There is a curious law in Leviticus that seems to refer to avoiding an ancient pagan rite.

Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. (Leviticus 19:27)

Mathew Henry says:

Those that worshipped the hosts of heaven, in honour of them, cut their hair so as that their heads might resemble the celestial globe.

My question is, "Does anyone know of any secular source, or have an internal exegesis, that would either verify this claim or cast an alternate theory?"

5 Answers 5


Following Bob Jones’ tip to search Herodotus on the previous question about 'flesh cutting' I found a very interesting article that seems to explain the circular hair cutting. It seems the "secular source" for much of these pagan rites come from Herodotus.

According to an article by Avram Yoehoshua, Herodotus said:

The Arabians acknowledge no other gods than Bacchus and Urania (i.e. the Queen of Heaven), and they say that their hair was cut in the same manner as Bacchus's is cut; now, they cut it in a circular form, shaving it around the temples."

Avram argues along many lines, as he seems to be quite disturbed over the 'kippa' as something very personal to his Jewish roots, but it is all very fascinating:

There are places in Scripture where the Lord tells us not to shave our heads in the form of a circle (because this is originally what all the priests of Baal, Bacchus, Tamuz, Apollo, Jupiter, Dagon, etc. did), to signify their allegiance to the sun god.

As the sun-god was the great lamented god, and had his hair cut in a circular form, and the priests who lamented him had their hair cut in a similar manner, so in different countries those who lamented the dead and cut off their hair in honour of them, cut it in a circular form.

There were traces of that in Greece, as appears from the Electra of Sophocles (line 52, pp. 108, 109); and Herodotus particularly refers to it as practiced among the Scythians when giving an account of a royal funeral among that people.

"The body", says he, "is enclosed in wax. They then place it on a carriage, and remove it to another district, where the persons who receive it, like the Royal Scythians, cut off a part of their ear, shave their heads in a circular form," &c. - (Hist., lib. iv. cap. 71, p. 279.)"

Interestingly, Avram also says the 'round form', as can be seen from original Babylonian statues of their gods, is where our modern day 'halo', Jewish 'kipa' as well as some historical 'shaven crown or patch worn by monks and other clerics' can be traced.

  • "Interestingly, Avram also says the 'round form', as can be seen from original Babylonian statues of their gods, is where our modern day 'halo', Jewish 'kipa' as well as some historical 'shaven crown or patch worn by monks and other clerics' can be traced." Of course. Very interesting; thanks for sharing that tidbit!
    – user862
    Apr 22, 2014 at 7:39
  • This is just a fascinating study! Thanks and +1.
    – bach
    Apr 10, 2018 at 18:14

As an alternate, perhaps simultaneous theory, in SP the corners of the beard are the same imagery as the corners of the field of harvest and represents the gentiles.

Though in practice it is doubtful anyone trimmed the center of the beard leaving the corners as in the harvest, the language concerns itself only with the corners, making the riddle parallel.


Behold, the times are coming, says the Lord, when I will punish those who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised... and all who dwell in the desert that cut the corners of their hair (Jeremiah ch9 vv25-26)

This looks like a mark of identity for desert tribes of a different religion.


It is uncertain who exactly had that haircut but some pagans surrounding Israel did. Some say they're Arabs (bedoins). Some Babylonians and Wikings are decpited to have that corner cut hairstyle. It is opposite of the Tonsure-center shave or center cut. Perhaps these people didn't have a specific name, hence they're identified by their haircut.

NETJeremiah 9:26: “That is, I will punish the Egyptians, the Judeans, the Edomites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, and all the desert people who cut their hair short at the temples. I will do so because none of the people of those nations are really circumcised in the LORD’s sight. Moreover, none of the people of Israel are circumcised when it comes to their hearts.””

Note:26 [64] tn Heb “all those who are cut off on the side of the head who live in the desert.” KJV and some other English versions (e.g., NIV “who live in the desert in distant places”; NLT “who live in distant places”) have followed the interpretation that this is a biform of an expression meaning “end or remote parts of the [far] corners [of the earth].” This interpretation is generally abandoned by the more recent commentaries and lexicons (see, e.g. BDB 802 s.v. פֵּאָה 1 and HALOT 858 s.v. פֵּאָה 1.β). It occurs also in 25:33; 49:32.

Head of a male
ca. 2000–1600 BCE

Head of a male Babylonian

ca. 2000–1600 BCE


Other Customs and Concepts

A number of topics relating to Jewish traditions, customs, and beliefs are difficult to categorize. Therefore, there are presented here in alphabetical order.

Beards (זָקָן)

The Torah expressly prohibits shaving the “side-growth of your beard” (Lev. 19:27, 21:5), which was interpreted to mean the hair between the head and the cheeks. The long and curly hair at the side of the head, known as payot (in Hebrew) and payes (in Yiddish), has become a sign of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. The reason for the ban on shaving this area of the beard was presumably to distinguish the Israelites from the priests of pagan cults, who ritually shaved certain areas of their faces to designate their sacred status. Another interpretation is that leaving the corner of the head uncut serves as a visual reminder of the commandment to also leave unharvested the corner of the field (pe’ah) and designate it for the poor, thus emphasizing the ethical requirement to provide for the needy (Lev. 19:9).

In biblical times, the beard was regarded as a symbol of male attractiveness and virility and a natural feature distinguishing men from women. Thus a shaved face was a sign of humiliation. When Hanun, the king of Ammon, accused the envoys of King David of being spies plotting to overthrow his government, he “clipped off one side of their beards and cut away half of their garments at the buttocks, and sent them off” (2 Sam. 10:4). Understanding their deep humiliation, David ordered the men to hide in Jericho until their beards had grown again. Similarly, shaving the head and beard was an indication of intense grief and bereavement. In Jeremiah’s (48:37) prophecy about the demise of Moab, he declared: “every head [will be] bald, and every beard [will be] shorn.” Ezra (9:3) stated that when hearing about the assimilation and idolatry committed by the Israelites, “I rent my garment and robe, I tore hair out of my head and beard, and I sat desolate.”

Tearing one’s clothing is still a sign of mourning, but ironically, since many Jewish men are now clean shaven, growing a beard—as opposed to shaving—has become a sign of mourning. Shaving the head and body was mandated for those who had been stricken with the skin disease tzara’at (Lev. 14:8) as well as for the Nazirite contaminated through contact with the dead (Num. 6:9). Pulling a man by his beard may have been a show of affection (2 Sam. 20:9).

The Mishnah codified the biblical law not to “mar” the corners of the beard (Mak. 3:5), and the Talmud termed the beard “the glory of the face” (Shab. 152a), a sign of maturity and piety. Young priests in the Temple had to wait until their beards were “fully grown” to “act as the representative of the community and to descend before the ark [lead the congregation in prayer] and to pronounce the priestly benediction” (Hul. 24b). In general, though, clipping the beard was tolerated and only shaving with a razor prohibited. One person was permitted “to cut his hair in the gentile fashion as he was in close contact [had frequent dealings] with the government” (BK 83a).

During the early Middle Ages, Jews living in Islamic countries wore long beards; those living in Christian-dominated portions of Europe clipped them with scissors. As one of the main factors distinguishing men from women, shaving was effectively a violation of the commandment prohibiting men and women from adopting the clothing and other practices associated with the other sex (Deut. 22:5). Maimonides suggested that the reason for the biblical prohibition on shaving was that idolatrous priests were clean shaven. Still, the Shulchan Arukh ruled that as long as a razor is not used, it is acceptable to remove all facial hair (YD 181:10).

For the kabbalists, hair (including facial hair) possessed great mystical significance. In the radical imagery of the Kabbalah, a man’s beard represents the beard of the Holy Ancient One, the point of Creation when divinity flows to the created world. The beard is also mystically associated with God’s mercy. Thus the kabbalists prohibited even the shortening of one’s beard. The Hasidim of Eastern Europe adopted this practice. However, Italian Jews (including kabbalists) always shaved, and this created a controversy when Italian Jews moved to Salonica, where the Jews wore beards and demanded that their Italian coreligionists follow the local custom and do the same. Some European rulers (such as Nicholas I of Russia) demanded that Jews shave off their beards and sidelocks, whereas others (for example, Maria Theresa of Austria) required that Jews keep their beards to be easily differentiated from Christians.

Today, some strictly observant Jews do not shave their beards, as a sign of their devotion to tradition. Many more Jews do not cut their beards (or shave) during the Sefirah period of counting the Omer (see p. 292) and for the three weeks preceding Tisha b’Av (see p. 304), in accordance with the mournful tone of these periods. Despite the rabbinic pronouncements against it, shaving the beard is halakhically permitted if one uses scissors, a chemical depilatory, or an electric shaver with two cutting edges. Only instruments with a single cutting edge are forbidden.

Ronald L. Eisenberg, The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 590–592.

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