Sahra holding newborn Doni
Smiles are a bridge between two hearts. When you smile at another, you recognize his humanity, you signal that she matters, you lift moods, you actually brighten the world. Our face, and our expression, is an important part of others’ environments. We spend most of our time looking out of our face, while those we encounter are looking at it. Accordingly, Jewish law teaches us that a pleasant face is our social responsibility.
In Pirkei Avos (1:15) Shammai says: Receive [greet] every person with a “sever panim yafos”.
Sever Panim Yafos is often translated as “a pleasant countenance”. Receive [greet] every person with a pleasant countenance. Practically that means with a smile. Smile at people when you greet them.
R’ Avrohom Grodzinski (1883-1944) embodied this teaching. He spent hours practicing his smile in front of a mirror and worked for two years on greeting others pleasantly, even during the darkest days of the Holocaust.
But smiles are not just good for others; they are good for you too. Smiles reduce stress and enhance the immune response. They make you look younger and more attractive. Smiling releases endorphins and serotonin, elevates the mood and keeps you happier.
And, smiles are contagious, they light up the world. Like a candle, a smile can light many lights without itself being diminished. If you smile at 5 people, and they pass the smile on to 5 people and they pass it on to 5 more… then by the 15th passing on, you have smiled at the whole world J.
So, greeting every person with a smile is healthy advice. But the mishna is not advice, it is law. In the Vilna Gaon’s commentary, he connects each law in the mishna to its source in the Torah. The law of greeting with a smile is rooted in the blessing that Yaakov Avinu gives his son, Yehudah. “His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk” (Gen. 49:12).
The Talmud (Ketubos 111b) reads the verse this way, “The Jewish people said to the Almighty, ‘the smile of Your eyes [to me] is more savory than wine, and the white of Your teeth [when you smile] is more delicious than milk.’” R' Yochanan therefore teaches that smiling at another is greater than giving him a glass of milk.
So, smiling is nourishing. Then why not just command us to give a glass of milk to every one we greet? Of course, receiving a smile is a different kind of nourishment. We can see this from looking at the words more closely.
Receive (kabel) every person with a sever panim yafot.
“Kabel” v. Receive. Accept. Take in. When you see a person, take them in, accept them for who they are. Each of us is a mixture of good and bad, easy and hard. Every person deserves to be accepted with pleasantness.
What if you don’t know them, or like them? What if you dislike them? Do what Yaakov did when he blessed his children: look deep inside each one. Uncover that which is unique and special. Use your
“Sever”, your sevarh, your thoughts and intellect, to find what’s good inside. Look for the
“P’nim Yafos”, their inner goodness. Everyone has some. Shammai is telling us to find it, connect to it, and respond to it, with an affirming, accepting, tooth sparkling smile. Your white teeth are more delicious than milk!
As a zechus/merit for the neshama of Daniel Moshe a”h ben Ephraim Adam HaLevi, please consider smiling more often. And as you do, see if you can look past the outside, past the parts of a person that are hard for you like. Take an extra moment and seek out the p’nim yafos, their inner goodness, and build a bridge from your heart to theirs.
with thanks for ideas from R’ Tzvi Mordechai Feldheim and R’ Jonathon Ghermezien