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Parshas Vaeira (5778)

Jews & Beards

There is a well-known Jewish teaching that during the long and bitter 210-year Egyptian exile - which we read about in this week’s Torah portion - our ancestors managed to retain their Jewish identity to some degree. They didn’t change their Hebrew names, their Hebrew language, and their distinctly Jewish mode of dress, and did not adopt the names, language and fashions of their host country.

It is a longstanding tradition, as part of the Jewish “mode of dress”, for men to grow beards. Where does it come from and why do we do it?

The obvious source and reason for this tradition is the Biblical prohibition in Leviticus 19:27 which states: “You shall not round off the edge of your scalp and you shall not destroy the edge of your beard”.

Our Sages teach that there are five “edges” of the beard, each of which is forbidden to shave in a “destructive” manner, i.e. with a razor. But as a practical matter, since the exact areas of these edges are not clearly defined, it is forbidden to shave the entire beard. And because for centuries it was generally too difficult to achieve a close shave without a razor, observant Jewish men tended to be bearded.

More recently, the advent of electric shavers has made it possible to achieve a relatively close shave without using a razor. As a result, many observant Jewish men today do shave their beards. [Please note: Not all electric shavers are “kosher” to use. Ask your local rabbi.]

However, the great Torah scholar Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Kareitz (1878-1953), better known by the name of his magnum opus, Chazon Ish, held that it was the proper tzuras ha’adam (lit. “form of man”) for a Jewish man to have a beard. And it remains customary in many ultra-Orthodox circles to retain one’s beard as a sign of piety.

Some Jewish men, especially in the Hasidic world, have a tradition to refrain from even trimming their beards. This is based on the Kabbalistic tradition that the beard is holy.

The beard is also a sign of wisdom. It is interesting to note that in Lashon Hakodesh (lit. the “Holy Tongue”, Biblical Hebrew), the word for “beard” and the word for “sage” share the same three Hebrew letters, zayin, kuf, nun (see Leviticus 19:32).

There are other reasons why Jewish men will grow beards. Some Jewish men who usually do shave nonetheless allow their facial hair to grow during periods of mourning. This is traditionally done for 30 days following the death of a close relative.

There are also two annual periods when we observe a communal mourning and when Jewish men will not shave their beards or get their hair cut. These are the “Omer” period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuos, when Jews mourn the deaths of the 24,000 students of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva; and the “Three Weeks” between the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av (Tishah B’Av) when Jews mourn the destruction of the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem.

[Please note: There are some Jewish men who need to shave during these periods of mourning due to extenuating circumstances. Ask your local rabbi.]

Of course, as important and as holy as a beard may be, one must always remember that the beard alone does not make the Jew, and that if it doesn’t reflect or help develop inner piety and wisdom, then the beard is not really doing much, as the following story beautifully illustrates:

The Satmar Rebbe, Reb Yoel Tietelbaum ZT”L, treated the famous Jewish activist and leader Mike Tress with a great deal of respect. One of the Rebbe’s chassidim (disciples) was surprised at this and asked the Rebbe how he could do this? After all, Mike was just a clean-shaven guy! The Rebbe replied: “In the World to Come, when Mike Tress gets there, they will ask him, “Jew, Jew, where is your beard? When you get there, they will ask you, “Beard, beard, where is your Jew?”

Shabbat Shalom!!

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