By Ariel Scheib
The Book of Leviticus forbids a man to shave the “side-growth of [his] beard” (19:27, 21:5). Later this was interpreted as the hair on one’s head and cheeks. Payot, the side curls on the side of a man’s head, has become religious custom of the Hassidic and ultra-Orthodox. In biblical times, shaving used to be considered a pagan practice and, consequently, was prohibited. The beard is a means by which men and women are distinguished. It states in Deuteronomy, that men and women are forbidden to assume the clothing and customs of the other gender (22:5). Ultimately, the rabbinic scholars of the past interpreted this to include a man shaving his face. In the Bible, a man was considered appealing and pious by his beard. The Talmud extended this understanding to label the beard a symbol of a man’s maturity.
A man was allowed to trim his beard with scissors, but shaving with a razor was outlawed. Halakhically, a man may shave his beard with scissors, chemical depilatories, or electric razors with two cutting edges. Men would only shave their beards as a mark of intense anguish. Conversely, because so many men today do shave their faces, growing a beard may also represent a sign of mourning. A man was also required to shave his body if inflicted with a disease, to help rid his body of the illness.
Kabbalists interpreted a man’s beard to possess mystical powers. In Kabbalah, a man’s beard not only represents Creation of the world being divinely inspired by the Holy One, but it also symbolizes God’s mercy. While Hasidim of Eastern Europe accepted this tradition, Italian Jews continued to shave their faces. In Eastern Europe, the rabbis modified the law from an obligation to grow a beard to prohibiting shaving one’s face. In 1408, however, the Spanish code forbade Jews to grow beards. Today, mainly traditional Jews do not shave their beards. Yet many Jews, who do shave throughout the year, choose to not shave the three weeks prior to Tisha b’Av in a sign of mourning and during the weeks of Sefirah (counting of the Omer).
Sources: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004; Wigoder, Geoffrey , Ed. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Facts on File, 1992.