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There is a long tradition in Judaism for men to have beards. This is based originally on the Torah prohibition against shaving facial hair with a straight razor. This prohibition is directly applicable to five places on the head - the connecting point of the chin bone to the skull on both sides of the head, the point of the chin and the area of the bone near the ears of the person. However, the prohibition against shaving with a straight razor soon became applicable to any part of the face as well. Because of this prohibition, it became customary for Jewish males to wear beards and in many circles to also allow their side locks -peyot - to grow uncut. From archeological and historical evidence it seems that the non-Jewish world also had the fashion of male beards. This was certainly true until the time of the Greeks and the Romans when men, especially nobility, were then clean-shaven. One of the marks of the Hellenist assimilated Jews was to be clean-shaven, which only reinforced the practice of observant traditional Jewish males to wear beards.

The rabbis of the Talmud described a man's beard as being hadrat panim - the glory of one's face. The Talmud describes the great scholar Rabi Yochanan (third century CE of Tiberias) as being an immensely handsome man. The only flaw that they could find in his appearance was that for some reason he had no beard. After the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century CE, the Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox wing of Christianity) Church retained the fashion of their clergy wearing beards. However, the western Roman Catholic Church soon had clean-shaven and even purposely bald monks and priests. The fashion of the Catholic clergy to be clean-shaven was so universal that throughout the Middle Ages and later times as well, Jews referred to them as being galachim/giluchim - the clean-shaven ones. This was how Rashi (eleventh century France) for instance described the Catholic clergy of his time in his commentary to the Talmud. During the periods of the Renaissance and the Reformation in Western Europe, beards were again in style for nobility and the intelligentsia. However, by the time of the Enlightenment, powdered wigs replaced beards as the fashion of the noble and the wealthy. Jews during this time persisted in the wearing of beards and not using a straight razor to trim their facial hair.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the advent of Reform in Germany and France, "modern" Jews became clean-shaven. Eventually, even observant Orthodox Jews in Western Europe stopped wearing beards. In order to avoid the possibility of transgressing over the biblical commandment prohibiting the use of a straight razor on the facial hair, these Jews used a sulfuric compound that served as a depilatory to remove their facial hair. In the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, the yeshiva students of Lithuania also used this depilatory and were clean-shaven and without beards, at least until they married or assumed communal leadership roles. This was somewhat ironic since some of the famous maskilim - "modern, enlightened" Jews of Lithuania, sported great luxurious beards. Theodore Herzl, the founder of secular Zionism, is easily recognizable because of his great black beard. In the Chasidic world, however, appearing clean-shaven was unacceptable. This was partly based on kabbalistic reasons not to cut one's facial hair and also as a sign of its refusal to accept the ever-changing fashions of modernity as any sort of substitute for Jewish custom and tradition. In Eastern Europe, rabbis always wore beards.

In twentieth-century America, many Orthodox rabbis were clean-shaven. The advent of the electric shaver, which allowed one to shave facial hair with a scissors action as permitted by halacha, provided the means by which observant Jews could appear as clean-shaven as the rest of American society of the time. However, by the last third of the past century, most American Orthodox rabbis wore beards. However, their congregants were and still are in the main clean-shaven. Here in Israel, the rabbinate is pretty uniformly bearded, though there are some notable exceptions. The custom in the "Lithuanian" yeshivot remains that most of the students are not bearded, though after marriage the trend is to grow a beard. One's appearance is an important matter in Jewish life and therefore this issue of beards was always treated seriously, independent of the questions of halacha involved. Beards are seen as a mark of Jewish identity and as a physical link to Jewish tradition and its lifestyle.

Berel Wein

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