“Beards and Payos”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the second of this week’s double parashiot, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, instructions are given regarding “kosher barbering etiquette”: the prohibition for a Jewish man to cut the corners of his hair near the ears or to shave his beard.

Leviticus 19:27 reads: “Lo ta’kee’foo p’aht rosh’chem, v’lo tash’cheet ayt p’aht z’kah’neh’chah.” You shall not round off the corners of your heads, and you shall not destroy the corners of your beard. The Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) enumerates these laws as two separate prohibitions. The result of these two Torah injunctions has been a long history of stereotypical Jewish men, with long beards and dangling sidelocks at or around the ears.

The first part of the aforementioned verse forbids a Jewish man (women are exempt from both these laws since they do not typically grow beards) from cutting the hair below his temples at the middle of the ear, or having anyone else do this for him. The hair that is left uncut is often called “peyot” (peyes) derived from the Hebrew word “peyah” (corner), that is found in the verse. Many observant men simply do not cut the hair at the cheekbone, leaving relatively inconspicuous, but slightly longer than normal, sideburns. Many Chassidim and other very Orthodox men do not cut their peyot at all, curling them behind their ears or letting them hang as long dangling curls.

Many observant men customarily allow their beards to grow. In a play of words on the verse in Leviticus 19:32: “V’hah’dar’tah p’nay zah’kayn,” and you shall honor the presence of a sage, the word “zah’kayn” is at times read as “za’kan,” a beard, implying that the beard is to be honored. It is therefore not surprising that the Talmud, in Shabbat 152a, declares that the beauty of the face is the beard.

The rabbis deduce from scripture’s wording that there is a legal difference between the treatment of peyot, the sideburns, and the beard. With respect to the peyot, the verse in Leviticus 19:27 states: “Lo tah’kee’foo,” you shall not “round off” the hair below your temples. With respect to the beard, the Torah declares, “Lo tash’cheet,” you shall not “destroy” the corner of your beard. The rabbis therefore rule that it is forbidden to cut the sideburns in any manner. However, with respect to the beard only the use of a razor that destroys the base of the hair is specifically prohibited. The use of scissors or a depilatory on the beard are permitted by most authorities.

According to the rabbis, a man’s beard has five “corners”: at the two upper cheekbones, the two jawbones, and on the chin. Thus, a man who shaves his beard with a razor commits five separate violations.

Maimonides (the Rambam, 1135-1204, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician), R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator), and the Sefer Ha’Chinuch explain that the prohibition against shaving with a razor derives from the fact that shaving was a pagan custom practiced by idolaters. Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (1263-1340, Spanish Biblical commentator) and the Abarbanel (1437-1508, Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator) suggest that men were forbidden to shave their beards because facial hair is a natural feature that distinguishes men from women. Shaving one’s beard therefore violates the Torah’s prohibition of dressing like a woman (Deuteronomy 22:5).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) argues that the reason that a man may not cut his hair below the temples is because that area marks the division between the front of the head and the back of the head. Removing the hair at the temples, does away with this division, and allows the forehead and the back of the head to seemingly run in one line. Removing the distinguishing mark between the cerebrum and the cerebellum, blurs the distinction between the higher dignity of the human being, possessor of profound intellectual, moral and spiritual endowments, and animals who lack these exalted endowments.

Back in the late 1990s, a young man from Italy came to the Beginners Service at Lincoln Square Synagogue and expressed interest in converting to Judaism. He noted that his parents, who felt that they were of Jewish origin, had already converted to Judaism in Italy. The young man attended the service for several months, and then suddenly vanished. When I called him, he embarrassedly informed me that he had fallen in love with a non-Jewish woman whom he had married. Although I invited him to keep in touch, I did not hear from him again for several years, until September 2001 when he appeared at the Rosh Hashanah Beginners Services that were conducted at the NY Historical Society.

When I had a chance, I discreetly asked him where he had been. He said that his marriage had not worked out, and that he was now absolutely determined to convert to Judaism. He told me that in preparation for conversion he had decided several weeks earlier to take upon himself a special mitzvah that he would observe in order to show that he was serious about his commitment. He decided to stop using a razor and to shave with an electric shaver. He explained that the first time he used the electric shaver it took him a half hour longer to prepare himself in the morning. That day he arrived at work one half hour late–at the World Trade Center, a delay that probably saved his life. He is now happily married, living a fully observant Jewish life with his family.

Of course, we have no way of knowing what the reward for the performance of mitzvot will be. But, we must certainly regard each mitzvah seriously and consider carefully the ramifications and implications of all the Torah’s instructions.

May you be blessed.