Dvar Torah – On having a beard. Briefly

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 16 June 2011

For a short period last week, I sported a beard.  The comments I received were varied.  Mostly there was concern that I might be in mourning (I wasn’t).  A couple of people pointed out the grey bits (thank you very much).  There were a few people who expressed the opinion that I ought to get rid of it (I did).  One or two even liked it (not including anyone in my family).

But one comment stuck out – that the facial hair made me look ‘more rabbinic’.  On Friday evening, in the D’var torah, I explored the association of rabbis with beards, and as I have reflected on it during the days that have followed, I have been struck by just how symbolically important facial hair has become.

The original source of Jewish beards is a Torah prohibition.  In Leviticus 19, along with some great ethical instructions, we are commanded: You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.

Because the definition of the side growths is unclear, the prohibition on shaving was extended in Jewish Law to the whole face.  There is some disagreement about what exactly this means: the language used in Torah is universally understood to prohibit the use of a razor with a blade.  However, some authorities considered it permissible to cut close with scissors, and there is evidence of the use of a pumice stone and depilatories among Jews in the Middle Ages.  In the modern world, shaving remains an area of halachic dispute with some authorities allowing the use of an electric razor, while others forbid it.

The halachic debate is only part of the picture.  It is possible, though not particularly easy, for even those who prohibit the use of electric razors to be clean shaven and to keep within Halachah.  Yet many Jews choose to have a beard as part of their religious identity.  In rabbinic literature we see the symbolic loading of facial hair:  Early halachah makes a beard a criterion for acting as a representative of the people (Chullin 24b).  The Talmud describes the great Rabbi Yochanan as being a handsome man, but complains that for some reason he had no beard (Mava Metzia 84a).  We are even told in the Talmud that ‘the glory of a face is its beard’ (Shabbat 152a).  In Kabbalah, the beard acquired almost mystical powers representative of the emanations of God – Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalist, would not even touch his beard lest a hair would be plucked from it.

What is going on here? One thing that is happening is that the beard became symbolic of difference.  In the rabbinic period those around shaved – we know for example, that Greek and Roman nobility were clean shaven – think Julius Caesar.  So beards represent being separate.  The same applied into the Western church, where shaving was expected – imagine a monk, for example.  Beards are more than just facial hair, but a symbol of being other. (A similar thing probably happened with head covering – While others took off their head covering as a sign of respect, the Jewish way became to do the opposite).

When we think of beard growing in this way, we can make sense of why the early Reformers, and lots of Progressive rabbis since, including those at Alyth, have chosen not to have beards.  When we don’t have a beard we also make a statement – that it is OK to be like the Other, it is OK to be part of a modern world in which most men are clean shaven.  We are different, of course we are, but we can be different without needing to look different.

Progressive Rabbis who choose to have beard do so simply because they look better with one – for them it would be true to say “the glory of the face is its beard”. (For me, it wasn’t).