Sermon: Naso – Hair and Identity

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 5 June 2020

Over the past 10 weeks, the word haircut has seen a 1,379% rise in google searches and clipper sales are up by over 200%. We have witnessed this new normal of physical isolation reflected in the growing beards and lengthening tresses. Hair has become a talking point of lockdown, we have begun to measure the length of time against our new styles.


A newspaper article this week wrote:

‘For those of us working from home, headshots are the new hemlines.’


We are spending more time on camera than ever before, with normally just our head and shoulders in the frame. With this comes an increased consciousness of our own behaviours, as out of the corner of our eye we see the video of ourselves staring back.  Although others may be oblivious, we are left to scrutinize our appearance, our mannerisms, and to criticise the parts of us that may have become slightly dishevelled over the past 10 weeks.


Our hair is not just an accessory, but a symbol of who we are, a vehicle of expression of our identity. Our hair is a medium for creativity, a marker of our culture and heritage, our hair story tells much about who we are and where we came from. Therefore, going to the hairdresser is not just an act of personal grooming, but a type of therapy. Our hair is the one part of our body we can change whenever we want, without causing permanent damage, so as we think about the look we want for the next 6-8 weeks we are given the opportunity to check in with ourselves and how we are feeling in that moment.


As it is unlikely that we will be back in the hairdresser before July 4th, it is no wonder we feel the pressure to take to drastic measures to try and retain the look that we are known for.  More and more people are resorting to DIY haircuts and dye jobs in an effort to appear normal to the outside world. Maintaining our outside façade is the one piece of control we feel we have. It is an act of defiance, not allowing the change in pace of life to change who you fundamentally are as a person.


The idea of hair as a marker of identity is very present in our biblical narrative. Today we read of the Nazarite who, when he takes his vow, is forbidden to cut his hair. The 15th century Italian rabbi, Sforno, comments that this is a prohibition on vanity. By abandoning all types of preening himself, including cutting his hair, he abandons a pleasure of the flesh and an indulgence that could distract him for his pious way of living.


Our hair story is very representative of our Judaism, our religious beliefs and our status in the community. According to Talmud a King cuts his hair every day, a high priest every Friday, and a common priest once every thirty days.


The orthodox males of our religion are easily identified by their distinctive hairstyles, the side growth on their heads left due to the prohibition on rounding off the corners of the beard. The women are told to cover their hair, with the most revered women not even displaying the locks of their hair to the four walls of their house. In ultra-orthodoxy, revealing a woman’s hair is as if they are revealing their nakedness.


Our hair is also a symbol of how we are feeling in life.  It can be a sign of our strength, a political emblem used to speak out, or our own person defence mechanism for us to hide behind for protection. Our hair can be used to embarrass and disgrace us when manipulated in a certain fashion. Commonly, it signifies a person in mourning, for we are commanded to let our hair grow in the presence of death.


So, what does our hair story of lockdown tell us and others about who we are now?


The Zohar teaches us that:

Each individual strand of hair is a wellspring that emanates from a concealed brain. It glows and flows from these strands to the strands of God, and the brain of God is constructed from these strands.


According to the ruling of the Zohar, our hair is the direct link between us and the divine. As our hair grows it flows closer to God, strengthening our connection. So, the Nazarite, commanded not to cut their hair, found a closeness to God that was not restricted by vanity. For the length of time of the vow they are able to focus not on their appearance but on their mind. They accept their holy calling, rising above the mundane.


Although the Nazarites we know of from our biblical narrative took the vow for extended periods of time, often for the fulfilment of a wish such as the birth of a child, taking the Nazarite vow was common in ancient Israel.

According to the first century Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, ‘it is usual with those that had been afflicted with any distress to make vows, and for thirty days before they are to offer their sacrifices, to abstain from wine.’


This time of lockdown is our own Nazarite vow. We are in distress, we are longing to be back together and back to normal. As our hair grows, and our beards lengthen, may we feel less constricted by our own vanity and the mundane parts of our life, and more able to form meaningful connections with the divine.


May our long locks give us purpose, a hope we will find a new closeness to God through this direct link.

May they act as an indicator of this period, the internal strength we have found, and the comfort seek in finding new ways to be together.

And when we are finally able to return to being ourselves, may that first haircut be especially sweet, a marker of transition out of this time, and a step to finding our way back together.