Cosmetic surgery?

April 26, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Has there ever been a Jewish pope?

A. There are a number of legends about a Jewish pope.

One is connected with a poem incorporated into the morning prayers on Rosh HaShanah, “Melech Amon Ma’amar’cha”.

The author, Shimon ben Yitzchak ben Abun, lived in Mayence on the Rhine in the early 11th century and is known as a scholar, poet and man of wealth. He was Rashi’s uncle.

Legend has it that one afternoon his youngest son, Elchanan, was kidnapped by a servant and taken to a seminary where he trained for the Church. Eventually, after a brilliant career, he was chosen to be pope.

Aware of his origins and wishing to see his father again, he commanded the Bishop of Mayence to order the Jews of the city to cease their observances. He knew that such a decree would send his father to him at the head of a deputation of protest.

Shimon duly came to Rome and was received by the pope and after some conversation, pope and rabbi began a game of chess. The son disclosed his identity and promised to revoke the harsh decree and to return to Judaism. Escaping from Rome, he lived as a Jew in his father’s house.

Shimon, in gratitude, composed his poem which includes an acrostic, “Elchanan b’ni” – “Elchanan my son”.

The Jewish pope Elchanan may be a myth although the father is a well-known figure in Jewish literary history.

At least one pope is known to have been of Jewish ancestry. Anacletus II was elected in 1130 and while this may have given rise to the legend of Elchanan, his story is not important in itself.


Q. What is the Jewish view of cosmetic surgery?

A. No-one, even a doctor, is entitled to wound another person. Nor may an individual wound him-or herself or engage in untried, risky procedures.

However, to save life it is permitted to perform a surgical operation, including cosmetic surgery. This includes an urgent need to reconstruct a patient’s appearance after, e.g., an accident. The halachic authorities are also sympathetic towards psychological distress such as when an unsightly person has difficulties in finding a marriage partner.

If however, the surgery is out of pure vanity, such as when someone wants to look younger, it may be another matter.

If you ask whether surgery of any kind “contradicts the Divine decree”, the Torah replies that the physician has God’s explicit permission to heal (Ex. 21:1). Cosmetic surgery is addressed in Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s responsa, “Ig’rot Moshe” (Choshen Mishpat vol. 2 no. 66, 1964).


A minor festival with a mixture of sadness and joy.

Lag Ba’Omer is a turning point in the 49-day counting of the Omer. It is the 33rd (“lamed” = 30, and “gimmel” = 3) day of the Omer period and marks a break in the difficult campaign of Rabbi Akiva’s followers against the Roman overlords.

It is said that what wrought havoc amongst the Akiva army was the disunity amongst its members who, according to the Talmud, were uncivil towards each other and were punished by a throat illness that threatened their numbers.

Because the epidemic let up halfway through the campaign, the 33rd day of the Omer, working out at 18th Iyyar, was celebrated as a day of relief.

The tragedy of the time was marked in Jewish life by the avoidance of weddings and days of entertainment, but on Lag Ba’Omer the restrictions were lifted. Not just because of the Akiva connection but because the whole period was punctuated in history by a whole series of tragedies, part of the long, sad record of Jewish tears and tribulations. Examples range from the attack of Amalek in the wilderness to the Chmielnicki massacres in Eastern Europe.

Two rabbis are especially involved with the Lag Ba’Omer story, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Rabbi Akiva backed the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans but, being Akiva, he was dedicated not only to nationalistic but intellectual concerns.

The loss of thousands of his students meant either that his educational work would disintegrate or that he had to start over again. He chose the second option and exemplified the Talmudic teaching that a teacher had to raise up disciples both when he was young and even when his youth was gone.

One of his new generation of disciples was Yehudah ben Bava who was ordained on Lag Ba’Omer. Yehudah, unfortunately, became one of the ten rabbinic martyrs, described as great as the cedars of Lebanon, who were martyred by the Romans.

Shimon bar Yochai was a student of Akiva. The kabbalists marked his Yahrzeit (“hillula”) on Lag Ba’Omer. He is regarded as the author of the mystical Zohar.

The Yahrzeit is the occasion for a celebration at Mount Meron: the celebration marks the annual elevation of a departed soul to a higher rung in Gan Eden.

It is said that no rainbow appeared whilst Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was alive. His righteousness was a guarantee that peace would come.

He is a symbol of the proud Jewish spirit which motivated the struggle against the Romans.

It took many centuries but eventually, the reborn State of Israel revived the Shimon and Akiva spirit.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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