Fascinating Insights On Peyos – The Law, Their Significance, And Kabbalistic Meaning

In hundreds of communities around the world, beards and sidelocks (peyos) stand as proud emblems of devout Bnei Torah.

In fact, distinguished scholars often refer to the Shulchan Aruch’s decree (Y.D. 181:9), “the whole breadth of this place should be left untouched” (lo tiga bo yad), as an endorsement of long sidelocks.

Nowadays many Chassidishe and non-Chassidishe groups wear peyos as part of their attire, but sometimes even non-affiliated Jews do it.

This article aims to delve into the historical and cultural aspects of sidelocks as well as Kabbalistic insights, rather than providing a legal analysis.

Historical foundations of peyos

Exploring the rationale behind the Torah’s directive “Do not round the corners of your heads” (Vayikra 19:29), the Rambam and Sefer Hachinuch explain that this commandment aims to distance Jews from the idolatrous practice of rounding hair on one’s head—a practice still observed by Catholic priests (earning them the moniker “galachim”).

Thus, when a student of the Brisker Rav once inquired why the term “machen peyos” (forming sidelocks) is used when the Torah doesn’t instruct us to grow them, but only to refrain from cutting them, the Brisker Rav responded that according to the Rambam, peyos indeed serve a positive purpose—to differentiate us from idolaters.

The Rambam (Teshuvos 244) himself held that the prescribed length of sidelocks is minimal.

“It is permissible to trim off the entire peyos with scissors, and that is our practice,” he writes. “We trim the edges of the head with scissors, as it is only prohibited to remove them with a razor. We are not commanded to cultivate the tzeda’im (side hair) as commonly misconceived; only a Nazir is commanded to let his hair grow. Thus, if he shaves, he violates a positive mitzvah and a negative mitzvah. However, this does not apply to peyos. Instead, it is merely a negative commandment, and hence growing them is not obligatory. It is solely forbidden to obliterate them.”

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Though there’s no documented historical evidence of ancient Jews sporting lengthy peyos, the historical isolation and antiquity of the Yemenite community lend credence to their claim that their practice of growing long sidelocks dates back to their exile from Eretz Yisroel. Drawing on the Yemenites’ belief that they left Eretz Yisroel prior to the first destruction of the Temple, Yemenite Dayan Mari Yosef Kapach (d. 2000) pushes the origins of their peyos tradition to that early era. He writes, “It appears that the custom of growing and twining peyos is an age-old practice that our ancestors upheld in Yemen, influenced by what they observed in the Land during the time of the first Bais Hamikdash.”

However, the earliest explicit mention of cultivating lengthy sidelocks can be traced to the mystical writings of the Arizal and his disciples. Rav Chaim Vital recounts the Arizal’s approach to growing his peyos.

“Regarding the peyos of the head,” he documents, “my revered teacher, of blessed memory, permitted them to grow without cutting until they reached a length extending beneath the jawbone, aligning with the actual beard’s location. He would then trim them to match that length, as the portion below that point is not considered head peyos” (Taamei Hamitzvos, Parshas Kedoshim).

Following this narrative, certain Chassidic adherents observe the practice of not trimming their peyos below the jawline, while others opt for even shorter lengths. The Darchei Teshuvah (181:15) references a statement from the Shiniveh Rebbe, indicating that the Arizal occasionally trimmed his sidelocks when they grew excessively, as surplus hair could potentially attract negative judgments (dinim).

However, Rav Menasheh Klein of Ungvar presents a divergent viewpoint.

“We have witnessed among our revered rabbis, righteous figures of the generation, that they refrained from altering the length of their head peyos. Furthermore, our brethren in Yemen freely allow their sidelocks to grow to considerable lengths,” he pens. “In summary, I have not encountered any prohibition against cultivating lengthy peyos.״ Regarding Rav Chayim Vital’s account of the Arizal trimming his sidelocks when they mingled with his beard, Rav Chaim suggests that Rav Chayim merely intended to convey the permissibility of trimming them once they attain that particular length (Mishneh Halachos, 4:116, 5:124).

Similarly, the eminent American rabbi, Rav Avrohom Naftoli Gallant (d. 1936), attested that retaining one’s peyos without shortening them serves as a special practice for longevity.

“In specific communities, there existed devout individuals who believed that maintaining lengthy sidelocks acted as a charm for a prolonged life,” he explains. “It is recounted that during the boyhood of the Maharsham of Brazhin, he accompanied his father on a visit to Rav Meir of Pramishlan… who gently touched the boy’s peyos and remarked, ‘Your grandfather, Rav Shalom, never once trimmed his sidelocks throughout his life, and it became a harbinger of long life for him. Therefore, follow suit; preserve your sidelocks, and you, too, shall merit a lengthy life'” (Moadim Lesimchah).

Drawing inspiration from the Arizal’s practices and various considerations, sidelocks manifest in a multitude of lengths and styles. Rav Yosef Kapach conveys that in Yemen, the length of boys’ peyos frequently hinged upon aesthetic factors.

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“We used to anoint the sidelocks with oil, and when they grew lengthy and gracefully curled down to the chest, they occasionally brushed against our garments, soiling them,” he recalls. “Certain instructors measured their length up to the chin and trimmed any excess, while others even discouraged any trimming, no matter how minimal”

Contemplating the Placement

An additional point of contention concerning peyos pertained to their positioning—whether they should hang directly down or be situated behind the ears. Rav Binyomin Zilber (Az Nidberu 12:37) supported the latter approach.

“Upon my arrival from abroad in 1933,” he recounts, “I encountered a book in the yeshiva called Chatzvah Amudeha Shivah, which strongly criticized this practice along with a few other matters. I was perplexed, for why should Hashem be concerned? Many individuals arrived from foreign lands with sidelocks positioned behind their ears, and in any event, this pertains to chassidus (extra piety). There’s no dishonor in this, as the peyos are clearly visible. It doesn’t denote shame; rather, people are accustomed to it and find it more convenient, especially during journeys by car or similar means. They feel more at ease compared to those who don’t tuck their peyos behind their ears and continually adjust them.”

Indeed, some explanations suggest that sidelocks should be kept separate from the beard due to specific kabbalistic concepts.

However, Rav Chaim Kanievski (Orchos Yosher, chapter 5) notes that the Chazon Ish encouraged individuals to take pride in their sidelocks and refrain from concealing them behind their ears.

“The Chazon Ish… was uncomfortable with the practice of tucking sidelocks behind the ears,” he elaborates. “He viewed it as if individuals were embarrassed by the mitzvah, and he advised against it. My father [the Steipler Gaon] similarly advised against it. In foreign lands, people were apprehensive due to the mockery from non-Jews… but here in Eretz Yisroel, where the generation has displayed notable progress and there’s an abundance of Torah scholars, there’s no reason to treat this matter lightly.”

The sefer Orchos Rabbeinu (ch. 3 pg. 137) even documents an uncommon halachic ruling in relation to this topic. “A Yemenite young man with lengthy peyos once approached the Steipler Gaon and shared that since he often played with and twirled his sidelocks on Shabbos as he did during the week, some hairs were unintentionally pulled out. He contemplated shortening them. The Steipler Gaon responded that he should refrain from trimming them; if desired, he could cover them with his kippah.”

long peyos

Unspoken Testifiers

In contrast to Ashkenazi communities, long peyos were less commonplace among Sephardic communities. This distinction is illuminated in a discourse by the Ben Ish Chai (Ben Ish Chayil p. 30), wherein he elucidates the vital role of peyos, referred to as “simanim” (signs), in distinguishing Jews from non-Jews. To illustrate this concept, he shares an anecdote.

During the Muslim conquest of Eretz Yisroel, as local idolaters were being slaughtered, a Muslim leader encountered a group of idolaters with a Jew among them. In a bid to save his life, the Jew rushed toward the leader while clutching his sidelocks in both hands and exclaimed in Arabic, “Shuf ya sidi! Ana Yehudi vehadula Sahudi!” (Look, sir! I am a Jew, and these are my witnesses.)

Hence, the Ben Ish Chai underscores, “How meticulously we must guard these two faithful witnesses that stand beside you, crowning you with the emblem of Judaism. I do not burden you with the task of growing thick, lengthy peyos like our Ashkenazi brethren. I only request that you maintain them at a length that is readily noticeable to all; not as minuscule, nascent strands akin to barely visible grass.”

He concludes with a wordplay, “Just as a minor (katan) is ineligible to testify, similarly these miniature sidelocks are ineligible to testify [to one’s Jewish identity]. Only an adult (gadol) can bear witness. I have addressed this matter on numerous occasions.”

Of note, in the Crimean region, local Tatars distinguished between “Krymchaks” (regular Crimean Jews) and the Crimean Karaites by labeling the former “zulufli gufutlar” (Jews with peyos) and the latter “zulufsiz gufutlar” (Jews without peyos).

One of the most striking indications of how sidelocks set the Jew apart from the non-Jewish milieu emerged during periods of persecution, when a common method of humiliating Jews was forcibly removing their beards and sidelocks.

A pertinent example comes from Rav Menasheh Levertov, the chief Rabbi of Krakow, who recounted the events when the Nazis occupied his town.

“When the Germans took control of Krakow, they initiated the rounding up of Jews for forced labor,” he recounted. “They scoured the city during both day and night, apprehending Jews with beards and peyos, then ruthlessly pulling, cutting, and tearing them out. It became perilous to venture outside with a beard and sidelocks, prompting thousands of Jews to confine themselves indoors, avoiding sunlight to safeguard their beards and attire, since the Germans also targeted the long Chassidic coats (bekishes).”

Another notable instance of anti-peyos sentiment was Czar Nicholas I’s infamous 1845 decree against Jewish attire, which included sidelocks.

In summary, it is evident that whether cascading past the shoulders, situated behind the ears, extending to the earlobes, or coiled around the ears, sidelocks stand as proud testifiers of the Jewish identity, serving to distinguish and set the individual apart as a member of the chosen people (am hanivchar).

Concluding remarks

The Peyos that a Jew has mirror the Partzufim from the spiritual worlds as the Zohar describes both Zeir Anpin and Arich Anpin with beard and sidelocks. These are obviously all very high spiritual lights that cannot be put into words.

Rabbi Chaim Vital in Shaar HaGilgulim (gate of reincarnations) writes that the souls of the Rambam and Ramban came from the “sidelocks” of Arich Anpin, except that the Rambam came from the left side (of gevurah), and therefore didn’t merit to study Kabbalah, and the Ramban came from the right side (of chessed), and therefore did merit.

This begs a lot of investigation. Afterall, if the holy forefathers, Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov come from Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet respectively, how can you say that Rishonim like the Rambam and Ramban, great as they were, are superior to them?

Clearly this proves there are many hidden aspects of Kabbalah that were not revealed to us, but will be revealed in the coming World to Come.

After this research, it seems to me though that there’s a lot more to peyos than a simple matter of minhag, and it might be a source of blessings just like the Jewish beard.

May we all merit these!

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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