That tonsuring, the rite clipping the hair or shaving the head, was a common rite of mourning in biblical times is evident from the prophets' descriptions of grief and disaster:

Like gashing the flesh until the blood runs, tearing out or shaving the hair of one's head were rites of mourning among Israel's neighbors in ancient Canaan. Despite its prevalence in the region, the Israelite religious establishment sought to prevent its practice among its own people. "You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God…."[1]

These practices were probably understood differently in different cultures. Some scholars think that they were believed to have an effect on the ghost of the dead person, either as offerings of blood and hair to strengthen the ghost in the nether world or to assuage the ghost's jealousy of the living by showing it how grief-stricken they are. These rites could also be acts of self-punishment expressing feelings of guilt, which are often experienced by survivors after a death. Beating the breast is a mild and permitted way of expressing such feelings, while gashing and pulling out hair is extreme and, therefore, forbidden.

Similar laws against excessive manifestations of grief are found elsewhere. In Athens, Solon (sixth century BCE) forbade "mourners tearing themselves to raise pity," and the Twelve Tables of Roman law (fifth century BCE) forbade mourning women to lacerate their cheeks.

The words in Deuteronomy, "For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God…."[2] shed additional light on the prohibition against self-gashing and shaving one's head: these rites are not compatible with Israel's status as a people consecrated ("holy") to God. This reason corresponds to that given in Leviticus[3] for prohibiting the priests from practicing these rites:

"[The priests] shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or make gashes in their flesh. They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they offer the Lord's offerings, and so must be holy ." (Leviticus 21:5)

According to verses 16-23 in the same chapter, priests who have bodily defects may not offer the Lord's offerings, lest they profane the sacred places.[4] This suggests that self-inflicted bald spots and gashes would profane those who are holy because they are comparable to bodily defects. This injunction in Deuteronomy forbidding the entire people in Israel to engage in these mourning rites recalls the injunction in Leviticus: "You shall not round off the side-growth [pe'at rosh'hem] on your head, or destroy the side-growth [pe-at zekaneha] of your beard. You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead,or incise any marks on yourselves….[5]

The entire people is consecrated to God and all must maintain a quasi-priestly level of holiness.

A mourner may not cut his hair (Moed Katan 14b)

In time, the custom of shaving one's head as a sign of mourning took a turn; it became customary for mourners to let their hair grow during the thirty days of mourning. In Talmudic times all mourners were enjoined not to shave or cut their hair until the conclusion of sheloshim (the first thirty days of mourning)[6] and those who were mourning the death of a parent were urged to go without shaving or cutting their hair until rebuked by friends and acquaintances for untidiness.[7] In a passage aimed at emphasis rather than true legal liability, this injunction is expressed in the extreme: "A mourner who does not let his hair grow long and does not rend his clothes is liable to death," teaches the Talmud.[8]

Many authorities have commented that it is not necessary to adhere to this rule in places where being unshaven is considered untidy,[9] and it has become customary in many circles to resume shaving after the conclusion of the shiv'ah (seven-day mourning) period.

[1] Deut. 14:1-2 [back]
[2] Deut. 14:2 [back]
[3]  Lev. 21:5-6 [back]
[4] Lev. 21:16-23 [back]
[5] Lev. 19:27 [back]
[6] BT Moed Katan 27b [back]
[7] BT Moed Katan 14a, 22a; Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (JTS, 1979) [back]
[8] BT Moed Katan 24a; EJ 10:1484 [back]
[9] Kol Boa'l Aveilut, p. 253; Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (JTS, 1979) [back]

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