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Beard and Shaving

The characteristic manner in which the beard and hair were shaved, cut, curled, or groomed identified specific peoples in the ancient world. Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian monuments depict the unique way various peoples treated facial hair, thereby illustrating their ethnic identity. The Semites appear with thick beards or with thin and groomed beards; the Lybians are shown with pointed beards, while the Hittites, Ethiopians, and Sea Peoples are portrayed as clean-shaven. The Babylonians and Persians are represented with curly and groomed beards, and the majority of the images of Egyptian males reveal clean-shaven faces, with the exception of a number of pharaohs who appear with plaited beards extending from the chin only. Shaving was performed either by the individual himself or by a barber (Heb. galav) who also attended to bodily ailments in a quasi-medical fashion. Razors were made entirely from metal or from flint blades fixed in a stone handle. Shaving was also connected with cosmetic treatment of the face (see *Cosmetics ). According to Leviticus 19:27 and 21:5 in an apparent reference to the hair between the head and the cheeks (sidelocks) it is forbidden to destroy the "corners" of the beard. It is difficult to determine the reason for the ban, but it is possible that it was promulgated in order to differentiate Israelites from other peoples. Another possible explanation is that shaving specific areas of the face was associated with pagan cults or symbolized those who ministered to their gods and just as the Bible opposes imitation of pagan practices so it opposes this form of ritual shaving. In the Bible shaving of the head and beard is considered a sign of *mourning (e.g., Job 1:20) and degradation. Shaving was identified with the spontaneous plucking of the beard, an expression of great sorrow (Ezek. 5:1ff.). To humiliate a man, it was the practice to forcibly shave half of the beard as in II Samuel 10:4, where the elders, because of this humiliation, were commanded to hide in Jericho until their beards grew again. Shaving is also part of rituals of purification (Lev. 14:8; Num. 6:9; 8:7). Priests were forbidden to shave the "edges" of their beards (Lev. 21:5), and "the priests, the Levites, the sons of Zadok" (Ezek. 44:15) were allowed neither to shave their heads nor let their locks grow long, but only to trim their hair (ibid. 44:20).

[Ze'ev Yeivin]

In Talmudic Times

The Talmud regards the beard as "the adornment of a man's face" (BM 84a); a man without a beard was compared to a eunuch (Yev. 80b; Shab. 152a). Young priests whose beards had not yet grown were not permitted to bless the people (TJ, Suk. 3:14, 54a). *Sennacherib was punished by God by having his beard shaved off (Sanh. 95b–96a). Rabbinic authorities permitted only those who had frequent dealings with the Roman authorities to clip their beard with forceps (kom; BK 83a). Objection to the removal of the beard was on the ground that God gave it to man to distinguish him from woman; to shave it, was therefore an offense against nature (see Abrabanel to Lev. 19:27).

In the Middle Ages

Jews living in Islamic countries cultivated long beards whereas those in Christian Europe clipped them with scissors. This was permitted by halakhah (Sh. Ar., YD 181:10). Rabbinical courts punished adulterers by cutting off their beards (C.M. Horowitz, Toratan shel Rishonim, 1 (1881), 29; 2 (1881), 18). The post of ḥazzan was only bestowed upon a man with a beard (Baḥ, OH 53). Kabbalists ascribed mystical powers to the beard (and hair). Isaac *Luria refrained from touching his, lest he should cause any hairs to fall out (Ba'er Hetev, YD 181:5). With the spread of kabbalism to Eastern Europe, trimming the beard was gradually prohibited by leading rabbinic authorities (Noda bi-Yhudah, Mahadura Tinyana, YD 80) and with the rise of Ḥasidism, the removal of the beard became tantamount to a formal break with Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, from a strictly traditional point of view, shaving was permitted as long as it was done in a certain fashion. Halakhah forbids only the shaving proper of the beard; this is defined as the act of removing the hair with an instrument with one cutting edge. Chemical means (depilatory powder), scissors, or an electric shaver with two cutting edges, are permitted. Although it is customary not to use a single-edge razor to shave any part of the beard, the strict letter of the law forbids its use only for five parts of the face. Considerable difference of opinion among the rabbis as to the exact location of these five places had led to the practice of not using a single edge at all. In Western Europe and especially among Sephardi Jews, rabbinic authorities ( S.D. *Luzzatto among others), consented both to the trimming of the beard and even of its entire removal by chemical agents. This became the accepted custom (from the second half of the 17th century). The question of cutting and shaving the beard on ḥol ha-mo'ed, prohibited by the Talmud (MK 3:1), was a matter of much controversy at the turn of the 19th century. R. Isaac Samuel *Reggio tried to prove that this talmudic injunction no longer applied because of changed circumstances (Ma'amar ha-Tiglaḥat, 1835) but the traditional opinion of the Shulḥan Arukh (OḤ 531) prevails among strictly observant Jews, who also refrain from cutting their beard (and from shaving) during the *Omer period (Sefirah) and the *Three Weeks (see also *Mourning Customs). To trim the beard (and have a haircut) in honor of the Sabbath and the festivals is regarded as a pious duty. Several rulers (e.g., Nicholas I of Russia) tried to force the Jewish population to cut off their beards and ear-locks; others (e.g., Maria Theresa of Austria) ordered Jews to have beards so as to be easily singled out as a foreign element by their Christian neighbors.



G.A. Reisner, Mycerinus (1931), pl. 45d; A.J. Tobler, Excavations at Tepe Gawra, 2 (1950), pl. 176, fig. 18; University of Pennsylvania Museum, Buhen (1911), pl. 64, no. 10313; E. Lefébure, Le tombeau de Seti ler, 2 (1886), pls. 4, 5; P.E. Newberry, Beni Hassan, 1 (1893), pls. 28, 30, 31; Chicago Oriental Institute, The Epigraphic Survey; Medinet Habu, 2 (1932), pl. 125A; E.F. Schmidt, Persepolis I (1953), plates 31B, 32B. POST-BIBLICAL: Benzinger, Archeologie, 94, 134, 351; J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums (18972), 195–200; ET, 11 (1965), 118–28; W. Mueller (ed.), Urkundliche Beitraege… der maehrischen Judenschaft (1903), 68–72; I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1932).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.