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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 11.1.5:
Dress: Why do many Jewish men sport beards and/or long sideburns?


The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, has a commandment not to shave the corners of the head. [Specifically, Leviticus 19:27 says, "Do not round the corner of your head."] The Torah also forbids a male Jew from removing hair from one's sideburns and temple are (known as pei'ot ha-rosh). Actually, the sideburns merely have to be long enough that one can pull on the hair, and the beard area can be shaved with something other than a sharp blade (many people accept the use of electric shavers). But specifically within the Chassidic community, there is a custom not to shave (and frequently not even to trim) the beard, and to permit the sideburn area (all the way up to the top of the ear) to grow long as well (the long sideburns are called peyot) . Some tuck the hair up under their kipot/skullcaps, while others curl the hair. Many Orthodox say the payes (a.k.a. earlocks/sidelocks) begin right at the temple, to just behind the ear, and must grow no shorter than the top of the cheekbone. Then they are to be worn pushed forward of the ear so as to be visible. Many, following Rabbi Nachman, grow them long because he said he could "pull them by their payess out of hell" once he was in Paradise!

Another note related to the "not rounding of the corners". This is in direct relation to the passage about not harvesting the corners of the field, but leaving it alone for G-d. Finally, in not rounding "the four corners" of the face, we have a comparison with the tzitzis at the four corners of the tallit. People forget that the hair, the harvesting, and the tallit are all mitzvot.

On a practical level, shaving or trimming of the beard is not permitted on the Sabbath or Holidays, and for a few stretches during the year [such as portions of the time between Pesach and Shavuos]. A beardless man will grow days or weeks of stubble, but a bearded man who doesn't shave or trim his beard during that time will not look significantly different.

To be specific, the Law is that one must not use a straight razor (including safety-razors) on one's temples or to shave one's beard. Those Jewish men who have wanted to be clean-shaven have had various options; in the past century, either depilatory powder (ancestor to Nair), or electric shavers. Electric shavers (at least most of them; check with your local Orthodox rabbi for acceptable brands) function like a scissors: two relatively dull blades pinch off the hair, rather than one very sharp blade slicing it off.

Chasidim and some others have kabbalistic reasons for growing a beard, so they will not take advantage of modern technology. Otherwise, Jewish men having beards have it for other reasons, be they simply "to look Jewish" or style or whatever.

As for sidelocks, that is a result of a peculiar interpretation of the law against shaving one's temples. The basic law is that there must remain enough hair to bend it over with one's fingers; that can be as little as 1/2 inch or so. Some, notably Hungarian chasidim and Yemenites, do not cut the sidelocks at all, and they grow very long. Most chasidim have short sidelocks: thin, 2-3", that they tuck behind their ears, so you won't see them.

Many who grow long peyos do so for Kabbalistic reasons. One of the opinions in Kabbalah is that the peyos need to be worn long only until the beard grows in. Once the beard grows, the peyos of the side of the head should not be allowed to grow down beyond where the sides of the beard begin to appear.

Finally, some Jewish men just don't like to shave.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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