Hebrew In Israel | Beards – Learn Torah

Hebrew In Israel | Beards – Learn Torah

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Beards have been an integral part of the world since, well, since man.  In the Tanakh we find several interesting passages that deal with beards, and I want to touch on some of them here.

Beards and Social Status

In the northern Near East, a beard was part of one’s social status.  Many kings and ministers were bearded, and we find that some groups of government officials were named after having a beard.  In several inscriptions we find that advisors were of two kinds:

  • Beardless advisors which were known as ša rēši and other variants of this form.  This name was also the source of the Saris which in time became the eunuch, though the original meaning had nothing to do with being castrated.
  • Ša Ziqni, which are bearded advisors, which is also paralleled to the status of Zaqen-זקן (elder) in Israel.  Elders were named by the fact that they were bearded which was a sign of maturity.  In many cases the elders were also older, but in many societies a person becomes a man at a much younger age.

The conclusion one can come to from this is that though an Israelite is allowed to shave, there were social groups which were expected to have beards.

Another point is that it was part of the culture of Israel to be bearded, and it fit into the more northern standard of nations in the Semitic world.

Honor and Shame

In the book of Samuel we find the following:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ שָׂרֵי בְנֵי עַמּוֹן אֶל חָנוּן אֲדֹנֵיהֶם, הַמְכַבֵּד דָּוִד אֶת אָבִיךָ בְּעֵינֶיךָ כִּי שָׁלַח לְךָ, מְנַחֲמִים; הֲלוֹא בַּעֲבוּר חֲקֹר אֶת הָעִיר, וּלְרַגְּלָהּ וּלְהָפְכָהּ, שָׁלַח דָּוִד אֶת עֲבָדָיו, אֵלֶיךָ.   וַיִּקַּח חָנוּן אֶת עַבְדֵי דָוִד, וַיְגַלַּח אֶת חֲצִי זְקָנָם, וַיִּכְרֹת אֶת מַדְוֵיהֶם בַּחֵצִי עַד שְׁתוֹתֵיהֶם וַיְשַׁלְּחֵם

But the leaders of the people of ‘Amon said to Hanun their lord, “Do you really think David is honoring your father by sending people to comfort you?  Hasn’t David actually sent his servants to you in order to look the city over, reconnoiter it and overthrow it?”  So Hanun took David’s servants, shaved off half their beards, cut off their clothes halfway up, at their buttocks, and then sent them away” (2Sam 10:3-4).

This passage is interesting due to the fact that two possible understandings can be implemented in it: the one being a punishment that is connected to mourning rituals where one shaved one’s beard, and the other is a form of shaming.  If it is mourning, then Amon wanted the Israelites to show respect, however I am not sure if representatives of a different nation were expected to mourn over the death of a king from another nation.  International law/custom would make sense, and we find in letters from the Near East that it was so, but having to participate in rituals was not.  

A possible answer could be in the argument of leaders who said “Do you really think David is honoring your father by sending people to comfort you?”  Could the word “Honor” be a key factor here?

In the code of Hamurabi we find the following: “If anyone “point the finger” (slander) at Ugbabtum priestess or the wife of any one, and cannot prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his and they will shave half his head (/beard)” (Mulul “Law collection”2010 p.137).

If the interpretation of the Akkadian is correct, the shaving of the beards was not a forced form of mourning, but rather a shaming of David and his men because the Ammonites believed that that they were dishonoring the king by exploiting his mourning time to spy, which is a dishonor of the dead, and of common courtesy.

What Do We Do Today?

With the development of western culture, and the clash between it and aspects of the ancient world, many men are posed with the question of  “Can we shave?”.   To answer this we need to look at Lev 19:27:

לֹא תַקִּפוּ פְּאַת רֹאשְׁכֶם; וְלֹא תַשְׁחִית אֵת פְּאַת זְקָנֶךָ

You must not round off the corners of the hair on your head or ruin the corners of your beard.”

A very similar verse is also found in Lev 21:5:

לֹא יקרחה (יִקְרְחוּ) קָרְחָה בְּרֹאשָׁם, וּפְאַת זְקָנָם לֹא יְגַלֵּחוּ; וּבִבְשָׂרָם לֹא יִשְׂרְטוּ שָׂרָטֶת

Priests must not create a bald spot on their head, they must not shave the corner of their beard, and they must not cut slashes in their body.”

Both verses have a presumably similar subject, but in truth they are different.  A close look will demonstrate that though both verses have a similar prohibition, they actually use a different verb which changes everything.

The first verse uses the verb שחת Shachat- to destroy, while the second uses the verb  גלח Galach- to shave.  The question is why?  It could be that the difference in verbs has to do with something that the text does not state clearly but only hints to.  

My claim on this subject is that the difference in verbs ascribes different rules to different groups.  The meaning of this is that an Israelite may not destroy his beard by pulling it out or cutting the skin to prevent growth, while a Kohen may not even shave.  In both cases the individual is prohibited from destroying something that has to do with their status.  An Israelite is a holy man as part of the holy people of Israel, and keeping his body in an unblemished state is part of honoring God.  The idea that one may look pathetic or not attend to one’s looks is an idea that is derived from ascetic thought in Christianity, and has no founding in the Tanakh.

It is important at this stage to mention that Judaism forbids shaving one’s beard with a blade (which was the common way to shave at the time), but allows using other methods. This prohibition is also limited to completely shaving the beard off, but cleaning, trimming and stylizing the basic five sided beard (sideburns, cheek bones and chin) is allowed.

In many cases people have tried to link Leviticus 19:27 to mourning practices and worship of the dead, but I have to disagree with this.

The general context pertains to the ways of the dwellers of Canaan.  There are several ways to read these verses, and each method creates a different link between the parts.  I personally think that we need to separate the verses, and by that, each verse stands as its own subject.  If we do this we would separating the mourning practices in verse 28 from verse 27.  We can even go so far as to say that only the first half of verse 28 is about the dead, and the second half is a general prohibition on tattoos.  

The subject of tattoos has been proven by  J. Huehnergard as being a form of marking slaves, and had nothing to do with mourning over the dead.  Huehnergard even stated that there is no evidence of a mourning practice before the Roman era (2013 The Biblical Prohibition against Tattooing).  To me the sequence of laws is based on a context or theme idea, and not all the laws are of the same type.  In the case of tattoos, the law is written due to an associative element.  Because tattoos use scarring of the skin, it was placed next to scaring over the dead.  However, this does not mean that the laws are linked.  The associative writing is a common feature is the biblical sequence (M. Segal, Mevo Hamiqra, Jerusalem 1950), and in our case it can explain the sporadic laws which have a very loose connection. 

I also speculate that the act of circumcision is the allowed act of skin cutting which represents the self marking of an Israelite as a servant of YHWH.  This would be a parallel to marking slaves by cutting their skin.  In the same way, the Torah only allows to pierce the ear of a person who becomes a slave (Ex 21:6), and not tattoo them due to the fact that earrings were a common feature and was not forbidden.

Hence, the bottom line is that tattoos are forbidden due to self harm and skin scaring/deformation which is a self-inflicted defect (Lev 21:17).

Now we are left with the question of how does all of this connect to Lev 21:5?

Shaving was a sign of mourning in the Near East and sometimes included shaving the head as well (Olam Hatanakh, Leviticus p.138).  However, the Kohen was prohibited from shaving his beard in mourning, while Israelites were allowed to do so.  The prohibition on an Israelite was to pull out the beard as one of the common mourning practices.  This indicates that there is no connection between the two verses, and each verse is dealing with a different aspect of life for a Kohen and an Israelite.  

After seeing this, I think it is safe to say that we have to separate destroying the beard, which is a desecration of the body.  We see that it is not shaving that is forbidden on the Israelite, but pulling out the beard.  A Kohen on the other hand is forbidden from even shaving.  This is probably due to the fact that they are holy to God, as it says in Lev 21:6

They must be holy to their God, and they must not profane the name of their God, because they are the ones who present YHWH’s gifts, the food of their God. Therefore they must be holy“.

A beard was held to be a symbol of honor and respect in the Near East.  Shaving it was a sign of loss of status, disgrace or mourning.

As a side note, one can argue that tattoos were lumped together with the beard due to both of them being a desecration of the body and a lowering of one’s social status (as explained later).

Jeremiah 41:5

Now that we have presented this possible explanation, there is another verse that has to be dealt with.  In the book of Jeremiah 41:5 we have the following words:

וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִשְּׁכֶם מִשִּׁלוֹ וּמִשֹּׁמְרוֹן, שְׁמֹנִים אִישׁ, מְגֻלְּחֵי זָקָן וּקְרֻעֵי בְגָדִים, וּמִתְגֹּדְדִים; וּמִנְחָה וּלְבוֹנָה בְּיָדָם, לְהָבִיא בֵּית יְהוָה

Eighty men arrived from Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria. They had shaved off their beards, torn their clothes, and cut themselves to show they were mourning.”

A lot has been speculated about the mourning practices mentioned here, and because rabbinic Judaism forbids shaving with a blade, many have tried to explain this verse in a way that will not contradict the rabbinic tradition.  After what we have seen here, it is clear that shaving the beard is not prohibited on regular people, and in some cases it would be right thing to do.  They shaved their beards as a sign of mourning over the temple, something which was common practice in the Near East.  Hence it is clear that the mourners were not in violation of Torah, and their will to come to the temple and worship does not stand in opposition to them shaving their beards.  The truth is that what they did shows their devotion to Torah and their pain over the destruction.

Photo Attribution: Jehu-Obelisk-Cropped; See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Originally Published: August 2015 (as two articles)



December 12, 2021 at 9:01 am

I might need a bit of a clearer conclusion.
Biblically speaking, is it a sin for a Man to completely shave-off his beard with a razor? (for the purpose of grooming?)

    Yoel Halevi

    January 3, 2022 at 11:06 am

    I plan to update this article and see what else I can find on the subject. At the moment I understand that shaving was mostly a cultural thing which means that shaving was not considered a sin but was socially unacceptable.


      February 2, 2022 at 9:01 am

      May i add that Leviticus 19:27 also talks about the act of violently ripping out one’s hairs off for the purposes of pagan rituals. That is whats considered sinful

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