Beards in Jewish Tradition
Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard. (Leviticus 19:27)
Although the ancient Hebrews from the Biblical era up until the second Temple period sported beards, shaving was not forbidden . The Talmud discusses the prohibition of shaving with a razor, however scissors and other non razors were permitted (though they too were probably discouraged).
The Romans were apparently the first in the “modern world” who instituted the practice of shaving as a sign of nobility and aristocracy. (In this I am corrected by a colleague who pointed out that the ancient Egyptian priests considered facial hair to be uncultured and uncivilized. There were similar customs among Israelite Priests but that for a different post). As can be evidenced by the Roman busts, most Roman emperors were clean shaven. Needless to say, the Roman culture had a strong influence on the Judean way of life. (See for example the Talmud, Tractate Me'ilah 17b)
The first Rabbis or Jewish spiritual leaders who did away with the beard were apparently those of Renaissances era Italy. The Italian Rabbis (some of whom were well too enlightened for their pious fellow rabbis in Europe and Eretz Israel, some like Azarya De Rossi were nearly banned) The reasoning behind it was that they felt themselves unworthy to grow a beard in their spiritual state, especially since they dwelt outside the land of Israel . A not very illogical argument which would apply nowadays since beards are mostly worn by spiritual leaders, therefore this worthy concept should not be cheapened by unworthy people.
One of the more well known and highly respected Italian Jewish figures who apparently did not wear a beard is the very eminent Kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Azarya of Fano (alleged portrait, top). Although some later argued that this was not true (See argument mentioned by Rabbi Chaim Elazar of Munkac known as Minchat Elazar and others). Apparently neither did Luzatto (Ramchal) and that was one of the complaints leveled against him by his Rabbinic contemporaries.
(My next post will deal with the practice of growing sidelocks [Peyot] and its origins).