Shayne punim (alternatively pronounced SHAYN-eh PAW-nim or SHINE-eh POO-nim) is Yiddish for “pretty face.” Shayn (or schön in German) is Yiddish for “pretty,” and punim is Hebrew and Yiddish for “face.”

Bear in mind that shayne punim can describe a cherubic countenance as well as the little person who bears it. So you can call your niece a shayne punim, and also tell her that you miss her dearly and cannot wait to kiss her shayne punim on your next visit.

The more interesting element of this phrase is punim, face. The root of the word, P-N-M, actually means “inside,” which seems odd when one considers that a person’s face is external, not internal. To further complicate things, it is actually plural form, even though each of us has just one face.1 In other words, the Hebrew word for “face” actually means “insides.” Could it be because the face holds multiple portals into a person’s inner world? Perhaps this is the meaning of Solomon’s observation, “Man's wisdom makes his face shine, and the boldness of his face is changed.”2

Indeed the Chassidic masters point out that the face is home to an array of distinct pleasures. What pleases the eyes is different from what pleases the mouth. And the ears delight in something else entirely. Conversely, the back of the head (which is uniformly covered in hair) symbolizes a deeper, hidden plane, where all desires are one and inseparable.3

The True Shayne Punim

The sage Shammai instructed, “Receive every person with an expression of niceness on your face.”4 Translated into Yiddish, the last words of this adage would be, you guessed it, shayne punim. But there is a twist. The niceness of face here does not refer to physical beauty, but the charm that comes from a generous and truly inviting host. In the words of Rabbi Obadia Bertinoro:“When you invite wayfarers into your home, do not give to them with your face drooping to the ground. Because one who gives with a downcast face, even if he gives all the gifts in the world, it is as if he has given nothing at all.”5

The Month of the Shayne Punim

The Chassidic masters tell us that Elul, the final month before the High Holidays, is an especially propitious time to approach G‑d. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains with a parable:

Before a king enters a city, all the townspeople go out to greet him in the fields, and anyone who wishes is permitted to approach. For his part, the king greets them with an open and pleasant countenance. When he enters the city, they all follow him. Later, when he returns to his royal chambers, only the elite and people of privilege may enter, and even then, only with permission.

That’s right, using the same terminology Shammai used to describe the shayne punim of a gracious host, Rabbi Shneur Zalman tells us that G‑d greets us warmly and happily, delighted that we are seeking Him out. But this Divine smile is more than just cosmetic. When G‑d smiles at you, know that you can approach Him with your deepest and most private requests in complete confidence that He will grant you a sweet new year.