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Mirrors in the Bible and in Jewish Tradition
by A.D. Paul
MANY EVERYDAY OBJECTS make appearances in the Bible, either as utilities or as elements within figures of speech. Mirrors are among these, as in the book of Job 37:15-18, when Job’s friend Elihu challenges him: “Do you know how God controls the clouds and makes his lightning flash? . . . You who swelter in your clothes when the land lies hushed under the south wind, can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?”
Biblical references to the actual use of mirrors are scarce, however. Still, the mirror has an important role in Jewish tradition and culture.
Before we look for them in the Bible, let’s find out what mirrors actually were like in Biblical days. They were certainly not the glass mirrors that we use today; glass mirrors appear only in the 1st century CE and did not come into widespread use until the invention of the silvered-glass mirror in Germany in 1835.
Mirrors of the Biblical era were highly polished volcanic stones called obsidian. Some found in Turkey date back to 6000 BCE. Later, as people gained greater insight into metallurgy, highly polished metals were used, first brass, then silver and gold. Metal alloys were soon widespread, especially a mix of tin and copper. Excavations of various ancient centers of culture show that such mirrors were used some two thousand years before the Common Era in all major regions of the known world. By the Common Era, silver mirrors were so widespread that Pliny (1st century CE) noted that even maidservants were using them.
The universal fascination with mirrors was shared by Jews. The widespread use of mirrors by Jewish women can be inferred from the book of Exodus: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand also of bronze, for washing ” (Exodus 30:17-18). In response to this command, the Hebrew women generously parted with their mirrors: “He made the basin of bronze and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the ministering women who ministered in the entrance of the tent of meeting” (Exodus 38:8).
The Bible does not show any instance of someone using, as opposed to contributing, a mirror. Yet it does offer a potent use of mirror imagery. The prophet Isaiah, in his apocalyptic warnings to the “daughters of Zion” about the impending doom of Jerusalem, mentions many objects of finery that had become the fashion appendages of Jewish women. Among them: mirrors, linen garments, turbans, tiaras, shawls (Isaiah 3:22-23). The prophet sees such paraphernalia as signs of excessive vanity and warns: “Instead of fragrance there will be a stench; instead of a sash, a rope; instead of well-dressed hair, baldness; instead of fine clothing, sackcloth; instead of beauty, branding” (Isaiah 3:24).
IN NINE WONDERFUL MONTHS, B’Sha’ah Tovah: The Jewish Woman’s Clinical and Halachic Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, written by Rabbi Baruch Finkelstein and Michal Finkelstein, there is an interesting reference to a midrashic tale about the role of mirrors in rousing the urge for procreation in men who were in the grip of a crippling depression under the heavy yoke of Pharaoh’s slavery. The death of the first-born of Jewish boys might have dwindled the Jewish slave population had not the Jewish women resolved to sexually arouse their men, who had lost their zest for life under the torture of the taskmasters and had no motivation to bring more number of their children to this hellhole of oppression. The Jewish women, however, had not lost hope, and were convinced that the commandment to increase and multiply should be observed even in adverse circumstances. The women, with an adroit stroke, decide to take control of the situation by alluring their husbands, using tiny copper mirrors to beautify themselves, and they succeeded in becoming pregnant.
It is an old tradition to cover the mirrors in the house of mourning, a custom of great spiritual significance. The mirror gives an external image of what we are, and it is essential in our workaday world to use a mirror to make ourselves presentable. However, death is a reminder of the transient nature of human life on earth, and days of mourning are time to think of the divine image that is within us, not our external appearance. The covering of the mirror aids an inward journey, and helps us to see not ourselves, but the person who has departed life.
Covering mirrors in a house during the shiva week is consonant with a traditional injunction against praying in front of a mirror, in order to prevent distraction during prayer and the appearance of bowing to one’s own image. The Talmud also suggests that mourners need special protection from demons, which are more likely to be glimpsed in the mirror. Perhaps these “demons” are the emotions of guilt, anger, or regret that can accompany the death of someone near and dear. Such emotions are not best dealt with realistically or constructively during the raw period of shiva.
A. D. Paul is a retired principal of a college. He is from the the state of Kerala in South India, where he runs an English language training center called EXODUS and writes on culture, history, literature and religion.