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Leviticus 19:27 states (in the NIV): “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ article on the subject at My Jewish Learning provides much-needed context for understanding how this verse has been interpreted by Jewish scholars and legalists over the centuries.
According to Jacobs, Talmudic rabbis saw the verse as a prohibition specifically against removing facial hair with a razor. In their view, being clean-shaven was not verboten in and of itself. Jacobs adds that the great scholar Maimonides saw the Bible verse “as a protest against idolatry, conjecturing that the heathen priests shaved their beards.” Others, as Jacobs notes, have viewed the biblical razor ban as a way of heightening the visual distinction between men and women.
In any case, as Jacobs observes, “it has been the practice among many Jews to wear a beard and sidelocks (pe’ot). The Talmud describes the beard as an ‘adornment of the face’ and implies that a beardless man cannot be said to be handsome.” Jewish mysticism, aka kabbalah, holds beards in even higher esteem. Jacobs writes: “In kabbalistic circles the beard becomes a sacred object and some kabbalists would not even remove a single hair from their beard.”
As you have likely already surmised, most non-Orthodox Jews “do not consider the prohibition on shaving with a razor still to be binding.” Personally, I have found growing a beard to be an extremely itchy proposition. I have enough to worry about without scratching at my lower face every few seconds like a character in the 2006 psychological thriller “Bug.”
A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane’s Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.