For the week ending 6 June 2015 / 19 Sivan 5775

What's in a Beard?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: John

Dear Rabbi,

Why do Jews, or at least religious Jews, have beards and not shave? Someone told me it was in order to “get blessing”. Is this the reason?

Dear John,

It is true that Jewish mystical sources discuss the beard in the context of blessing — either being a source of blessing or an expression of blessing. I am not aware of there being a rational explanation for this idea. On the contrary, it is in the realm of the esoteric.

But in any case, this is not the main reason religious Jews do not shave but rather grow beards. The main reason for prohibited shaving is simply that the Torah forbids it: “You shall not destroy the edge of your beard” (Lev. 19:27).

The Talmud (Maccot 20a) interprets “destruction” as shaving with a razor. This prohibition also includes shaving with any implement which completely removes all the facial hair, but does not include trimming or “shaving” with a scissors or other tool that does not provide the smooth shave provided by a razor.

This is the reason some observant Jews have short or trimmed beards, since they are not using a razor. Similarly, some observant Jews achieve a clean-shaven look by using certain rabbinically-sanctioned rotary shavers that cut not in a razor fashion but rather in a scissor action.

The most commonly accepted reason for the Torah’s prohibition of this type of shaving is that it resembles the actions of ancient idolaters and was therefore prohibited for all times. Another reason offered for the prohibition of shaving is that it constitutes an action whereby a man effects the appearance of a woman or to beautify himself, thereby transgressing the injunction against cross-dressing.

For most of history and in most locales, Jews did not shave or trim. In modern times, having a long beard came to be associated with backwardness, such that many who were swayed by the times started trimming their beards accordingly. However, the more-stringently observant maintain the traditional custom of having a long beard, and some refrain from cutting or trimming the beard at all – either to emphasize the Torah law or in consideration of Kabbalistic teachings.

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