The term giluach (“shaving,” “haircutting”) and its cognates appear some twenty-three times in the Bible, thirteen of which are in the Pentateuch. The plurality of such appearances is in the passages concerning the metzora (roughly, “leper”) and the Nazirite, whose respective completion ceremonies require ritual tonsuring, in which he must shave his hair (Lev. 14:8-9, Num. 6:9, 6:18-19). In this essay we will explore various Hebrew roots related to the act of haircutting, including giluach, gizah, galav and sapar. In doing so we will examine the etymologies of these various synonyms and try to better understand how they might actually differ from one another.
Let’s begin with the term giluach, whose root is GIMMEL-LAMMED-CHET. Predicated on the interchangeability of the letters HEY, AYIN, and CHET, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 9:21) sees a common theme among words derived from the roots GIMMEL-LAMMED-HEY (gilui, “reveal”), GIMMEL-LAMMED-AYIN (gala, “open”), and GIMMEL-LAMMED-CHET (giluach, “shaving”). He understands that they all refer back to “exposing” something and bringing something new to the forefront. Thus, in Rabbi Hirsch’s understanding, the word giluach primarily refers to cutting hair as a means of exposing the surface of one’s skin that had until now been covered by hair. This idea bears a close resemblance to Rabbi Hirsch’s understanding of how the word ta’ar (“razor”) derives from the root AYIN-REISH-HEY (“laying bare, exposing”), as I discussed in a previous essay (“Razor’s Edge,” May 2018).
Rabbi David Golumb (1861-1935) in Targumna (to Lev. 14:9) writes that the root GIMMEL-LAMMED-CHET is related to the root CHET-GIMMEL-LAMMED by metathesis, and that latter root is another form of the root AYIN-GIMMEL-LAMMED (“round”), by way of the interchangeability of CHET and AYIN. Accordingly, he explains that when the Bible uses the word giluach, it implies both a connection to gilui (i.e., “revealing” skin that was previously covered in hair, per Rabbi Hirsch above), as well as a connection to igul (i.e., the “circular” motion of cutting the hair on one’s head).
As an aside, although Rabbi Golumb mentioned the root CHET-GIMMEL-LAMMED, no words from this root actually appear in the Bible. But in rabbinic literature, the rabbis say that a widowed woman who is chaglah (“goes around”), acquires for herself a bad reputation (Yerushalmi Sotah 3:4), and the Sefer HaAruch even has an entry for this root based on his version of Bereishet Rabbah 18:3. Nevertheless, the Biblical personal name Chaglah (Num. 26:33, 27:1, 36:11, Joshua 17:3) — given to one of Zelophechad’s daughters — and the place-name Bet Chaglah (Joshua 15:6, 18:19, 18:21) seem to be derived from this root. Rabbi Avraham Abulafia (1240-1291) writes that the given name Chaglah is derived from the root CHET-GIMMEL-LAMMED, which he explains as a permutation of AYIN-GIMMEL-LAMMED.
Interestingly, the word galach came to mean “(Christian) priest” in Medieval Hebrew and Yiddish, because such priests typically shaved their head hair. As far as I know, Rashi was the first to use this term in this way (see my earlier essay, “Holy Priests vs. Unholy Priests,” Dec. 2019).
Another Biblical term for “cutting hair” is gizah/gezizah (verb form: gozez), whose root is GIMMEL-ZAYIN-(ZAYIN). In his work Yeriot Shelomo, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that both giluach and gizah refer to "haircutting," but the difference between these terms lies in whose hair is cut. He explains that giluach in the Bible always refers to cutting a person's hair, while gizah typically refers to cutting an animal's hair (wool). Thus, for example, when the Bible refers to Joseph getting a haircut before meeting Pharaoh (Gen. 41:14), or shaving the metzora as part of his purification process (Lev. 14:9), or a Nazirite as part of his completion ceremony (Num. 6:18), or the prohibition against shaving one's beard (Lev. 21:5), the word used in these cases is giluach. On the other hand, when Judah went to shear his sheep (Gen. 31:19) and when the Torah commands presenting one’s animal's first shearing to a Kohen (Deut. 18:4), the word used in these instances is gizah. That said, Rabbi Pappenheim admits that gizah can also refer to a human haircut, albeit in a borrowed sense (for example, see Iyov 1:20).
In his work Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim takes a different approach in differentiating between giluach and gizah. There, he explains that giluach refers to a cut that severs the hair as close as possible to the skin from which it sprouted. This is what we would call in English “a close shave.” On the other hand, the term gizah refers to the act of cutting in a way that leaves some remnants of that which is cut in its place. This is what we would call in English, a way of shaving that leaves “stubble.” In fact, Rabbi Pappenheim sees the core meaning of the biliteral root GIMMEL-ZAYIN as “shaving/trimming something in a way that leaves some parts attached and some parts detached.” Other words derived from this root include: geiz (Psalms 72:6), the grass remaining after trimming; gozez (Gen. 38:12, 31:19), the act of shearing wool from sheep; gazam, a type of grasshopper which eats some produce and leaves over the rest; geza, a tree with a truncated top; and gazit, hewn stone (i.e. some parts of the stone are shaved down, while the rest of the stone remains intact).
Another Hebrew root related to “hair cutting” is GIMMEL-LAMMED-BET, but derivatives of this root appear only once in the Bible — thus making it a hapax legomenon. When
The Midrash (Bereishet Rabbah 41:2) relates that when Pharaoh abducted Sarah,
The Targum known as Yonatan (to Lev. 19:27, Num. 6:19) uses variations of galav when rendering cognates of the Hebrew giluach into Aramaic, and again (to Num. 8:7) uses galav as a translation of the Hebrew word ta'ar (“razor”). Elsewhere, the Targum (to Joshua 5:2, Jer. 48:37, see also Bereishet Rabbah 31:8) again uses variants of galav in this context of razors and cutting. All of this suggests that perhaps galav is an Aramaic word. However, Rashi and Mahari Kara (to Yechezkel 5:1) explain that galav actually comes from Greek. After much searching, I have not found any Greek word which fits this description, but I did find that Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) suggests changing Rashi’s wording to refer to Arabic instead of Greek. That said, Dr. Chaim Tawil notes that galav is clearly a loanword from the Akkadian gallabu ("barber").
Other scholars connect the triliteral root GIMMEL-LAMMED-BET to similar Hebrew roots. For example, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 74:6) connects this root to KUF-LAMMED-PEH (via the interchangeability of GIMMEL and KUF, and that of BET and PEH), which means “to peel” in Rabbinic Hebrew. Indeed, “haircutting” which reveals one’s previously-covered epidermis can be similar to “peeling” away the skin or covering of something. Rabbi David Golumb in Targumna (to Num. 21:29) argues that galav is a metathesized form of gvul (“border”), which may be better understood in light of the possible connection between sapar and sfar (see below).
Speaking of the word sapar, although this term does not appear in the Bible, it has become the most popular term for the topic that we are discussing, because in Modern Hebrew, sapar means “barber” and tisporet means “haircut.” But where does this word come from?
If you look closely at Targum Oneklos and Targum Yonatan, you will notice an inconsistency in how they render the Hebrew giluach into the Aramaic: Sometimes they translate giluach into sapar, and sometimes they simply leave the verb in its original Hebrew form as a cognate of giluach. Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) in Meturgaman notes this inconsistency and also points out that the Targumic term maspar for “razor” (see Targum to Num. 6:5, Judges 13:5) is also derived from this root. Interestingly, Targum Neofiti is more consistent than the other Targumim in always rendering giluach as sapar.
Cognates of sapar also appear in the Mishna, such as when codifying the law that the Kohanim who served in the Temple (anshei mishmar) or the non-Kohanim who represented the entire nation at the Temple (anshei ma’amad) were not allowed to get a haircut (l’saper) during the week they officiated, but would do so beforehand (Taanit 2:7). The Mishna also offers several prohibitions related to haircuts: it is forbidden to get a haircut during the week of Tisha B’Av (Taanit 4:7), to see a Jewish king while he is getting a haircut (Sanhedrin 2:5), and to get a haircut from a non-Jew under certain circumstances (Avodah Zarah 2:2). In all of these cases, the Mishna uses forms of the word sapar to refer to “haircutting.” The Mishna also uses the term sapar as a “barber” (Kilayim 9:3, Sheviit 8:5, Shabbat 1:2, Pesachim 4:6, Moed Katan 3:2, Keilim 13:1, 24:5), misperet as a “razor” (Keilim 13:1, 16:8), and misparayim as “a pair of scissors” (Keilim 13:1). Either way, the term sapar clearly entered the Jewish lexicon from the Mishna and the Targumim.
Dr. Chaim Tawil sees the etymological forebear of this term in the Neo-Babylonian word sirpu/sirapu ("shears," or "scissors''), which shares the same consonants as sapar, although in a metathesized order. Interestingly, though, Tawil notes that this Neo-Babylonian term was used specifically for shearing animals, while the Hebrew/Aramaic sapar was used for cutting human hair, cutting animal wool, and even cutting vegetables (see Tosefta Beitza 3:19, Beitza 34a, and Keilim 3:3). Tawil also notes that metathesis of a root’s consonants is especially prevalent when the letter REISH is involved.
Earlier we noted an inconsistency in the Targumim over whether they render the Hebrew giluach as sapar or leave it as it. Rabbi David Golumb in Targumna (to Lev. 14:9) attempts to reconcile this contradiction by explaining that when it comes to Joseph’s haircut in anticipation of meeting Pharaoh, Onkelos translates giluach as sapar because in Egypt they typically used “scissors” (misparayim) to give haircuts. But when the Torah says that a metzora must undergo giluach, Onkelos leaves the word giluach as is, because the law is that the metzora must be shaven “like a gourd” (Sotah 16a). This means that the metzora requires a very smooth and close shave — the sort of which cannot be achieved with mere scissors, but rather requires a razor. In order to accentuate that misparayim is not sufficient, Onkelos did not translate the metzora’s giluach into a cognate of sapar, as he did with Joseph’s giluach.
What is fascinating about the word sapar is how Rabbi David Golumb in Targumna (to Ex. 9:29, Lev. 14:9) connects it to other words that use the SAMECH-PEH-REISH string, whose core meaning he sees as “circle/round.” He asserts that all these words are related to the Greek word sphere (“circle”). The verb l'saper ("telling") and the noun sippur ("story") refer to the way that a story gets traction as people go "around and around” telling the tale to all their acquaintances. A city that sits near the border is called one that is on the sfar, because such cities are typically “surrounded” all around by a city wall that serves to protect them from enemy invasions. Finally, a barber is called a sapar because he cuts the hair on one's head from one ear to the other in a round or circular motion.