This week’s parasha is Behaalotcha, which starts with God’s command to light the Temple menorah, followed by a description of the Levite initiation ritual. This ritual required the Levites to have their entire bodies shaved with a razor (Numbers 8:7). Yet, it is well-known that Jewish law forbids shaving the face with a razor. Where did this law come from?
The Torah source is found in Leviticus 19:27, where God commands that “you shall not round the corners of your head, nor shall you destroy the corners of your beard.” The wording here is ambiguous and perplexing. What does it mean to not “round” the head’s “corners”, or not to destroy the beard’s “corners”? The verse does not say anything about shaving with a razor either. Moreover, the context of this verse is amidst a set of things not to do while mourning the dead. This is precisely how the Mishnah (in the tractate Makkot) understands it:
If a man makes a baldness on his head, or rounds the corner of his head, or destroys the corner of his beard, or makes a cutting in his flesh for the dead, he is liable [to flogging], whether he makes one cutting for five dead, or five cuttings for one, he is liable for each.
Shaving is included among a set of things not to do when mourning the dead, such as making a bald spot on the head, which comes from a related verse in Leviticus 21:5: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corners of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh.” Here again we see a prohibition against shaving the beard’s corners. This one, however, is in a set of laws directed only at kohanim. The Talmud (Makkot 20a) explains how even though this verse applies only to priests, other Torah verses expand the prohibition to all of Israel. Nonetheless, all of this only applies when mourning the dead.
Historians have indeed found that shaving was a common mourning ritual in the ancient Near East. Tearing out hair in grief (thus making a “bald spot” for the dead), or shaving hair as an offering to the dead were frequent sights. The Torah prohibits this type of extreme mourning.
The Mishnah cited above continues by saying that one is only liable for punishment if they used a razor to shave their hair. However, another opinion is that any hair removal – even if plucking out each hair one by one – is forbidden. The first opinion is the one that is followed, and thus, shaving hair with a razor in connection to a mourning ritual is forbidden.
If that’s the case, why is shaving with a razor for hygienic or aesthetic purposes forbidden?
The Rambam takes an alternate approach in explaining the prohibition of shaving. He writes (in Moreh Nevuchim, Part III, Ch. 37) that shaving was the practice of idolatrous priests, who were clean-shaven in those days. Therefore, maintaining a beard was a way to distinguish Jews from idolaters. This idea appears to be supported by verses in the Book of Jeremiah. For example, Jeremiah 9:24-25 states:
Behold, days are coming, says Hashem, that I will punish all of them that are uncircumcised: Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all ketzutzei pe’ah, that dwell in the wilderness; for all the nations are uncircumcised, but all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart.
Jeremiah prophesies that a day will come when God will punish all the uncircumcised idolaters (as well as Jews who may be circumcised physically, but are not circumcised “spiritually”). A list of nations follows, and then appears the term ketzutzei pe’ah. This phrase (which also appears in Jeremiah 25:23 and 49:32) can be translated as “trimming the corner”. Thus, some took it to mean that God will punish all those nations that trim the corners of their beards.
However, reading the verse in context shows that it is unlikely to be speaking about trimming beards. Ketzutzei pe’ah is more likely referring to those who live in the distant corners of the world. God is saying he will punish Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab, the nations of the wilderness, and all the uncircumcised in the farthest corners of the Earth, wherever they might be. This is made even clearer in the second passage (Jeremiah 25:23) where the term appears:
… and all the kings of the land of Uz, and all the kings of the land of the Philistines, and Ashkelon, and Gaza, and Ekron, and the remnant of Ashdod; Edom, and Moab, and the children of Ammon; and all the kings of Tyre, and all the kings of Zidon, and the kings of the isle which is beyond the sea; Dedan, and Tema, and Buz, and all ketzutzei pe’ah; and all the kings of Arabia, and all the kings of the mingled people that dwell in the wilderness; and all the kings of Zimri, and all the kings of Elam, and all the kings of the Medes; and all the kings of the north, far and near, one with another; and all the kingdoms of the world, which are upon the face of the earth…
Looking at the historical record, we see that while certain nations’ priests were clean-shaven, most were not. Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian priests had nice long beards. These were the Israelites’ primary neighbours and adversaries for most of ancient history, and none were clean-shaven. Therefore, the argument of not shaving because of idolatry is of little substance. Besides, the Torah’s prohibition applies only to cases of mourning, and this is a major reason why halakha forbids a Jew from shaving for thirty days following the death of a family member.
To be fair, Kabbalistic texts do explain why shaving is forbidden from a mystical perspective. The Tanakh itself, though, is mute on this point. In fact, when speaking of a razor specifically, the Torah seems to be quite positive about it. In this week’s parasha, shaving with a razor is part of a cleansing purification, as it is for someone who was afflicted with tzaraat, or someone who had been a nazir (Numbers 6:9). Most tellingly, Isaiah prophesies that a day will come when God Himself will purify us all by shaving us with a razor:
In that day, Hashem will shave with a razor… the head and the hair of the feet; and it shall also sweep away the beard. And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall rear a young cow, and two sheep; and from the abundance of milk that they shall give, he shall eat butter; for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the midst of the land…
This verse explicitly mentions shaving the beard with a razor as part of mankind’s final purification. The verse is found in a long passage (Isaiah 7-9) that weaves in prophesies about the coming of Mashiach and the return to an idyllic world, where “… endless peace will be upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it through justice and through righteousness, from henceforth and forever…”
May we merit to see it soon.