upon first seeing her fiancé Isaac that she feels the necessity to veil herself. She hides her face from the only person who has a vested interest in seeing it! What is hidden from Isaac is revealed to all the other characters, as well as to the reader. We have already been told of Rebekah's beauty; only Isaac has yet to behold it.

The next mention of a veil in the Torah occurs to explain why Judah is unable to recognize his daughter-in-law, Tamar, who exchanges her widow's garb for a veil and waits for Judah at the roadside. The text says, "When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face" (Genesis 38:15). Throughout this episode, the reader knows and understands that Tamar tricks Judah so that she can conceive an heir for his deceased son. The technical term for this situation is chalitzah, or levirate marriage. Only when Tamar's pregnancy becomes public does she reveal her identity as the veiled woman to Judah and expose his role in the pregnancy.

In the first instance, the veil signifies Rebekah's modesty and preparation for marriage. In the second, the veil signifies that Tamar is available for hire. So, the veil serves as a symbol of duality in multiple ways. It hides a face while still making it visible; it hides a situation from a participant while still allowing the reader to see the whole story; and it signifies both the modesty of a bride and the immodesty of a prostitute. This point of duality is noted further by the midrash "Two covered themselves with a veil and gave birth to twins" (B'reishit Rabbah60:14). Rebekah and Tamar both become the mothers of twins soon after their "veil" episodes.

We find a veil mentioned in only one other place in the Torah. We are told in Exodus 34:29-35 that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai his skin was glowing so radiantly that the Israelites were unable to look at him. From then on he wore a veil unless he was speaking to God, or of God, to the Israelites. While it's true the word for veil in this instance, masveh, is different from the word for veil that appears earlier, tza-if, the veil concept still signifies duality-the difference between Moses's time with God and his everyday life with the Israelites.

Throughout our lives we experience moments of holiness. What makes them so is that they are separate and unique from what is regular and everyday. The Torah uses the veil as a device to note such separations in the lives of biblical characters. Moses's closeness to God would certainly be classified as kadosh, "holy." It can also be argued that Tamar's fulfillment of the obligation to provide an heir for her deceased husband is an example of holiness. And Rebekah veils herself before entering into kiddushin, "marriage" that is holy under God, with Isaac. In fact, this text is used as the basis for the ceremony of bedeken .

While the veil symbolizes duality-hiding and revealing-it is also a symbol of the separateness of that which iskadosh. The act of separating something makes it holy. We separate Shabbat from the other days of the week, making it holy. When we pinch off a piece of the bread we are baking, it becomes challah, which is holy. And when we join with another person making ourselves separate from all others, that is undoubtedly an act of kiddushin -a holy union.

We are complicated beings made up of contradictions and dualities. In our world, holy and profane will always exist side by side. Sometimes we clearly see the holiness of the separate, and sometimes we mistake it for the everyday. Rebekah knew that when she would meet Isaac her life would change; she marks that moment by covering her face with a veil, revealing her consent to marry. So too in our lives, it may be only the sheerest of fabrics that separates what is holy from what is profane. May we always see those moments with the same clarity possessed by our ancestors.

By the Way

  • [The basis for chalitzah can be found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.]
    When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married to a stranger, outside the family. Her husband's brother shall unite with her: take her as his wife and perform the levir's duty. The first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out in Israel. But if the man does not want to marry his brother's widow, his brother's widow shall appear before the elders in the gate and declare, "My husband's brother refuses to establish a name in Israel for his brother; he will not perform the duty of a levir." The elders of his town shall then summon him and talk to him. If he insists, saying, "I do not want to marry her," his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother's house! And he shall go in Israel by the name of "the family of the unsandaled one." (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
  • This is the room where Jezebel frescoed her eyelids with history's tragic glitter, where Delilah practiced for her beautician's license, the room in which Salome dropped the seventh veil while dancing the dance of ultimate cognition, skinny legs and all. (Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All [New York: Bantam Books, 1990], p. 2)

Your Guide 

  1. What are some of the dualities in your own life?
  2. How do you make moments separate and holy?
  3. If a veil may be used to obscure radiance, as we see in the Moses story, what kinds of radiance might be present in the stories of Rebekah and Tamar?

Elizabeth Dunsker is the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, WA.

Reference Materials: 

Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 156–167; Revised Edition, pp. 153–167;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 111–132

When do we read Chayei Sarah

2020, November 14
27 Heshvan, 5781
2021, October 30
24 Heshvan, 5782
2022, November 19
25 Heshvan, 5783
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