Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian monuments depict the unique way various peoples treated facial hair. The Semites appear with either thick beards or thin, groomed ones; the Libyans have pointed beards; while the Babylonians and Persians are represented with curly and groomed beards. Sea Peoples, Hittites, Ethiopians, and most Egyptians are portrayed as clean-shaven.

In ancient Israel a long and well-groomed beard was considered a mark of distinction: "It is like the precious oil upon the head running down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron that went down to the skirts of his garments."[1]

The Hebrews avoided shaving the beard and the hair of the head. The nazir, a type of priest, was forbidden to shave the hair of his head and the edges of his beard. [2] Shaving is also a part of ritual purification.[3] A shaved head and beard was a sign of disgrace,[4] and one case of humiliation by shaving half a beard is recorded.[5] Shaving was identified with the spontaneous plucking of the beard, an expression of great sorrow.[6] The prohibition against cutting the hair and shaving was later established as a fundamental mourning practice.

You shall not round the side-growth of your head
nor destroy the side-growth of your beard. …." (Lev. 19:27)

The Torah forbids cutting the "corners" (sidelocks) of the hair: "You shall not round the side-growth of your head [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…."[7] Interestingly, the Hebrew word for "side growth" is pe'ah, the same word used earlier in verse 9 to designate the corner or edge of a field: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field {pe'at sad'ha]. According to the Talmud pe'at rosh'hem refers to the hair on the temple, from the back of the ears to the forehead;[8] depilatory powder, scissors, or an electric shaver, permitted for shaving the face, may not be used on this area.

While the Torah's intention seems to be to differentiate Israelites from other peoples, or to avoid imitating a particular pagan custom, evidence from the Middle Ages indicates that Jews generally followed the customs of the countries in which they lived. It appears that trimming the beard was customary in Christian countries, especially Italy, while Jews residing in Moslem lands allowed their beards to grow naturally as was the custom there. Parchon, the 12th century Italian Jewish grammarian, condemned the Jews of Christian lands who let their hair grow long. In Italy, Jewish parents cut their boys' hair so that a curl remained on the top and they would not stand out among Christian boys.

Israel Abrahams writes in Jewish Life in the Middle Ages that while the Jew would not wear the Moslem's "heaven-lock," he was by no means devoted to the love-lock pendant from his ears, which became in the Middle Ages a distinctly Jewish feature. In northern Africa the Jews satisfied themselves by leaving a single hair to represent the "corner." Shaving was common in Majorca in the fifteenth century. Later in Leghorna, a takana (rabbinical injunction) was introduced to enforce the use of scissors or a depilatory in preference to a razor.

In contemporary times, ultra-Orthodox men grow their beards long, while modern-Orthodox men use an electrical shaver, relying on the a widely accepted pesak-halakha (religious ruling).

[1] Psalms, 133:2 [back]
[2] Leviticus, 21 :5 [back]
[3] Leviticus. 14:8; Numbers 6:9; 8: 8:7 [back]
[4] Babyl. Moed Katan, 14a [back]
[5] 2 Samuel 10:4 [back]
[6] Ezekiel 5:1 [back]
[7] Leviticus 19:27 [back]
[8] Makkot 20b [back]
Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 8
Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, Israel Abrahams (JPS, 1896, 1993)

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