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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
July 17, 2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

The question that provokes more dread in the soul of a man than any other is the one that comes from any significant female in his life: "How does this look on me?"

Part of the problem is that the question triggers a genetic mechanism that wipes out cognitive access to any adjective in the male brain except one: fine. And as you all know, that is the worst possible answer to the question. "Fine," which is a perfectly fine answer to "how are you" or "how would you like your coffee ground" or "would you prefer jail time or a fine" is an answer of total non-commitment, which in the circumstance in question is akin to saying "adequate, but way below the best you can do."

"Na'eh" does not mean "fine," I am happy to tell you. It means befitting, appropriate, enhancing, beautiful. "Na'eh" is just the right thing to say in a very positive sense. It implies the compliment most deserved, the thing you say that is just the right response, exactly the right description.

Translating na'eh is difficult because it has the connotation of beauty, but not in the sense of some external standard to which one aspires. This is the kind of beauty that emerges from anyone – tall or short, skinny or plump, frizzy or straight, dewy-fresh or scuzzy – who is just the right kind of tall-skinny-frizzy-scuzzy for whoever he or she is. Something that is "na'eh" fits the person just right, like that Johnny Carson three-piece cream-colored suit I had thirty-three years ago and into which I could no longer fit one arm, or the blue-and-white stripe linen shirt I got this week that takes me to the beach every time I slip it on.

When used to refer to God, na'eh calls our attention to the kind of language God most deserves, the kind of words most befitting. Not surprisingly, these are words of praise and profundity. Holy? Na'eh. Hateful? Lo na'eh. Generous? Na'eh. Capricious? Lo na'eh. Wise? Na'eh. Fine? Lo na'eh.

By the way, there is a fool-proof answer to "How does this look on me?" Men would be wise to commit it to memory, and practice it so that it sounds reflexive. It may or may not be true for the woman in your life, but I know it because it is absolutely true about the women in my life. The answer is: Everything you wear looks great on you. Na'eh.

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