Wednesday, November 08, 2006

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).


At Thursday, November 09, 2006 9:21:00 AM, Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

In this post the impression that R. Azaryah di Rossi didn't wear a beard. That isn't the case. Just clarifying.

At Thursday, November 09, 2006 12:00:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

I don't know about R' Azaryah Min Haadumim (De Rossi) but I am fairly certain about Ramchal and R' Menachem Azaryah of Fano.

At Thursday, November 09, 2006 12:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhhh, Blogger. Thank you :)

At Thursday, November 09, 2006 1:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. Keep it up.

At Monday, November 13, 2006 6:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like this will be an interesting place to visit.

Are there any other meforshim that discuss the appearance of the mitzrayim? Rashi declares them black and ugly. Is there any further discussion on this?

Seems that the hieroglyphics show them to be brownish or lighter, because they blacks they display appear to be from Afrikan areas.

At Monday, November 13, 2006 11:40:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

This particular wall paitnting is almost certainly a Hebrew. Notice the fringes on the garment (Tzitzit?).

I think the Egyptians themselves were a darker Hamitic race intermixed with some Semitic and others but they certainly-for the most part- were not negroid.

At Saturday, November 18, 2006 6:55:00 PM, Blogger Menachem Butler said...

Have you seen ?

At Saturday, November 18, 2006 8:33:00 PM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Thanks for the link Menachem. I am reading it now.

At Sunday, January 28, 2007 8:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have a look at the sefer divrei yosef {דברי יוסף-אירגאס} available from were he clearly disputes the apparent report of trma mifanu having shaved.
the sefer was printed in 1742, hardly a modern source.

At Monday, February 12, 2007 4:46:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Thanks, I will take a look at it when I have the chance.

At Monday, August 13, 2007 1:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it fascinating that in various cultures whering a beard is either viewed as a sign of vanity or purity.

For instance Bhudist monks shave their beards and heads as opposed to the clergy of the Eastern Orthodox Church who do not touch their hair.
I'm curious of your awareness of the Egyptian fascination with beards. For instance the Pharoahs even those who were female wore false beards.

At Thursday, June 10, 2010 3:10:00 AM, Anonymous Alex Schindler said...

In the famous "ma'amar ha-tiglaHat" by R. Yishaq shemuel reggio, one of his arguments in favor of shaving on Hol ha-mo`ed is that having scruff is "menuval" in a world where normal people are clean-shaven. His portrait, I believe, will also show no beard. I think Italians by his time were clean-shaven in general. He also makes some argument whose details i don't remember along the lines of "beards are only fashionable elsewhere because of king xyz who had one". not with any basis, and i don't remember the king in question.

the jewish encyclopedia on Beards actually devotes some space to discussing how the Italians were lenient about this:

"This called forth the replies, "Tiglaḥat ha-Ma'amar" (Leghorn, 1839) by Abraham Ḥay Reggio and "Tisporet Lulyanit," by Jacob Ezekiel Levi (Berlin, 1839). In Italy the influence of the non-Jewish population was so strong that even so zealous a representative of rabbinical Judaism as Samuel David Luzzatto remarked in a private letter that he no longer concerned himself with the prohibition of shaving, because he thought the Bible intended it to apply only to priests. In Poland and in the Slavonic countries, attempts were made, toward the end of the eighteenth century, to evade the Biblical prohibition of shaving, much to the vexation of the leading Talmudists (Ezekiel Landau, "Nodi' bi-Yehuda," ii.; Yoreh De'ah, 80)."

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