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.
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.